Tag Archives: Ethnography

Suicide and Agency: Anthropological Perspectives on Self-Destruction, Personhood, and Power

Broz, Ludek & Munster, Daniel, 2015, Suicide and Agency: Anthropological Perspectives on Suicide, Personhood and Power, Routledge

Suicide and Agency offers an original and timely challenge to existing ways of understanding suicide. Through the use of rich and detailed case studies, the authors assembled in this volume explore how interplay of self-harm, suicide, personhood and agency varies markedly across site (Greenland, Siberia, India, Palestine and Mexico) and setting (self-run leprosy colony, suicide bomb attack, cash-crop farming, middle-class mothering). Rather than starting from a set definition of suicide, they empirically engage suicide fields-the wider domains of practices and of sense making, out of which realized, imaginary, or disputed suicides emerge. By drawing on ethnographic methods and approaches, a new comparative angle to understanding suicide beyond mainstream Western bio-medical and classical sociological conceptions of the act as an individual or social pathology is opened up. The book explores a number of ontological assumptions about the role of free will, power, good and evil, personhood, and intentionality in both popular and expert explanations of suicide. Suicide and Agency offers a substantial and ground-breaking contribution to the emerging field of the anthropology of suicide. It will appeal to a range of scholars and students, including those in anthropology, sociology, social psychology, cultural studies, suicidology, and social studies of death and dying.

Table of Contents

Part I

Introduction: The anthropology of suicide: ethnography and the tension of agency, Daniel Münster and Ludek Broz.

Part II

Suicide, Personhood and Relationality: Personhood, agency and suicide in a neo-liberalizing South India, James Staples

The lonely un-dead and returning suicide in northwest Greenland, Janne Flora

Between demons and disease: suicide and agency in Yucatan, Mexico, Beatriz M. Reyes-Foster

Four funerals and a wedding: suicide, sacrifice, and (non-)human agency in a Siberian village, Ludek Broz

Part III

Self-Destruction and Power: Bodies, Resistance and Crises: Farmers’ suicide and the moral economy of agriculture: victimhood, voice, and agro-environmental responsibility in South India, Daniel Münster

Dying to live in Palestine: steadfastness, pollution and embodied space,Deen Sharp and Natalia Linos

Accumulating death: women’s moral agency and domestic economies of care in South India, Jocelyn Chua

Learning suicide and the limits of agency: children’s ‘suicide play’ in Sri Lanka, Tom Widger

Suicide, agency and the limits of power, Katrina Jaworski

Part IV

Afterword: Afterword: taking relationality to extremes, Marilyn Strathern

 

“This volume is an excellent and much-needed addition to the literature on suicide. Notions of personhood, agency and suicide are interrogated throughout in rigorous and illuminating ways, and the book clearly demonstrates the valuable contribution anthropology can make to the study of suicide.”— Ian Marsh, Canterbury Christ Church University, UK

“We frequently imagine suicide as both an extreme expression of control and an act of the out-of-control. The pieces gathered in this important and timely volume make a virtue of that tension, describing the complex realities in which self-inflicted death and knowledge about such death take shape. They show how suicide is not only about exceptional deaths, but about routine ways of life.”— Kenneth MacLeish, Vanderbilt University, USA

“In the best anthropological tradition, this book heads to what many would consider the margins of social life (in this case suicide), and uses what it learns there to illuminate absolutely central issues of social theory (in this case notions of agency). Those who study suicide, death and dying cannot miss this book, but anyone interested in fresh social theoretical thinking should also want to read it.”— Joel Robbins, University of Cambridge, UK

 

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Durkheim, ethnography and suicide: Researching young male suicide in the transnational London Alevi-Kurdish community

Cetin, U. (2015). Durkheim, ethnography and suicide: Researching young male suicide in the transnational London Alevi-Kurdish community. Ethnography. doi:10.1177/1466138115586583

This study of the unusually high incidence of young male suicides in the transnational Alevi-Kurdish community in London demonstrates the benefits of combining a Durkheimian structural approach with a qualitatively driven ethnographic methodology. Examination of the life experiences of those who committed suicide is located within the underlying social organization of the transnational community in which the suicides occurred, enabling us to explore unanticipated events that render certain groups more at risk of committing suicide. Interviews with significant others facilitated a deeper understanding of the personal life paths of those who committed suicide. The suicide cases followed a particular assimilation trajectory that gradually positioned them in a ‘rainbow underclass’, an anomic social position leading to suicide. Despite the sensitivity of the subject, participants appreciated the opportunity to discuss their experience frankly and contribute towards a better understanding of the underlying causes in a desperate attempt to prevent further suicides.

