There are, of course, several ways in which the collection might be ordered, and in outlining a rationale for the one we have chosen it should be clear, from the outset, that we are not implying a simple linear trajectory along which ideas about suicide might be plotted. Suicidal acts, as the papers show, are as much a beginning as an end, and in that sense it might be more logical to order the papers in a circle than a straight line. Nearly all of the papers, for example, engage—albeit in rather different ways—with questions of gender; and most of them, at least implicitly, reflect the social sciences ‘turn to language’ by attending to how suicide is discursively produced in different locations.
Given the boundaries of a print journal format, however, it did seem to make sense to highlight connections between the papers and to order them in such a way that, collectively, they might say more than the sum of their parts, or at least provoke readers to think about—and challenge—notions of suicide in ways that they might otherwise not. It also enables us to highlight the very different angles from which a topic as diverse as suicide might be approached anthropologically. Our scheme begins, then, with essays that, despite their ethnographic specificity, also set the wider scope for the special issue by problematising the official categories and stereotypes through which most of us, scholars included, come to understand the events and processes defined as suicide. The second batch of essays takes us on an ethnographic tour through Mexico, Afghanistan, Inuit Canada, Palestine and South Africa—in each case offering fine-grained accounts of how suicides are made sense of in those places, illuminating—in classical anthropological fashion—how in our differences we are, as human groups, also strikingly similar. This appears so even when comparing groups of people with, on the face of it, radically different cosmologies. Whereas one might reasonably expect a preoccupation with reincarnation to colour discussions of suicide and its implications when working with Buddhists or Hindus, for example, most of the authors represented in this volume—including the editors, who both worked in South Asia—discovered that such concerns scarcely registered among people on the ground. What may strike scholars of classic texts or religious leaders as central eschatological interests tended, in our experience, to give way to more prosaic—culturally informed but not exclusive—concerns for those we worked with who had lost family members to suicide.
The final set of papers draw on research from locations as diverse as the UK, Singapore and Japan, and shift our focus from the suicidal act and the events that precede it to the aftermath, exploring how those left behind continue to reinvent the meanings given to deaths caused by suicide and to find ways of living with the consequences, during which they may ‘contain’ the impacts of suicide on themselves, others, and society more broadly.
Situating Suicide Ethnographically
The volume begins at the start of the figurative circle we draw, with the creation of definitions and meanings of suicidal behaviour by ordinary people. There is a tyranny in the language of suicide studies that seems to prevent us thinking beyond the narrow confines of suicide as ‘an act of self-destruction.’ The term ‘suicide’ was coined in the seventeenth century, taken from the Latin sui (of oneself) and caedes (murder) (Minois 1999, p. 182). It passed into English usage first, then into French, and by the next century Spanish, Italian and Portuguese (ibid, p. 183). Prior to that, the terms ‘self-murder’ and ‘self-homicide’ were used instead, phrases which more directly than suicide, to those unversed in Latin, spoke of the moral reprehensibility of the act.
The Sanskrit derived term aatmahatya—which, as Staples and Chua concur, is in common usage across regional languages in India—also translates as ‘self-killing’ but, like suicide, is somewhat removed from the moral implications of its literal translation. Discussions with our contributors suggested comparable terms were used in other parts of the world, too: the Dari phrase khod kochi kardan—used by Billaud’s informants in Afghanistan—or the Japanese jisatsu, the most widely used Japanese term, both translate as ‘self-killing.’ So too does the Northern Sotho phrase go ipolaya, used by those Niehaus worked with in South Africa. In Palestine, Dabbagh tells us, the Arabic word for suicide is al-intihar. The root verb is nahara, which literally means ‘to slaughter,’ usually an animal. The form intahara means ‘to slaughter oneself,’ and also to ‘commit suicide.’ This is as opposed to ash-shahadeh, which is the word for martyrdom. A martyr is a shaheed from the word shahad, which means to ‘see’ or ‘witness’ and refers to being a ‘witness’ as in being a witness to the Truth (of Allah). Thus, there is a clear distinction between ‘suicide’ on the one hand, and ‘martyrdom’ on the other.
