Culturally specific syndromes, sometimes known as culturally-bound syndromes are clusters of related symptoms, recognised as a specific disorder in the culture or groups of cultures concerned, which are peculiar to those groups, and for whom Western Bio-medicine has no ready explanation.
Analysed within Anthropology, specifically the growing field of Medical Anthropology the interpretive approach embodiment and political economy are useful frameworks within which to analyse the development and incidentally the disappearance of some Culturally specific syndromes.
Culturally specific syndromes are easiest to analyse within external groups and communities. Occurrences amongst the Inuit (Pibloqtoq) and Haitians (Mové san) have been studied at length probably because of their proximity to the United States. Studies of Arctic Hysteria or Pibloqtoq have provided many explanations but none have proved conclusive. When Pibloqtoq or Arctic Hysteria occurs men and women may take off all their clothes, run outside in the very cold surroundings, scream, rant eat their faeces before calming down and coming inside. Dogs also can suffer from Pibloqtoq and behave in much the same way. A person taking their clothes off is quite a serious threat of exposure and hypothermia. Pibloqtoq affects both men and women and also interestingly dogs. Some theories have been that diminished Calcium levels due to a nearly all meat diet lead to the illness or problems with their Circadian Rhythm caused the illness (Severely altered in the Arctic) but neither of these or any of the other explanations have been conclusive. The calcium and vitamin level hypothesis was only applied to women and therefore another explanation has been sought for the men, unfortunately for the Anthropologists it is a disappearing illness. The problem for Anthropologists could be ideas of people acting within the and outside of the normal social and cultural rules and how this helps to cause culturally bound syndromes.
Mové san is a disease that affects impoverished Haitians. Some Haitians believe that a malevolent person or figure can send diseases. Mové san is not quite treated the same but is thought to be a combination of the breakdown of community spirit and also someone possibly sending them an illness. Mové san causes women's breast milk to dry up and their blood to spoil, life can begin to become hopeless and people blame a variety of ills on Mové san.
Susto is a disease also endemic to Hispanic peoples. Susto means 'soul fright' or the soul leaving the body. It has analogies with how people in the west treat serious depression. People, mostly women who are under great amounts of stress suffer from Susto. Symptoms of Susto are digestive ailments, fatigue, depression. People who suffer from Susto may die, suffer larger predilection to develop Cancer or diseases of the digestive system. Usualy folk remedies such as herbal remedies and a series of rituals called Barrida. People with Susto often refer to a frightening or surprising bad incident, although it is accepted that community and family based stress is often the primary cause.
Interesting similarities about the causes of Culturally specific syndromes are that the people are generally under a great deal of stress and continued stress. Political and economic forces both are noted in case studies of people with culturally specific syndromes. Ideas of Somatisation are also discussed in ethnographic studies of culturally specific syndromes. Also Bourdieu's ideas about habitus or "sets of durable dispositions" that individuals learn as part of growing up within part of a particular family and cultures. People that live in the same environments do not always have the same narratives and experiences of their own bodies.
Culturally specific syndromes do not only affect non-western groups. Anorexia Nervosa and Bulimia are both thought to be culturally specific syndromes. It does not have the same occurrence in Pacific peoples or groups that have had less of an influence from the West. You have to be wealthy (comparatively, having an abundance of food and availability) to be Anorexic or Bulimic. That is not to say Anorexia or Bulimia is not 'real' diseases. People (and dogs) experience Culturally specific syndromes as real.