Suicide in Sri Lanka: The Anthropology of an Epidemic

Suicide in Sri Lanka-book coverWhy people kill themselves remains an enduring and unanswered question. With a focus on Sri Lanka, a country that for several decades has reported ‘epidemic’ levels of suicidal behaviour, this book develops a unique perspective, linking the causes and meanings of suicidal practices to social processes across moments, lifetimes, and history.

Extending anthropological approaches to practice, learning, and agency, anthropologist Tom Widger draws from long-term fieldwork in a Sinhala Buddhist community to develop an ethnographic theory of suicide that foregrounds local knowledge and sets out a charter for prevention. The book highlights the motives of children and adults becoming suicidal, and how certain gender, age, and class relationships and violence are prone to give rise to suicidal responses. By linking these experiences to emotional states, it develops an ethnopsychiatric model of suicide rooted in social practice. Widger then goes on to examine how suicides are resolved at village and national levels, and traces the roots of interventions to the politics of colonial and post-colonial social welfare and health regimes. Exploring local accounts of suicide as both ‘evidence’ for the suicide epidemic and as an ‘ethos’ of suicidality shaping subjective worlds, Suicide in Sri Lanka shows how anthropological analysis can offer theoretical as well as policy insights.

With the inclusion of straightforward summaries and implications for prevention at the end of each chapter, this book has relevance for specialists and non-specialists alike. It represents an important new contribution to South Asian Studies, Social Anthropology and Medical Anthropology, as well as to cross-cultural Suicidology.

Event

Suicide in Sri Lanka: Past, Present, and Future Transformations

21-22 March 2013

University of Colombo, Sri Lanka

Rates of suicidal behaviour have existed at ‘epidemic’ proportions in Sri Lanka for several decades, and in recent years there has been a marked increase in the number of ethnographic and other qualitative researchers investigating the problem. However, to date there has been little opportunity for qualitative researchers to present their findings in dedicated forums and this has reduced opportunities for debate and the development of collaborative projects as well as scope for impacts on practitioners and policy makers.

The aim of this symposium is to provide an opportunity for anthropologists, sociologists, and public health specialists employing ethnographic and qualitative methods to share the results of on-going research, recently completed research, and research proposals currently in the planning stage. The objectives will be to:

  • Provide an overview of current anthropological/ethnographic research into suicide in Sri Lanka underway, and debate empirical and theoretical issues and themes;
  • Discuss ethical and practical issues and challenges faced when studying suicide ethnographically, including how to ensure the wellbeing of researcher and research participants; and
  • Debate, as part of a roundtable discussion, how anthropological studies of suicide can inform the development of more culturally relevant treatment and prevention programmes.

The theme of the conference is past, present, and future transformations. We are interested in the concept of transformation in both temporal and social dimensions.

