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The geography of institutional psychiatric care in France 1800-2000: Historical analysis of the spatial diffusion of specialised facilities for institutional care of mental illness


  • Coldefy, Magali
  • Curtis, Sarah E.


As in other European countries, specialised psychiatric hospitals were established throughout France during the 19th Century. The construction of these hospitals can be considered as the concrete expression of a therapeutic innovation which recognized insanity as an illness that could be treated in such specialised institutions. The spatial diffusion of these innovative institutions through 19th and 20th century France is analysed and we explore how far this can be understood through theories of diffusion of innovations including geographical models of hierarchical and expansion diffusion (or whether other conceptual models are more appropriate). The research reported here particularly focuses on the period 1800-1961. It involved the construction of an original historical database of both psychiatric hospitals and information on the cities where these institutions were located. This was used to examine and interpret the different phases of development of psychiatric institutions and the parts of the country and types of geographical setting where they were concentrated. A multiple correspondence analysis was then performed to examine the connections between different aspects of the diffusion process. The study shows the limitations of classical models of spatial diffusion, which are found to be consistent with some, but not all aspects of the development of psychiatric institutions in France. An alternative political ecology approach seems more appropriate to conceptualise the various processes involved; national policies, social representations, medicalisation of care of mental illness, and urban and economic growth all seem to be associated with the emergence of a variable and complex pattern. This paper also opens a large field of research. Compared with other western countries, the geography of French psychiatric care is relatively under-researched, although there has been a strong spatial dimension to mental health policy in the country. This analysis provides a context for studies of more contemporary processes of French deinstitutionalisation, which is strongly structured by the past heritage of these large asylum facilities.

Suggested Citation

  • Coldefy, Magali & Curtis, Sarah E., 2010. "The geography of institutional psychiatric care in France 1800-2000: Historical analysis of the spatial diffusion of specialised facilities for institutional care of mental illness," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 71(12), pages 2117-2129, December.
  • Handle: RePEc:eee:socmed:v:71:y:2010:i:12:p:2117-2129

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    References listed on IDEAS

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    4. Hoyez, Anne-C├ęcile, 2007. "The 'world of yoga': The production and reproduction of therapeutic landscapes," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 65(1), pages 112-124, July.
    5. Wood, Evan & Chan, Keith & Montaner, Julio S. G. & Schechter, Martin T. & Tyndall, Mark & O'Shaughnessy, Michael V. & Hogg, Robert S., 2000. "The end of the line: has rapid transit contributed to the spatial diffusion of HIV in one of Canada's largest metropolitan areas?," Social Science & Medicine, Elsevier, vol. 51(5), pages 741-748, September.
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