Despite the apparent confluence of terminology across languages, however, there would appear to be greater variation in how acts that might be categorised as suicide are spoken about on the ground. In Sri Lanka, for example, although the phrase siya diivināsā ganimā (‘to take one’s own life’) is sometimes used, those Widger worked with talked much more often about suicidal behaviour in terms of its most common method: self-poisoning. Reflecting this, the phrases wāha bonnāva (drinking poison) and känēru bonnava (drinking [swallowing] känēru) are used. The allusion to poison is important; beyond reflecting the preferred method of suicidal behaviour, it highlights an integral ambiguity between intention, action and outcome. To ‘drink poison’, in other words, blurs the lines between self-harm, protest and suicide. The same thing happens, Billaud suggests, in Afghanistan, where the term zor khordan—to eat or swallow poison—is also part of the lexicon, and Niehaus reports that thlema—to suffocate or hang—is sometimes the preferred term in northern Sotho. In Japan, too, Picone finds evidence of a rich vocabulary beyond the most common or official terminology, such as the medieval terms—still drawn upon—of speppuku (belly cutting) and junshi (a form of loyalty death, inflicted on oneself after the death of one’s feudal lord—comparable, perhaps, to the now illegal self-immolation of women after the deaths of their husbands in India, widely known as sati). There are additional Japanese terms for different forms of suicide—ikka shinju, for example, is used when a man kills his wife and his children and then himself—while other terms, as in the Sri Lankan and Afghan examples, reference the specific act rather than the death that might result from it.
In each of these contexts, as well as across European history, there has been a long debate amongst the intelligentsia—the religious scholars, moralists, philosophers and administrators—concerning the proper meaning of suicide. In Europe, especially, acts of self-murder were variously regarded as affronts to God, natural law, or society, and thus a criminal act. This was the case especially for the lower classes, whose bodies were dragged through the streets, executed and buried in un-consecrated ground, while the upper classes had the possibility of a noble suicide on the battlefield or in a duel (Minois 1999). Although popular understandings of suicide have of course varied across social groups and classes as well as the unique circumstances of any individual case, the fact that suicide has been, until relatively recently, a criminal act in the majority of Western countries, shaped formal approaches to the subject, including academic approaches.
As a result, in many ways suicide and homicide have been understood as different sides of the same behavioural coin—an understanding which, as shown by Chua and Widger in the opening papers of this volume, was exported to Europe’s colonies. The roots of sociological and psychological analyses of suicidal behaviour have rested on this assumption, and have been applied, seemingly, without questioning first whether such thinking is a universal given. Durkheim wrote about the link between suicide and homicide, and the relationship was later taken up in the ‘frustration-aggression’ hypothesis (see Dollard et al.
1939; Berkowtiz 1969), proponents of which argued that suicide was the consequence of anger turned inwards, and murder of anger turned outwards. The theory itself had roots in Freud’s (2005) theory of melancholia, which proposed much the same kind of thing, and filtered through to later psychological works (see Menninger 1972). It also formed the justification for Bohannan’s (1960) groundbreaking volume, Homicide and Suicide in Africa, wherein it is not always entirely clear whether the groups being studied themselves thought of the two as being necessarily of the same kind.
Although later psychological analyses dropped any particular discussion of the relationship between suicide and homicide—for example Beck’s (1991) now dominant cognitive theory—its legacy remains within suicide studies. Suicide, like homicide, is seen as being pathological, in a social and, or, psychological, sense. While suicidologists led the charge against removing legal sanctions against suicidal behaviour, it is still regarded, nonetheless, as being the product of a disrupted external or internal state—be it ‘society’ at large or ‘the mind’ specifically.
For Durkheim, suicide in nineteenth century Europe was seen as being nothing short of a malady of a broken, egoistical and anomic society, in which the individual both rejects and was failed by the social. ‘[T]he suicide of sadness, is an endemic state among civilised peoples’ he wrote in The Division of Labour in Society (1933, p. 191). ‘On the maps of suicide it can be seen that the central region of Europe is occupied by a huge dark patch which extends between the 47th and 57th degree of latitude and between the 20th and 40th degree of longitude.’ That dark patch was created by the fragmenting nature of a modernising society, through the cracks of which people fell as they lost the support of traditional social moorings and the sense of belonging and security that came with them. Although Durkheim also wrote about altruistic suicide, which can be understood as a kind of suicide that, unlike homicide, actually embraces and constitutes the social, he limited it to circumstances in which levels of social integration were very high—for the most part found in non-Western, so-called primitive societies.