  • Past: How have suicide in Sri Lanka, and the Sri Lankan suicide rate, transformed across time? Over the second half of the 20th century, the suicide rate spiralled to epidemic proportions, before significantly falling after the mid-1990s. While sociologists attributed the rise in the suicide rate to macro-level forces of social change (Kearney & Miller 1985), epidemiologists associated the fall with controls placed on the most lethal pesticides, which had hitherto accounted for the majority of suicide deaths (Gunnell 2007). However, in recent years there have been growing reports that levels of both self-harm and suicide are increasing once again (IRIN 2009; Bandara 2012; Senerathna 2012; Silva 2012), calling into question the efficacy of pesticide control measures. Meanwhile, state and lay narratives of suicidality have equally transformed, informing each other through looping processes (Widger 2012b).
  • Present: How does suicide transform social relations? However meanings of suicide might have transformed across time, in everyday practice in the contemporary moment they often cohere with established narratives (Marecek 1998, 2006; Marecek & Senadheera 2012). Self-harm and suicide can be understood as offering transformations at the personal and inter-personal levels. On one level, suicidal practices offer a means of redress for powerless people – an avenue for expression and communication which works by ‘putting the idea of death into other people’s minds’ (Widger 2009, 2012a). But on another level, suicidal practices offer ways of transforming psychological and social statuses and positionalities and as such, the fabric of sociality itself. Performed as much to create as to negate (Widger 2012b), suicidal practices in Sri Lanka can be understood as driving social change through ‘a thousand cuts.’ Engagements with suicidal behaviour can be understood as commentaries on society at large (Hewamanne 2010).
  • Future: In what ways might suicide in Sri Lanka be transformed? If suicide is the by-product of a self-harm endemic, how can the endemic be addressed? Much of the literature would seem to suggest that suicidal practices are intractable: they are not caused by discreet illnesses which can be treated through direct interventions but rather are the product of social structures, cultural traditions, and deeply ingrained ways of understanding and acting in the world. Given this, it is not as clear what might work, as it is what does not work – perhaps it is time to reevaluate how we consider the possibility of suicide prevention, beginning with the very terms we use.

Paper submissions (30 minutes in length) are invited which engage with these or similar themes.

Please contact Dr Tom Widger (t.widger@sussex.ac.uk) for further information!

Publication

Ethnographies of Suicide: Special Issue of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry

The June 2012 issue of Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry is a special issue entitled, ‘Ethnographies of Suicide.’ As guest editors James Staples and Tom Widger write in their introduction:

“This special issue…comes at the end of a century of sporadic anthropological interest in suicidal behaviour, building on the groundwork established by scholars such as Malinowski (1949) and Bohannan (1960), but also going much further. Focusing on the act in its more ‘everyday’ occurrences while speaking to issues of ‘protest’ and ‘escape’ (that also have resonances for our understanding of ‘suicide bombing’ and euthanasia), it attempts to mark out a distinctive theoretical approach that draws from long-term ethnographic research…conducted in diverse locations across the globe, including Mexico, Canada, England, South Africa, Palestine, Afghanistan, India, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Japan. By highlighting how the ethnographic method privileges a certain view of the subject, we aim to go beyond the sociological and psychological approaches that define the field of ‘suicidology’ to engage with suicide from our informants’ own points of view—and in so doing cast the problem in a new light and new terms.” (185)

Guest Editorial: Situating Suicide as an Anthropological Problem: Ethnographic Approaches to Understanding Self-Harm and Self-Inflicted Death

James Staples and Tom Widger

More than a century after Durkheim’s sociological classic placed the subject of suicide as a concern at the heart of social science, ethnographic, cross-cultural analyses of what lie behind people’s attempts to take their own lives remain few in number. But by highlighting how the ethnographic method privileges a certain view of suicidal behaviour, we can go beyond the limited sociological and psychological approaches that define the field of ‘suicidology’ in terms of social and psychological ‘pathology’ to engage with suicide from our informants’ own points of view—and in so doing cast the problem in a new light and new terms. In particular, suicide can be understood as a kind of sociality, as a special kind of social relationship, through which people create meaning in their own lives. In this introductory essay we offer an overview of the papers that make up this special issue and map out the theoretical opportunities and challenges they present.

Tales of Decline: Reading Social Pathology into Individual Suicide in South India
Jocelyn Lim Chua

In the south Indian state of Kerala, the nation’s so-called suicide capital, suicide can often appear self-evident in meaning and motivation to casual onlookers and experts alike. Drawing on explanatory accounts, rumors, and speculative tales of suicide collected between 2004 and 2007, this article explores the ontological power of certain deaths to assert themselves as always-already known on the basis of perceived and reported demographic patterns of suicide. I demonstrate the ways suicides are commonly read, less through the distinct details of their individual case presentations than “up” to broader scales of social pathology. Shaped by the intertwined histories of public health intervention and state taxonomic knowledge in India, these “epidemic readings” of suicide enact a metonymy between individual suffering and ideas of collective decline that pushes the suicide case to fit—and thus to stand for—aggregate trends at the level of populations. Focusing on how family navigated the generic meanings and motivations ascribed to the deaths of their loved ones, I argue that the ability of kin to resist, collude with, or strategically deploy epidemic readings in their search for truth and closure hinged significantly on their classed fluency in the social, legal, and bureaucratic discourses of suicide.

