Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 36, Issue 2, pp 327–347 | Cite as

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

  • Isak NiehausEmail author
Original Paper


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.


Suicide Gender Masculine domination Bushbuckridge South Africa 



The author thanks his field assistants Eliazaar Mohlala, the late Kally Shokane, and Eric Thobela for the latters' help during fieldwork, and also Rob Gordon, Michael Kral, Jean La Fontaine, Hal Scheffler, James Staples and Tom Widger for their critical comments and support.


  1. Baumeister, Roy F. 1990 Suicide as Escape From Self. Psychological Review 97 (1), 90-113.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bohannan, Paul. ed. 1960 African Homicide and Suicide. Princeton: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  3. Bourdieu, Pierre 2001 Masculine Domination. Stanford: Stanford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Burke, Kenneth 1955 A Grammar of Motives. New York: George Braziller.Google Scholar
  5. Carstens, Peter 2000 An Essay on Suicide and Disease in Canadian Indian Reserves: Bringing Durkheim back in. The Canadian Journal of Native Studies XX (2): 309-345.Google Scholar
  6. Chaplin, James H. 1961 Suicide in Northern Rhodesia. African Studies 20 (3): 145-174.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Cooper, Arnold. 1986 What Men Fear: The Façade of Castration Anxiety. In The Psychology of Men: New Psychoanalytic Perspectives (eds) G. Fogel, F. Lane & R. Liebert, 145-162. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  8. Counts, Dorothy Ayers 1980 Fighting Back is Not the Way: Suicide and the Women of Kaliai. American Ethnologist 6 (2): 332-351.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. De Wet, Chris. 1995 Moving Together, Drifting Apart: Betterment Planning and Villagisation in a South African Homeland. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.Google Scholar
  10. Douglas, Jack. 1967 The Social Meanings of Suicide. Princeton NJ: Princeton University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Durkheim, Emile 1951/1897 Suicide: A Study in Sociology. Glencoe, IL: The Free Press.Google Scholar
  12. Farnell, Brenda. 2000 Getting out of the habitus: An alternative model of dynamically embodied social action. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute 6 (2): 397- 418.Google Scholar
  13. Firth, Raymond. 1961 Suicide and risk taking in Tikopia Society. Psychiatry (2): 1-17.Google Scholar
  14. Gilmore, David. 1990 Manhood in the Making: Cultural Concepts of Masculinity. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
  15. Gilmore. Margaret and David Gilmore 1979 Machismo: A Psychodynamic Approach (Spain). Journal of Psychoanalytic Anthropology 2 (3): 281-299.Google Scholar
  16. Hammond-Tooke, W.D. 1981 Boundaries and Belief: The Structure of a Sotho Worldview. Johannesburg: Witwatersrand University Press.Google Scholar
  17. Hezel, Francis 1987 Truk Suicide Epidemic and Social Change. Human Organisation 46 (4): 283-291.Google Scholar
  18. Hollan, Douglas 1990 Indignant Suicide in the Pacific: An Example from the Toraja Highlands of Indonesia. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 14: 365-379.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. James, Wendy 1988 The Listening Ebony: Moral Knowledge, Religion and Power among the Uduk of Sudan. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  20. Jeffreys, M. D. W. 1952 Samsonic Suicide or Suicide of Revenge among Africans. African Studies 11 (1): 118 -122.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Kral, Michael. 1996 Suicide and the Internalisation of Culture: Three Questions. Transcultural Psychiatry 35 (2): 221-233.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Kral, Michael, E. Johnson 1996 Suicide, Self-Deception and the Cognitive Unconscious. In: Leenaars A., Lester D. (eds) Suicide and the Unconscious 85-110. Northvale NJ: Jason Aronson.Google Scholar
