Tag Archives: South Africa

Publication

Suicide in South Asia: Ethnographic Perspectives

The June issue of Contributions to Indian Sociology is a special issue entitled, ‘Suicide in South Asia.’ Guest editor James Staples writes in his introduction:

“This volume has its roots in a two-day international workshop,
‘Ethnographies of Suicide’, which was held at Brunel University in West
London, UK, back in July 2008. The 15 papers presented there drew on
fieldwork from across the world, with contributions from Afghanistan,
Israel, Japan, South Africa, Greece, Portugal and the UK. It was noteworthy,
however, that a third of the papers, as well as an additional film
presentation, all focused on work that had been conducted in South Asia,
particularly in India and Sri Lanka. Despite having recently begun fieldwork
on suicide in the region myself—in Andhra Pradesh—until I organised
the conference I had been unaware of the wider interest in the topic
among fellow South Asianist scholars, and began to realise that there
was a strong case for bringing more of this work together in a single collection.” (1)

‘Girl Still Burning Inside my Head’: Reflections on Suicide in Sri Lanka

Malathi de Alwis

“This chapter reflects on why suicide has become such a pervasive phenomenon in Sri Lankan society by engaging with the extensive scholarly literature that exists on this subject. Rather than trying to provide some overarching, mono-causal explanation, it seeks to illuminate the complexity of the issue and the varied and nuanced ways in which we might try to apprehend it, be it in conjunction with homicide or political conflict, social change or sexual anomie, restraint or collectivism. While problematising our re-course to the ‘work of culture’ and reading statistics against the grain, this chapter also highlights gendered dimensions and broader conceptual strands where we may not have thought to seek them.”

‘I drank it to put an end to me’: Narrating girls’ suicide and self-harm in Sri Lanka

Jeanne Marecek and Chandanie Senadheera

“Sri Lanka experienced a spiral of suicides in the 1980s and 1990s, with deaths rising to nearly 48 per 100,000 in 1995. Although reported rates of suicide have declined since then, the incidence of suicide and deliberate self-harm remains high, especially among young people. Data on hospital admissions showed that the number of adolescent girls admitted for deliberate self-harm more than doubled between 2001 and 2007. We conducted in-depth interviews with girls in the south of Sri Lanka who were hospitalised for deliberate self-harm. The interviews revealed several common themes in the girls’ accounts of the circumstances that prompted self-harm episodes, their motives and emotions, and others’ responses. Most episodes involved accusations and disputes regarding the girls’ sexual comportment and heterosexual relations. They often involved harsh scolding and beatings by parents. Themes in the girls’ accounts included anger, disappointment, shame, and acute distress; descriptions of their self-harm as an expressive act directed toward others; and disavowal of responsibility for their actions. We suggest that the rise in girls’ self-harm results from the clash between emergent expectations that young women hold regarding advanced education, heterosexual relations, and out-of-home employment and traditional ideals of appropriate feminine comportment and sexual respectability held by their parents.”

Suicide and the morality of kinship in Sri Lanka

Tom Widger

“Ethnographic research amongst Sinhala Buddhists in community and clinical settings in the Madampe Division, northwest Sri Lanka, suggests that local understandings and practices of suicidal behaviour reflect the kinship structure. In particular, acts of self-harm and self-inflicted death arise in response to the breaking of core kinship rights, duties and obligations, or as a challenge to inflexibility or contradictions within the system. In either case, the morality of kinship is closely associated with the causes of suicidal behaviour, as the ‘inevitability’ or ‘evitability’ of kin relationships is negotiated and lived in practice. This article analyses how local political economies give rise to particular kinship and moral conditions, with special attention paid to those between household (gē) members and brothers-in-law (massinā).”

The suicide niche: Accounting for self-harm in a South Indian leprosy colony

James Staples

“This article analyses the circumstances under which attempted suicide became an increasingly common possibility of thought and action among the young, healthy generation of people who had grown up in the South Indian leprosy community where I conducted long-term fieldwork, despite suicide remaining relatively uncommon amongst their leprosy-affected, and often physically disabled, parents and grandparents. Alert to the pitfalls of analytical approaches that either privilege over-arching structural explanations—like those favoured by Durkheim—or, conversely, give too much credence to individual agency and psychology, my analysis here attempts to chart a course through these polarities. It does so by drawing both on Ian Hacking’s ‘ecological niche’ metaphor—to explore how particular configurations of events and circumstances, at different times, might render suicide related behaviour more or less likely among different groups; and on Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of the ‘habitus’—to consider how particular sets of bodily dispositions might generate certain styles of attempted suicide and self-harm.”

Suicide in a central Indian steel town

Jonathan Parry

“Over the past 15 years ‘farmer suicides’ have occasioned grave public concern; and it has recently been claimed that Chhattisgarh has the highest incidence in the country. This article suggests that the representation of such cases as the major public policy problem to do with self-inflicted death is politically inflected and that there are good grounds for supposing that—at least in certain pockets—the urban suicide rate is as high, if not higher. In the industrial area around steel town of Bhilai, this has risen dramatically over the last 20 years and it is the aristocracy of public sector labour that is significantly most susceptible. This is ultimately attributable to the liberalisation of the economy and the consequent downsizing of this workforce, which has led to a crisis in the reproduction of class status. Such workers are privileged; think of themselves as different from the informal sector ‘labour class’ and fear sinking into it. Suicides are significantly under-reported and the official statistics are systematically inflected by fear of the police and the law, which encourage both concealment and the deliberate obfuscation of likely motives, and almost certainly increase the ‘lethal probabilities’ of suicide attempts.”

Farmers’ suicides and the state in India: Conceptual and ethnographic notes from Wayanad, Kerala

Daniel Munster

“This article reflects on the challenge of making ‘farmers’ suicides’ an object of ethnographic inquiry. This challenge is not just a matter of methods, ethics and access but also a matter of categorical choices involved in studying this over-determined and politicised category of self-killing. Drawing on fieldwork in the Wayanad district of Kerala, the article argues that ‘farmers’ suicides’ are not self-evident types of rural death, but become reified and visible through the state’s enumerative practices. This state-defined category, conveyed and scandalised by the media, rests on a connection between suicide and—–an equally reified—‘agrarian crisis’. The ethnographic endeavour of ‘chasing’ the elusive object of farmers’ suicides may destabilise this seemingly self-evident link. Despite this, farmers’ suicides have taken on a political life of their own. They have become a constructed yet real interface for the reworking of the relationship between state and rural citizens in liberalising India. The Indian state has launched unprecedented relief and rehabilitation measures in response to the suicide crisis. This article makes a strong case for grounding the study of farmers’ suicides in ethnographies of agrarian practice and the local developmental state.”

The volume ends with an Endnote by Isak Niehaus, Comparing South Asian and South African Suicide. Niehuas argues:

“Contemporary ethnographers and anthropological researchers face a dual
challenge. On the one hand, we are admonished to guard against treating
our units of study as self-contained, island-like entities, immune from
broader forces and from connections with global impact (Appadurai 2000;
Hannerz 1996). On the other, Marshall Sahlins sounds a stern warning
about ‘endangered specificities’ in the social sciences today, suggesting
that the imposition of external analytical frameworks might well cloud
out, or even annihilate, valid local cultural constructs, perspectives and
understandings (Sahlins 1996; Smith 2002). Our challenge is to situate
our units of study within broader analytical frames without losing sight
of local contours and dynamics. It is to tread softly and to steer a careful
balance, elucidating both the generalities and particularities of our research
information”.

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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