Suffering, Frustration, and Anger: Class, Gender and History in Sri Lankan Suicide Stories
Tom Widger

This paper explores competing stories of suffering, frustration and anger that shape the performance and reception of suicidal behaviours in contemporary Sri Lanka. Drawing from the results of 21 months of ethnographic fieldwork, I show how suicidal acts fit within broader narratives of class and gender experience and expression that draw from contemporary and historical ‘folk’ and ‘state’ discourses. Debates over whether suffering, frustration and anger are legitimate socio-effective states to exhibit come to determine the kinds of claims and counter-claims that suicidal people on the one hand, and those charged with their treatment and management on the other, can make with regard to the efficacy of suicide as a means of social action. Through such debates—not only what it means to be suicidal in Sri Lanka but also what it means to be middle class or working class, male or female, etc. are made and remade anew.

Chol Understandings of Suicide and Human Agency
Grace Imberton

According to ethnographic material collected since 2003, the Chol Mayan indigenous people in southern Mexico have different causal explanations for suicide. It can be attributed to witchcraft that forces victims to take their lives against their own will, to excessive drinking, or to fate determined by God. However, it can also be conceived of as a conscious decision made by a person overwhelmed by daily problems. Drawing from the theoretical framework developed by Laura M. Ahearn, inspired by practice theory, the paper contends that these different explanations operate within two different logics or understandings of human agency. The first logic attributes responsibility to supernatural causes such as witchcraft or divine destiny, and reflects Chol notions of personhood. The second logic accepts personal responsibility for suicide, and is related to processes of social change such as the introduction of wage labor, education and a market economy. The contemporary Chol resort to both logics to make sense of the human drama of suicide.

Suicidal Performances: Voicing Discontent in a Girls’ Dormitory in Kabul
Julie Billaud

Female suicide in Afghanistan has generally been given economic and psychological explanations. More rarely has its social dimension been analysed. In this paper, I underline the communicative potential of Afghan women’s suicide in the ‘post-war/reconstruction’ context. I highlight its ambiguous symbolic power and its anchorage in the subversive imaginary universe of women’s poetic expression. I argue that while reproducing certain cultural ideas about women’s inherent emotional fragility, women’s suicide also challenges the honour system in powerful ways and opens possibilities for voicing discontent. I qualify female suicide as the ‘art of the weak’ (De Certeau 1980, 6), a covert form of protest, a performance—in the sense of Bauman (2004)—that builds upon traditional popular ‘knowledge’ about gender in order to manage the impression of an audience and make women’s claims audible.

Behind the Statistics: The Ethnography of Suicide in Palestine
Nadia Dabbagh

As part of the first anthropological study on suicide in the modern Arab world, statistics gathered from the Ramallah region of the West Bank in Palestine painted an apparently remarkably similar picture to that found in Western countries such as the UK and France. More men than women completed suicide, more women than men attempted suicide. Men used more violent methods such as hanging and women softer methods such as medication overdose. Completed suicide was higher in the older age range, attempted suicide in the younger. However, ethnographic fieldwork and detailed examination of the case studies and suicide narratives gathered and analysed within the cultural, political and economic contexts illustrated more starkly the differences in suicidal practices between Palestinian West Bank society of the 1990s and other regions of the world. The central argument of the paper is that although statistics tell a very important story, ethnography uncovers a multitude of stories ‘behind the statistics’, and thus helps us to make sense of both cultural context and subjective experience.

