Advertisement

Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 36, Issue 2, pp 204–224 | Cite as

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

  • Jocelyn Lim ChuaEmail author
Article

Abstract

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.

Keywords

Suicide Social pathology Social suffering Public health discourse 

Notes

Acknowledgments

My deep gratitude goes to the families in Thiruvananthapuram who generously shared their stories, and opened their lives and homes to me. I would like to thank the three anonymous reviewers for their thoughtful guidance and suggestions. Special thanks also go to James Staples, Tom Widger, Matthew Kohrman, Sylvia Yanagisako, Silvia Tomášková, Jean Dennison, and Anna Agbe-Davies for their readings of earlier drafts and insightful comments. The research on which this article is based was conducted with the support of the American Institute of Indian Studies.

References

  1. Appadurai, Arjun 1993 Number in the Colonial Imagination. In Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament: Perspectives on South Asia. C. Breckenridge, and P. van der Veer, eds., pp. 314-340. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.Google Scholar
  2. Briggs, Charles 2007 Mediating Infanticide: Theorizing Relations Between Narrative and Violence. Cultural Anthropology 22(3): 315-356.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Briggs, Charles 2005 Communicability, Racial Discourse, and Disease. Annual Review of Anthropology 34: 269-291.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Butler, Judith 1999 Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  5. Caldeira, Teresa 2000 City of Walls: Crime, Segregation, and Citizenship in São Paolo. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  6. Chua, Jocelyn 2011 Making Time for the Children: Self-Temporalization and the Cultivation of the Antisuicidal Subject in South India. Cultural Anthropology 26(1):112-137.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cohen, Lawrence 1998 No Aging in India: Alzheimer’s, the Bad Family, and Other Modern Things. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  8. Cohn, Bernard 1996 Colonialism and its Forms of Knowledge: The British in India. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  9. Das, Veena 1986 The Work of Mourning: Death in a Punjabi Family. In The Cultural Transition: Human Experience and Social Transformation in the Third World and Japan. M. White, and S. Pollak, eds., pp. 179-210. London: Routledge.Google Scholar
  10. Devika, J. 2002 Family Planning as “Liberation”: The Ambiguities of “Emancipation from Biology” in Keralam. Working Paper 335, Thiruvananathapuram Centre for Development Studies.Google Scholar
  11. Feldman, Allen 1991 Formations of Violence: The Narrative of the Body and Political Terror in Northern Ireland. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Google Scholar
  12. Gilsenan, Michael 1996 Lords of the Lebanese Marches: Violence and Narrative in an Arab Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  13. Hacking, Ian 1990 The Taming of Chance. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  14. Jeffrey, Robin 1992 Politics, Women, and Well-Being: How Kerala Became “a Model.” Houndsmills: Macmillan Press.Google Scholar
  15. Kleinman, Arthur 1992 Pain and Resistance: The Delegitimation and Relegitimation of Local Worlds. In Pain as Human Experience: An Anthropological Perspective. M.D. Good, P.E. Brodwin, B.J. Good, and A. Kleinman, eds., pp. 169-197. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  16. Kleinman, Arthur, Veena Das and Margaret Lock 1997 Introduction. In Social Suffering. A. Kleinman, V. Das, and M. Lock, eds., pp. ix-xxvii. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  17. Lakoff, Andrew 2005 Pharmaceutical Reason: Knowledge and Value in Global Psychiatry. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Livingston, Julie 2009 Suicide, Risk, and Investment in the Heart of the African Miracle. Cultural Anthropology 24(4):652-680.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Marecek, Jeanne 1998 Culture, Gender, and Suicidal Behavior in Sri Lanka. Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior 28(1): 69-81.Google Scholar
  20. Mohite, Vijayrao and Vandana Chavan 1993 Law of Cruelty, Abetment of Suicide, and Dowry Deaths. Pune, India: Bar Council of Maharashtra and Goa.Google Scholar
  21. Mol, Annemarie 2002 The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice. Durham: Duke University Press.Google Scholar
  22. Nunley, Michael (1996) Why Psychiatrists in India Prescribe So Many Drugs. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 20(2): 165-197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Pandey, Gyanendra 1990 The Construction of Communalism in Colonial North India. New Delhi: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  24. Parry, Jonathan 2012 Suicide in a Central Indian Steel Town. In Suicide in South Asia: Ethnographic Perspectives. Special issue of Contributions to Indian Sociology 46(1&2): 145–180.Google Scholar
  25. Spencer, Jonathan 1990 Collective violence and everyday practice in Sri Lanka. Modern Asian Studies 24:603-623.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty 1988 Can the Subaltern Speak? In Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture. C. Nelson, and L. Grossberg, eds., pp. 271-313. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.Google Scholar
  27. Sreekumar, Sharmila 2009 Scripting Lives: Narratives of “Dominant Women” in Kerala. New Delhi: Orient Blackswan.Google Scholar
  28. Staples, James 2012a Ethnographies of Suicide in South Asia. In Suicide in South Asia: Ethnographic Perspectives. Special issue of Contributions to Indian Sociology 46(1&2): 1–28.Google Scholar
  29. Staples, James 2012b The Suicide Niche: Accounting for Self-Harm in a South Indian Leprosy Colony. In Suicide in South Asia: Ethnographic Perspectives. Special Issue of Contributions to Indian Sociology 46(1&2): 117–144.Google Scholar
  30. Stevenson, Lisa 2009 The Suicidal Wound and Fieldwork among Canadian Inuit. In Being There: The Fieldwork Encounter and the Making of Truth. J. Borneman and A. Hammoudi, eds., pp. 55-76. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  31. Waters, Anne 1999 Domestic Dangers: Approaches to Women’s Suicide in Contemporary Maharashtra, India. Violence Against Women 5(5):525-547.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Widger, Tom 2009 Self-Harm and Self-Inflicted Death Amongst Sinhalese Buddhists in Sri Lanka: An Ethnographic Study. PhD Thesis, London School of Economics.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of AnthropologyUniversity of North Carolina at Chapel HillChapel HillUSA

Personalised recommendations