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Robert B. Edgerton is an anthropologist with interests in psychological and medical anthropology. His early work was focused on individual adaptation to differing ecological conditions on the one hand and mental retardation on the other. His interests in mental retardation led to books such as The Cloak of Competence, which will be analyzed in this paper and Lives in Process. His ecological interests produced The Individual in Cultural Adaptation, followed by Rules, Exceptions and Social Order. He then turned his attention to studies of deviant behavior (Alone Together) and mental illness (Changing Perspectives in Mental Illness with S. Plog).
In recent years, he has developed an interest in how people cope with the stresses of warfare, a focus that has led to several books (Like Lions They Fought, Mau Mau, The End of the Asante Empire, Warriors of the Rising Sun, Death or Glory, and Warrior Women and Hidden Heroism). This interest continues, as does his concern with the impact of cultural relativism on cultural theory, best seen in Sick Societies: Challenging the Myth of Primitive Harmony, published in 1992. Throughout his career, he has maintained an interest in the community adaptation of persons with mild mental retardation. Over the past 40 years Edgerton has also been a teacher and mentor in the Neuropsychiatric Institute at UCLA where he has received a lot of support for his research.
Robert Edgerton began studying mental disability in the late 1960s. Edgerton was interested to discover how deinstitutionalized intellectually disabled adults adapted to life in the community and how they coped with the stigma of being labeled mentally retarded. He argued that they utilized a 'cloak of competence' to hide both the stigma of their discredited past and their inherent incompetence.
Rather than taking the issue of intellectually disabled peoples' incompetence as unproblematic and given, Edgerton in his book has, in a different way, questioned the social and cultural assumptions that exist within notions of competence. He also argues that the concept of incompetence automatically take as fact notions of competence and seek to situate cultural interpretations of incompetence within this broader framework. In doing so the book contributes both to debates on labeling and competence and to cross-cultural studies of intellectual disability.
While acknowledging the diverse influences of capitalism, colonialism, urbanization, and industrialization on the perceptions and constructions of intellectual disability, this book also adds a new and significant dimension by including analysis of social and cultural notions of identity, personhood and selfhood.
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The general argument of the book is that the classificatory practices that assign a label of incompetence to intellectually disabled people must be understood within complex and shifting contextual, historical and cultural frameworks. These differences exist within a broad comparative basis, but also within individual life stories, as was pointed out by the lives of those in he book. While the label of mental retardation might control and oppress the lives of some who live with the title, it does not destroy them entirely. Instead these people do find different strategies to cope with their life experiences.
Not only do other cultures perceive incompetence and intellectual disability in diverse ways, but within Western societies construction of an intellectually disabled identity has also changed over time. The major role that medical and psychological interpretations of intellectual disability now play are a consequence of this, and, as Edgerton points out, these can have a profound and dislocating effect on the experiences of mentally disabled people and their families in other cultures.
Western conceptions of the term, different cultural perceptions of personhood and identity, and different cultural interpretations of competence and the causes of incompetence, profoundly affects the way in which people come to understand, relate to and treat mentally disabled people. Consequently, the criteria for social competence can be based on factors such as kinship ties, social interaction and family wealth which can help one decide their place within the social world through being named or how a person creatively deals with particular circumstances.
Edgerton also takes a different approach to the analysis of incompetence. Rather than focusing only on cultural values and conceptions of the person whose incompetence is formulated through economic and social structures of opportunity around issues of work and gender. He looks at different categorizations of difference into 'incompetent others' such as indigenous people, non-Western cultures, and women or the lower classes.
This book is primarily concerned with the processes of classification of incompetence and their relation to issues of cultural difference. As such it contributes to the debate that challenges the dominance of biomedical interpretations of intellectual disability by analyzing it as a cultural phenomenon. The social construction of incompetence is a significant part of this research. While there can be a problem with focusing too much attention on constructions of identity where that the complex and dynamic realities of intellectually disabled peoples' lives are obscured or perceived as just a product of these social and cultural categories, this book adds considerably to the growing cultural literature on mental disability and points to important new areas of research and debate within the field.