In psychology, however, it has been the pathology of the individual that has garnered attention, with suicidal behaviour considered perhaps the most tragic manifestation of troubled minds. ‘Even though I know that each suicidal death is a multifaceted event,’ wrote Shneidman (1996, p. 5), one of America’s leading suicidologists, ‘I retain the belief that, in the proper distillation of the event, its essential nature is psychological.’ Echoing this, Williams (1997, p. 139), one of Britain’s most renowned suicide specialists, argued that ‘[s]uicidal behaviour is best seen as a cry of pain—a response elicited by this situation of [cognitive] entrapment—and only secondarily as an attempt to communicate or change people or things in the environment.’ In so doing, as Owens and Lambert (this volume) demonstrate in their ‘deep reading’ of psychological autopsies of suicides in southwest England, popular ideas and understandings of suicidal behaviour are removed from the analysis—ideas and understandings that are highly likely to shape pathways to suicidal behaviour and thus may prove crucial in developing more socially and culturally appropriate prevention and treatment strategies.
Responding to the wider problem of how official categories and stereotypes map on to actual instances of suicidal behaviours and vice versa, the first two papers of this special issue are concerned, among other things, with the creation and use of the wider categories—such as those of the state and transnational institutions—that define or shape how suicide is understood, practised and classified in different contexts. Chua’s paper, firstly, explores ethnographically how specific instances of what are labelled as suicides in the south Indian state of Kerala are interpreted and responded to in relation to archetypes provided by 24 state taxonomies. These categories, in turn, also serve as pervasive shorthand for discussing wider social patterns in the state. Bodies dead from suicide are not, she argues, interpreted and mourned solely in terms of their own histories, but are read ‘up’ to fit, and to stand in for, aggregate trends: what she terms ‘epidemic readings’ of suicide. The death of, say, a student, might be categorised in ways that speak to wider issues concerning pressure on young people to achieve academically; to the problem of failed love affairs; to changed financial circumstances; and, more generally, to overriding themes—discussed ad nauseam in the South Indian media—of social decline.
As Chua also demonstrates, however (and this is something that comes across strongly in many of the other papers, too), the extent to which families are constrained or enabled by those taxonomies in making sense of deaths presumed to be suicides varies considerably depending on social position, defined, among other things, in relation to class and gender. The middle class relatives of a student found dead, for example, were able to argue against the suicide verdict on the basis that his circumstances failed to fit the state’s rigid classifications of causalities. He was doing well academically; he was not involved with a girl or suffering unrequited love; and he was financially well-positioned—ergo, despite the circumstances in which he was found, his death could not be suicide. Conversely, a domestic servant was unable to argue that her son was murdered—a plausible explanation given his particular biography—because his death fulfilled too many of the stereotypes of suicide to be considered as anything but. Unlike the middle class family, the domestic servant also lacked the authority and the wherewithal to negotiate the system in her favour—a point which starts to draw out social differences between people, and their capacities to manage official categories, within a particular ethnographic locale.
Widger’s paper likewise explores how suicide stereotypes are constituted, used, and contested, both by the villagers he worked with in Sri Lanka and by the state, albeit to different ends. For the villagers, suicides were attributed to social consequences—they resulted from suffering, frustration or anger which, ultimately, could be traced back to the quotidian realities of their daily lives. Suicide was understood as a rational response to unbearable circumstances by people who had little or no access to alternatives. As was the case in Chua’s paper, however, state classifications which, on the face of it, mirror those of local people, in fact draw on grander explanatory frameworks, pathologising suicide as dysfunctional rather than a logical consequence of particular circumstances. State categories of anger, frustration and depression, unlike their emic counterparts, frame suicide in what are expressed as value-free terms that can be objectively compared across historical epochs and social groups. In fact, Widger shows, they draw specifically from sociological and psychological theories like the frustration–aggression hypothesis. Whereas Chua restricts her analysis to the particular categories of the contemporary Keralan state, Widger also illustrates how these taxonomies shift across time and across social registers: official categories took shape, in Sri Lanka, in relation to projects of the colonial and post-colonial state and, more recently, to the transnational hegemony of biomedicine and western psychiatry.
