A culture is made up of people who have developed the same language (or at least dialect of a larger language), art forms, religion, and other means of distinguishing one group from another. It can be said that all groups have a certain culture that they have established by which they are constrained. For example, a company develops a culture that is specific to it, and that culture governs everyone who works at, or is affiliated with, that company. In ethnic terms, a culture will define the ways in which one ethnic grouping is different from another. Although certain groupings may have similar languages, religions and ways of doing things, they will also have differences which distinguish them. In the same way that different species of birds are characterized by slight differences in appearance or location, people are grouped by the culture from which they come.
One of the many different items that groups people into a specific culture is what they believe to be true. These truths may not be apparent to people from other cultures, in fact, these truths may be counterintuitive to other cultures. Examples of this occur often among the religious practices of different groups of people. Whereas the Aztec cultures believed that it was necessary to sacrifice a person to a specific god to have a successful corn harvest, the Catholic priests who arrived with the conquistadors found this exercise abhorrent. A culture is defined as much by what it believes as by what it does. And these beliefs about an object, time, experience, are called cultural artifacts. This essay delves into the artifact, common to western cultures, that drugs can provide a cure all to mental illnesses such as depression.
The reliance of western cultures on synthetic drugs is, in itself, a departure from the artifact that has been historically established. Throughout most of history people have believed that in order to cure a disease the evil spirits causing the issue had to be appeased. This part of the cure was enhanced by natural herbs and poultices of various concoctions. These natural and religious cures worked to some degree, but they were only marginally successful because the individuals using them did not understand why they worked.
The actual synthesizing of drugs did not begin until last century, but healers had discovered how to concentrate the various ingredients needed long before that. The people may not have understood why a certain drug worked, but they knew that for some reason that it did. Thus crushing certain unguents into a specified combination became common. And all cultures had specific ways in which they mixed available herbs and they also had different means of applying the active ingredients. Many times in Eastern cultures these herbs were taken as teas that the sick person could drink. African cultures ingested different pastes, and indigenous American tribes used the healing power of smoke. No matter what the method of ingestion, the medicine, and the person administering it, were powerful among the people. Thus, the medicine, the ritual, and the office administering both became cultural artifacts because the different cultures believed that through some magical power the combination could work a cure.
It can be seen from this that the development of a cultural artifact hinges on its historic power, and the long held belief of people within the culture (Cottone, 2007). For a practice, an item, or belief to become a cultural artifact it has to have a long history within the culture. The flag of the United States is a powerful cultural artifact that is seen as sacred by most people in America. This is so because of what it represents to them. The flag is only some stripes and stars on a white background, it is the recognizable symbol of the nation. This means that no matter what a certain person sees in the flag, it is the cumulative effect that it has that makes it an artifact. After September 19, 2001 this symbol actually took on an even deeper meaning to many and became an artifact with a double meaning. The flag itself came to symbolize the attack against the United States. The same can be said of the Confederate Battle Flag and other national symbols which have dual meanings.
Typical of this pattern of development for cultural artifacts is the use of drugs in the western world. Scientists began discovering the active ingredients in the herbs that had been used for centuries for cures. These researchers were able to strip the ingredient from the plant or insect which held it and use that pure substance without also using the other pieces of the item. Further research, after the periodic table and better chemistry were discovered, led to scientists being able to determine exactly what combination of chemicals were responsible for the benefits of the drug. This was the birth of synthesizing the drugs.
This development of a cultural artifact is what is considered in social construction. Social constructionism "posits that what is known or understood derives from communities of understanding rather than an individual operating as an isolated "psychological" entity" (Cottone, 2007). Basically, people do not define what a society believes, the group of people that make up the society decide that. It may seem contrary to this definition that sometimes an individual will start a movement, or have an idea that becomes a social construct, but it is the larger society that makes it so. Cottone (2007) goes on to say;
"In other words, what is known derives from a consensual process that is linked to the traditions that underlie the language and culture within which consensualizing takes place."
Time decides and a multitude of people agreeing that something is a construct within the society make it an artifact.
Medicine as an Artifact
As has already been discussed, belief in the purveyor of medical help and the products used can become cultural artifacts which are specific to a group of people. Much like any other construct, people determine what has worked through history, and they believe on the system. That is how doctors and shamans gain such favorable places in societies, and how certain tree barks or pills also attain a status.
When people did not understand the chemical properties necessary to make a foreign agent enhance healing properties within the body, there was a mysticism that helped to build medical practice and medicines as artifacts. The ritual associated with the medical practice was as much a part of the cure as the medicine itself. Researcher have found that this is so because it is important that the patient believe that the medicine is going to work for it to be optimally effective. The construct was that the shaman, doctor, medicine man could cure the ills they proposed to because they had some greater understanding of how to appease the spirits or draw out the illness. Whether this was true or simply the result of belief, people were cured and this strengthened the construct.
Mental Health Medicine
One issue that has haunted medical professionals throughout history is mental illness. Some have believed that evil spirits indwelt the person who was in some way deranged. Some cultures believed that the persons sickness was due to some bad behavior or "sin" that they had committed. Eventually it became accepted, mainly by western cultures, that the cause of these mental illnesses was that the person had some sort of chemical imbalance (if the cause could not be directly related to some form of trauma) that needed to be corrected (Sharav, 2005). This imbalance could be happening in different parts of the brain, and with a variety of neurotransmitters, any of which could be enhanced to provide relief for the suffering party.
With the drugs came a shift in what people believed to be the case regarding mental illness. Whereas the illness had been considered to be the fault of the person who had it, now the fault was taken off of the individual and different mental illnesses were treated like other illnesses. The fact that scientists could produce synthetic drugs which could enhance a person's mood, or temporarily free them from strong hallucinations is a fact. This does not meet the definition of a cultural artifact though because, although it is a shared cultural belief that synthetic medicines can cure illness, it is a fact that can be proven and shared with any other culture. It is not a belief system which is derived from knowledge passed down through a culture. But the artifact did develop from the factual results of the medications.
People have come to trust in medical cures to such an extent that they are willing to believe almost any claim made. Old west medicine shows made claims that the products they sold were able to cure a multitude of unrelated diseases, and people bought the "medicine." The reason such medical product hawkers were…