Representing Mental Illness: A Case of Cognitive Polyphasias

  • Arthi _ University of Cambridge


Within social representations theory, the concept of cognitive polyphasia describes the

co-existence of differing, even contradictory, forms of knowledge in the same individual

or community. To go beyond this notion is to ask how these rationalities co-exist and

what forms the co-existences take. This paper aims to contribute to such an

understanding using a study of representations of mental illness among Tamil

Singaporeans. While Tamil culture has its own rich history, Tamil Singaporeans find

themselves part of a multicultural melting pot, in a country fully engaged in the

processes of modernisation and globalisation. The paper reports on findings from semistructured

interviews and group discussions held with members of the lay Tamil

community. Thematic analysis of the data identified several semantic ‘barriers’ and

‘promoters’ (Gillespie, 2008) that regulated dialogue between competing

representations. The paper will discuss how these semantic mechanisms ultimately result

in different types of cognitive polyphasia and their relationship to identity.

Author Biography

Arthi _, University of Cambridge

ARTHI completed her PhD at the Faculty of Politics, Psychology, Sociology and International

Studies at the University of Cambridge. Her doctoral research explored the representations of 

mental illness among the Tamil community in Singapore. Her research interests are in the fields

of social representations, mental health and illness, and suicide.