Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 34, Issue 1, pp 169–185 | Cite as

Moral Agency, Identity Crisis and Mental Health: An Anthropologist’s Plight and His Hmong Ritual Healing

  • Christian Postert
Original Paper


During anthropological fieldwork, the author had a serious accident on the outskirts of a Hmong village in the highland of Laos. However, this dramatic incident turned out to be the occasion of his ritual initiation into the local village community. An analysis of narratives of the incident reveals Hmong conceptions of the anthropologist’s physical, mental and moral affliction, its causative concomitants and his ritual healing. Hmong mental health and identity are situated in a moral space of exchange relationships to significant others, challenging basic assumptions of concepts of the person widely held in psychiatry and beyond. The healing ritual transformed the author’s being from indeterminate “other,” in a life-threatening state of identity crisis, to a wholesome Hmong “self,” in a state of health and moral agency. This exemplary rite de passage highlights the affinity of ritual healing and constitution of self in a moral space. The underlying relational concept of the person is in sharp contrast to psychiatry’s concepts of the person, which are deeply shaped by values of individualism. Psychiatric services must accommodate substantial differences in the concepts of the person when treating Hmong migrants from Laos.


Hmong Self Mental health Identity Ritual Moral agency 



The author’s data collection and analysis were supported by a grant from the German Research Council (DFG) in the framework of the interdisciplinary Research Group “Cultural Diversity and the Construction of Polity in Southeast Asia: Continuity, Discontinuity, and Transformation” (FOR 362) at Münster University.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2009

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, Psychosomatics and PsychotherapyUniversity Hospital MünsterMünsterGermany

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