At the same time, however, for some social groups and classes formal or state discourses of suicide serve their interests as well, and the realities of suicide they purport to show do correspond in form and function with their own ‘folk’ theories. As Widger argues, there is no hegemony in the way that the state develops and applies suicide categories, but rather on-going processes of claim and counter-claim as they are appropriated by different people for different ends. Some people in Sri Lanka, then, will find solace in a diagnosis of depression, while others will not. For precisely this reason it is simply not enough for anthropologists to dismiss the formal (sociological, psychological, state, or whatever) theories they encounter, but rather they need to examine more critically how etic and emic theories correspond, and why they correspond. This is the concern of the next five papers, which explore how specific instances of suicide are made sense of across very different contexts. In the next section we discuss the contributions of those papers against the wider context of the ethnographic endeavour, over the past century or so, to understand suicide in locally specific terms.
The Efficacy of Suicidal Behaviour—Understanding from Within
As early as the late nineteenth century anthropologists were noting that suicide outside of northern Europe and (white) North America did not fit the sociological or psychological models popular at the time. Steinmetz (1894, p. 59), writing in the pages of American Anthropologist, argued that suicide was far more prevalent in ‘primitive’ societies than sociologists such as Morselli (Durkheim’s forebear) had allowed for, who considered suicide a correlate of increasing civilisation. Durkheim himself used Steinmetz to support his discussion of altruistic suicide, through which he set up his opposition of Western egoistic/anomic suicide and non-Western altruistic/fatalistic suicide.
Several decades later Malinowski published what was once considered to be ‘the best known suicide [case study] in the ethnographic literature’ (Bohannan 1960, p. 4). Today, it has perhaps become one of the most over-looked elements of Malinowski’s work, especially given that his ‘protest’ kind of suicide is found in various ways in so many other parts of the world. The essence of Malinowski’s argument, laid out in Crime and Custom in Savage Society (1949), was this: Durkheim and the sociologists study suicide as a measure of social integration and moral regulation, when in fact in the Trobriand Islands it exists as a social institution in its own right. Acts of suicidal behaviour, when performed under certain conditions and when employing certain kinds of methods, are well known to act as a kind of complaint or challenge to specific others, with whom the suicidal individual is in some quarrel. By attempting or committing suicide, the individual lays blame upon those others, who by social convention the kinsmen of the suicidal person are now compelled to seek revenge upon. Thus, not only is the suicidal person absolved of his or her crime, but culpability for it, in one way or another, passes to other people.
If there could be any suspicion that such practices were particular to the Trobriand Islands, Giddens (1964) demonstrated through a brief review of other ethnographic accounts how suicide as a ‘social mechanism’ (ibid, p. 166) existed across American, African and Asian societies. Similarly, Malinowski’s ‘functionalist’ account has been echoed by anthropologists working within quite different theoretical traditions. Studies published on suicide in Melanesia and Micronesia by American ‘cultural’ anthropologists (e.g. Berndt 1962; Counts 1980; Healey 1979; Johnson 1981) have repeatedly demonstrated how suicide exists as a socially legitimate means of protest when other, more ‘direct’ forms are not allowed by social convention, for example in the context of gender inequality. The same kinds of arguments have been made about suicide in China (Wolf 1975; Lee and Kleinman 2000), India (Staples 2012a, b; Verrier 1943), Sri Lanka (Marecek & Senadheera 2012; Spencer 1990; Widger 2009, 2012), Peru (Brown 1986), Tikopia (Firth 2000) and many other places besides, including large swaths of East Africa (Bohannan 1960). Giddens (1964, p. 116) proposed that suicide attempts in ‘modern society,’ by which one supposes he meant ‘Western’ or ‘industrialised’ societies, could be read in the same way: ‘attempted suicide often does not simply represent an “unsuccessful” attempt to obtain a final release from pain or anxiety…[but] has a distinctly social character.’ This point has recently been argued again by Littlewood (2002), who argued that self-harm in the UK could be understood as a means by which the socially ‘subdominant’ can challenge the dominant.