Postcolonial Suicide Among Inuit in Arctic Canada
Michael J. Kral

Indigenous youth suicide incidence is high globally, and mostly involves young males. However, the Inuit of Arctic Canada have a suicide rate that is among the highest in the world (and ten times that for the rest of Canada). The author suggests that suicide increase has emerged because of changes stemming in part from the Canadian government era in the Arctic in the 1950s and 1960s. The effects of government intervention dramatically affected kin relations, roles, and responsibilities, and affinal/romantic relationships. Suicide is embedded in these relationships. The author also discusses the polarization between psychiatric and indigenous/community methods of healing, demonstrating that government-based intervention approaches to mental health are not working well, and traditional cultural healing practices often take place outside of the mainstream clinics in these communities. The main questions of the paper are: Who should control suicide prevention? What is the best knowledge base for suicide prevention?

Gendered Endings: Narratives of Male and Female Suicides in the South African Lowveld
Isak Niehaus

Durkheim’s classical theory of suicide rates being a negative index of social solidarity downplays the salience of gendered concerns in suicide. But gendered inequalities have had a negative impact: worldwide significantly more men than women perpetrate fatal suicides. Drawing on narratives of 52 fatal suicides in Bushbuckridge, South Africa, this article suggests that Bourdieu’s concepts of ‘symbolic violence’ and ‘masculine domination’ provide a more appropriate framework for understanding this paradox. I show that the thwarting of investments in dominant masculine positions have been the major precursor to suicides by men. Men tended to take their own lives as a means of escape. By contrast, women perpetrated suicide to protest against the miserable consequences of being dominated by men. However, contra the assumption of Bourdieu’s concept of ‘habitus’, the narrators of suicide stories did reflect critically upon gender constructs.

Mad, Bad or Heroic?: Gender, Identity and Accountability in Lay Portrayals of Suicide in Late Twentieth-Century England
Christabel Owens and Helen Lambert

Suicide research has relied heavily on the psychological autopsy method, which uses interviews with the bereaved to ascertain the mental health status of the deceased prior to death. The resulting data are typically interpreted within a clinical diagnostic framework, which reinforces psychiatric assumptions concerning the ubiquity of mental illness amongst those who take their own lives. The ways in which informants reconstruct the past and the meanings they attach to events preceding the suicide are rarely examined. This paper uses qualitative methods to analyse the narratives given by bereaved people in an English psychological autopsy study, in order to understand how they made sense of a family member’s suicide. Some clear differences between the portrayal of male and female suicides emerged. The paper discusses the gendering of agency and accountability in relation to the differential medicalisation of male and female distress in the UK, and suggests that a preoccupation with mental illness in suicide research may have obscured other culturally normative understandings of self-accomplished death.

Ritual Vicissitudes: The Uncertainties of Singaporean Suicide Rites
Ruth E. Toulson

In this article, I examine how Singaporean Chinese families and funeral professionals work together to ritually manage the meaning and consequences of a death by suicide. While the now dated literature on Chinese mortuary practice emphasizes the formality and rigidity of death rituals, during fieldwork I noted many moments of confusion within ritual, moments of innovation, when relatives broke away from the already uncertain ritual script, and moments of deceit, when relatives conspired with funeral directors to hide the reason for a death. Through an examination of three funerals for suicide victims, including two cases in which the fact that the death was a suicide was hidden, I suggest that a focus on moments of confusion and of innovation paradoxically better captures the dynamism and efficacy of Chinese funeral rituals: here indeterminacy is indispensable to ritual form.

Suicide and the Afterlife: Popular Religion and the Standardisation of ‘Culture’ in Japan
Mary Picone

For an overwhelming majority of commentators, including many anthropologists, ‘Japanese culture’ is still associated with a positive view of suicide. Western-language writings have contributed by feedback loop to perpetuate this stereotype. Besides the local ‘samurai ethic’, Japanese Buddhism is also said not to prohibit taking one’s life. However, the most popular examples of heroic self-sacrifice, from the Edo period to WWII, are fraught with covert contradictions. From ancient times to the present religious practitioners of all sorts have maintained that suicide creates unhappy, resentful spirits who harm the living. This article discusses many examples of a diverse series of narratives, from spirit medium’s séances to drama to contemporary films, in which the anguished spirits of suicides are allowed to express themselves directly. After the figures rose alarmingly in the late 1990s various religious organisations have attempted to fight the stigma suffered by bereaved family members and have introduced new interpretations and new rituals.

Explaining Suicide: An Afterword
Jean La Fontaine