Nana Osei Quarshie is Assistant Professor in the Department of History and in the Program in the History of Science and Medicine at Yale University. He also holds secondary appointments in the Yale School of Medicine, and in the Department of Anthropology. He joined Yale after completing a Ph.D. in the Interdepartmental Program in Anthropology and History at the University of Michigan. At Yale, Professor Quarshie teaches courses on the global history of psychiatry and confinement, African systems of thought, and on historical methods beyond the archive. We spoke about his ongoing research, the construction of archives in African history, and working with fragmentary, speculative, or unusual sources in historical research.
Sarah Pickman: Your work examines how psychiatric care shaped social worlds, including social stratification and national and ethnic diversity in nineteenth and twentieth-century West Africa. How did you first become interested in the history of West African psychiatry?
Nana Osei Quarshie: I’ve been studying West African psychiatry since 2012, but my general interest in African psychiatry began in 2007, when I read A Dying Colonialism for the first time. I was immediately taken by Frantz Fanon’s analysis of the role of medicine in colonialism. For me, it was the sense of urgency Fanon evoked in this book regarding the anti-colonial struggle in Algeria that gave meaning to Gillo Pontecorvo’s classic film The Battle of Algiers. My reaction was, in part, a reflection of my life history and the educational context. As a Ghanaian international student in Canada by way of Maryland, I empathized deeply with Fanon’s itinerant perspective on the social world.
Inspired by Fanon, I actually proposed a study on hysteria during the Algerian war in my application for the M.Sc. in Race, Ethnicity and Post-Colonial Studies at the London School of Economics. I soon realized that negotiating access to the archives necessary to conduct this research would take longer than the time available to complete the one-year master’s program. I kept track of the emerging scholarship on global mental health, I noticed a lot of policy discussions about Ghana, a nation in the throes of what seemed like a psychiatric revolution. I wanted to understand why Ghana was rapidly emerging in international debates as a space of experimentation for global mental health policy innovations, which, according to scholars like China Mills and Derek Summerfield, held vestiges of colonialism. So, I wrote a master’s thesis on the emergence of colonial psychiatric confinement in Ghana between 1887 and 1906. The next year, I moved to Paris, where I was mentored in the history and anthropology of psychiatry in francophone West Africa by René Collignon. With his help, I published my master’s thesis in Psychopathologie Africaine, a founding journal of transcultural psychiatry.
Sarah Pickman: Your recent article, “Contracted Intimacies,” examines the daily relationships between nurses, and between nurses and patients, in a colonial Ghanaian asylum, especially relationships of negotiated power or secret, intimate violence. You write that, “One reason there is little work on patient-nurse relationships in African asylums is there are so few archival sources that give us direct access to the voices and concerns of nurses.” Can you say a bit about how, in your own research, you tackled this issue of fragmented and scanty archival sources? How did you think about triangulating between the sources that were available and the archival silences?
Nana Osei Quarshie: I am extremely fortunate to be a historian of Ghana. It is my understanding that, for many years, the largest subgroup in the African Studies Association of the USA was the Ghana Studies Association. Relative to the rest of Africa, much has been written about Ghana and its neighbors. In areas of my scholarship where my archival data is scanty or fragmented, I turn to the wonderfully abundant trove of secondary analysis on similar, related, and adjacent processes and mechanisms in West Africa. In part, this is an acknowledgment that we all stand on the shoulders of giants. My work is especially indebted to insights developed by Niara Sudarkasa on Nigerian immigrants in Ghana and Leith Mullings on mental healing practices in Accra. But it is also a reflection of my methodological understanding of historical events as overdetermined and contingent, the outcome of conjunctures of various causal processes.
“Contracted Intimacies,” for example, is a study of a whistleblowing petition letter written in the 1930s by a former nurse at the Accra Psychiatric Hospital. In my work, petition letters account for much of the publicly available archival literature displaying the perspectives of African actors, such as the nursing staff or the kin of suspected and confined “lunatics” in colonial Ghana. But analyses of these sources, due to lack of available data on the broader lives of their authors, can be perceived as idiographic: speculative, interpretive, lacking certainty, and non-explanatory. This is because, as George Steinmetz explains, methodological positivism, due to its emphasis on generalizability, rejects historical argumentation that rests on such contingency. But, as Roy Bhaskar notes, the social world is ‘wild’ and ‘true experiments’ are difficult to conduct in the human sciences. Causal mechanisms often differ on a case-by-case basis and any empirical patterns discovered cannot be assumed to be universal. It is only by carefully assessing overdetermined events and objects, like my fragmented petitions, that we can test and refine established theoretical narratives.
Sarah Pickman: In fact, as you’ve written, confronting scanty, incomplete, or missing written archives are a pervasive feature of research on African local histories or microhistories. How does such an archival landscape change a historian’s approach to this material? How does it affect what kinds of research occur, or what other kinds of sources must be brought into the conversation?