  23. Kuper, Adam. 1975 The Social Structure of the Sotho-speaking peoples of southern Africa. Africa 45, 67-81, 139-149.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Lipuma, Edward 1998 Modernity and Forms of Personhood in Melanesia. In Bodies and Persons: Comparative Perspectives from Africa and Melanesia. (eds.) Michael Lambek and Andrew Strathern. 53 -80. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  25. Littlewood, Ronald and Michael Lipsedge 1987 The Butterfly and the Serpent: Culture, Psychopathology and Biomedicine. Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 11: 289-335.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. MacPherson, Cluny. and La’avasa Macpherson 1987 Towards an Explanation of Recent Trends in Suicide in Western Samoa. Man (n.s.) 22 (2): 305-330.Google Scholar
  27. Malkki, Liisa. 1997 News and Culture: Transitory Phenomena and the Fieldwork Tradition. In Anthropological Locations: Boundaries and Grounds of a Field Science (eds) Akeil Gupta and James Ferguson. 86-101. Berkeley: University of California Press.Google Scholar
  28. Marx, Emanual 1976 The Social Context of Violent Behaviour. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  29. Marx, Karl 1999/1864 Peuchet on Suicide. In Marx on Suicide. E. Plant and K. Anderson, eds., Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Matzopoulos, R. 2004 A Profile of Fatal Injuries in South Africa: Fifth Annual Report of the National Injury Mortality Surveillance System. Tygerberg: Medical Research Council.Google Scholar
  31. McNeill, Fraser and Isak Niehaus 2009 Magic: AIDS Review 2009. Pretoria: Centre for the Study of AIDS, University of Pretoria.Google Scholar
  32. Meer, Fatima. 1976 Race and Suicide in South Africa. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.Google Scholar
  33. Moore, Henrietta. 1994 A Passion for Difference: Essays in Anthropology and Gender. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  34. Niehaus, Isak with Eliazaar Mohlala and Kally Shokane 2001 Witchcraft, Power and Politics: Exploring the Occult in the South African Lowveld. London: Pluto.Google Scholar
  35. Pienaar, J. 2003 Coping, Stress and Suicide Ideation in the South African Police Service. PhD Thesis. Potchefstroom: Potchefstroom University.Google Scholar
  36. Rebhun, Linda-Anne 2001 Women, Men (and Dogs) in Northeast Brazil. Unpublished Seminar Paper. Agrarian Studies Institute, Yale University.Google Scholar
  37. Riches, David 1986 Phenomenon of Violence. In The Anthropology of Violence. (ed.) D. Riches. 1-28. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Google Scholar
  38. Shneidman, Edwin 1993 Suicide as Psycharche: A Clinical Approach to Self Destructive Behaviour. Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield.Google Scholar
  39. South African Institute of Race Relations (SAIRR) 2001 South Africa Survey, 2000. Braamfontein, Johannesburg: South African Institute for Race Relations.Google Scholar
  40. Staples, James 2012 The Suicide Niche: Accounting for self-harm in a South Indian Leprosy Colony. Contributions to Indian Sociology 46 (1–2) (in press).Google Scholar
  41. Stølen, Kristi 1996 The Gentle Exercise of Male Power in Rural Argentina. Identities 2 (4): 385- 406.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  42. Strathern, Marylin 1986 Women in Between: Female Roles in a Male World, Mount Hagen, New Guinea. London: Seminar Press.Google Scholar
  43. Van Binsbergen, Wim 2001 Witchcraft in Modern Africa as Virtualised Boundary Conditions of the Kinship Order. In Witchcraft Dialogues: Anthropological and Philosophical Exchanges (eds) George Bond & Diane Ciekawy. 221-264. Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.Google Scholar
  44. Van Winkle, J. Nancy Westlake and Philip May 1993 An Update on American Indian Suicide in New Mexico, 1980-1987. Human Organisation 52 (3): 304-315.Google Scholar
  45. Wassenaar, D., A. Pillay, S. Descoins, M. Goltman and P. Naidoo. 2000 Patterns of Suicide in Pietermaritzburg 1982-1992: Race, Gender and Seasonality. In Suicidal Behaviour 4: Proceedings of the Fourth Southern African Conference on Suicidology. (eds) L. Schlebusch and B. Bosch. 97-111. Durban: University of Natal.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.School of Social SciencesBrunel UniversityUxbridge, MiddlesexUK

Personalised recommendations