Nana Osei Quarshie: Many historians of Africa are also de facto anthropologists, geographers, linguists, and sociologists. The originality of the field stems from its multi-disciplinarity. This is most clear in our engagement with oral genres. It was originally argued that Africa lacked documented history before the arrival of Europeans. In the 1960s, when the subfield began to gain a professional foothold, African history was burdened by proving that oral sources and narratives could be used at all as historical evidence. But the 1970s and 1980s brought new examinations of the positivism of oral traditions research, a turn away from nationalist to populist historical accounts, and concerns about memory, gender, and political struggle. Life history research, a feminist methodological innovation of this era, offered an alternative to the earlier structuralist emphasis on the universal and symbolic aspects of African oral traditions. But, as noted by Luise White, David William Cohen, and Atieno Odhiambo, life history risked over-valorizing unmediated individual ‘voices,’ ignoring the ways in which oral testimonies operate as social performances of speech genres. As these debates have continued, African history has sustained a rich conversation on how to use unconventional oral genres as historical evidence. Such genres include oracles, accusations of witchcraft, vampire stories, and dreams. An increasingly important area of innovation is in the discovery of previously forgotten visual archives. I’m excited to peruse a forthcoming volume, The Unseen Archive of Idi Amin by Derek Peterson and Richard Vokes, showcasing previously undeveloped photos from the archives of the Uganda Broadcasting Corporation.
Sarah Pickman: Recently, you taught a course on “Histories of Confinement” for Yale, which looked at how different institutions confine and discipline individuals inside different kinds of physical spaces, from asylums to schools to prisons. How did the COVID-19 pandemic affect how you planned for and taught this course, especially given the topic?
Nana Osei Quarshie: The subtitle for Histories of Confinement is “from Atlantic Slavery to Social Distancing” because the COVID-19 pandemic was the inspiration for the course. I designed this class to give students concepts for examining their current predicament and lived experiences (most of them were social distancing at home). In the class, we looked closely at the history of asylums, hospitals, prisons, and schools. Our goal was to understand their workings and the interplay between bureaucratic forms, spatial and material organization, and modes of discipline, control, and remediation. Students were asked to consider how institutional power is organized, displayed, deployed, and disputed, and what are the limits and contradictions inherent in these efforts? The readings drew from a range of contexts and disciplines to consider the relationship between the built environment and institutional life.
Mitigating Zoom fatigue, while maximizing course content, was one of my key concerns. After three weeks of bi-weekly lecturing, I turned one of my weekly lectures into an archive-based workshop and group discussion. Students were exposed to documents from Yale’s archival collections, Ghana’s national archives, and from digital resources like Michael Ralph’s Treasury of Weary Souls. This was a way to bring some of Yale’s resources to students living far from campus. I also wanted students to gain experience reading, handling, and analyzing the kinds of primary sources that form the building blocks of historical research.
Sarah Pickman: Do you have any new projects you’re working on at the moment that you can share with us?
Nana Osei Quarshie: I am currently revising my first book project, An African Pharmakon, the only historical examination of patient files in the Accra Psychiatric Hospital, the second oldest mental hospital in West Africa. Combining oral history and participant observation methods with research in this overlooked archive, I show how mental healthcare became a conduit for immigrant scapegoating and social control in urban West Africa. The book moves from the transatlantic to the global mental health era (1667-2017) and tracks the emergence, transformation, and revival of techniques for capturing and removing mentally distressed individuals from the streets of West African cities.
I also recently submitted two articles for review. The first is on the rise of psychiatric deinstitutionalization in the formerly colonized world, which is often touted as a global mental health intervention imparted by Euro-American NGOs. By contrast, I argue that a global push for deinstitutionalization originated in British West Africa in the 1930s—decades prior to the global mental health era. Colonial austerity measures, combined with ethno-psychiatric understandings of West African healing practices, motivated an empire-wide policy favoring family and community care over institutional treatment for most mentally distressed British imperial subjects. The current push for psychiatric deinstitutionalization on a global scale must be situated in a longer genealogy, and a more complex geography, of mental health regulations under colonialism. Achieving the decolonization of psychiatry will require acknowledging the many regional trajectories that have informed global knowledge production about mental health and the movement of practices across different spaces, north and south.
The second article asks, how do the clinically delusional strive to reinvent their world as they speak? Scholars of psychiatry have long theorized that delusions are medical symptoms, but ones uniquely shaped by contemporaneous political and social circumstances. But delusional speech is not simply a reflection of the world; it is often an attempt to mold future action. I present a case that highlights the ‘worldmaking’ potential of delusional speech. I examine a petition letter in which an inpatient at the Accra Psychiatric Hospital from 1969 to 1976, requested financial support from his doctors on the basis of his alleged status as Ghana’s ‘SUPERLANDLORD’ and ‘GOLDMANGOD.’ The patient was a failed truth-maker, who spoke and acted as a truth-teller, a prophet. Delusional utterances in African psychiatric hospitals constitute the archives of false prophets: troves of hauntings, unrealized callings, failed and unintelligible representations. They are starting points for new African intellectual histories.