Although reporting on suicide in widely different societies from across the world, each of these studies have nevertheless approached the subject from very similar angles and come up with very similar explanations. First, they, like Malinowski, have tended to dismiss Durkheim’s theory of suicide as being inapplicable in different cultural contexts to the one in which it was created.Footnote 5 The terms ‘egoism,’ ‘altruism,’ ‘anomy’ and ‘fatalism’ have been argued as having no local equivalent in non-European societies, even when discussing suicidal behaviour in contexts of social change, which has of course been a perennial problem in the modernising and globalising locations where anthropologists have worked. As such, it has been difficult for anthropologists completely to dispense with Durkheim’s notions of status change or status loss as implied by the theory of anomy, and in that sense Durkheim has tended to reappear via the back door. Nevertheless, the dramatic context of suicide as implied by anomic suicide has been replaced instead by a focus on the everyday occurrence of suicide, albeit often set against a backdrop of change.
A feature of the South Pacific studies has been precisely this sense of ‘normalcy during crisis.’ According to Marshall (1979, p. 78), suicide was during the middle of the twentieth century the leading cause of death for Micronesian men aged between 15 and 30 years; Rubinstein (1986 cited by Counts 1991, p. 217) reports that during the 1960s and 1970s the male suicide rate doubled every 4 years. While setting these rates within the context of social change, suicide too has been understood in relation to an apparently highly stable set of values concerning the expression of frustration and rage, especially towards elders (ibid, p. 218). Trukese suicide, for example, was found by Hezel (1985, pp. 115–116) to occur in the context of conflict between family members that were antagonised by change but regulated by feelings of ‘amwunumwun,’ a mixture of anger, frustration and resentment that an individual feels towards higher status family members with whom one is in conflict (Counts 1991, p. 218). As Hezel (1985, pp. 115–116) suggests: ‘amwunumwun is not intended principally to inflict revenge… but to dramatize one’s anger, frustration and sorrow in the hope that the present situation will soon be remedied… Suicide, in the overwhelming majority of Trukese cases, must be understood as a kind of amwunumwun.’ The stresses and strains of abnormal social change are thus, in Trukese, lived through an established and perfectly ‘ordinary’ social and emotional way of being, of which suicide becomes just another example.
Secondly, by working with and through local terms and conceptions, not only of ‘suicide’ but of associated notions of self, personhood and sociality, anthropologists who study suicidal behaviour avoid always having to think in terms of ‘self’-harm and ‘self’-inflicted death—as well as the underlying assumption of ‘self-murder.’ Although we inevitably seem to choose those ‘technical’ translations when writing up our data, the formative experiences gained in the field when working in the vernacular seems to be enough to resist the urge to individualise a priori a suicide death. What the existing ethnography seems to suggest is that just as, if not more, important than the ‘self’ is the ‘other,’ in that what one person does to him or herself, he or she does to other people—both the causes and consequences of suicidal behaviour are relational. While this is not to deny the ‘self’ in its many various guises, and nor indeed to suggest that in some places it’s only ever about the ‘other’—we agree with that growing number of scholars who argue that the distinction has been overdrawn in both directions (e.g. Carsten 2004; Sahlins 2011a, b; Spiro 1993; Staples 2003)—it is to argue that one of the most important lessons that the anthropology of suicidal behaviour has to offer is that the act occurs within a nexus of bodies and relationships, in which ‘self’ and ‘other’ provides some form for meaning but always collapse back into each other, while also being designated and defined by acts of suicidal behaviour.
In trying to understand suicide in this way, anthropologists might well be accused of doing what psychologists, psychiatrists and other outsiders do. While the latter transform quotidian experience by ‘medicalising’ it, anthropologists, as Kleinman (1995, p. 96) points out, are in danger of ‘anthropologising’ it. One way of confronting this issue, and broadly the approach taken here, is to interpret meaning not through external categories—except to the extent that those categories also shape the experiences of those we work with—but in terms of their own, emic categories and logics. Such a task is never straightforward, as our discussion above about the relationship between the etic and the emic makes clear, and reflection on how much we achieve this is anyway perhaps more valuable than a counsel of perfection. Nevertheless, the most obvious and most successful way of achieving it is to locate our studies of suicide within wider long term ethnographic engagements with the places in which those suicides take place. Each of the authors of the second set of papers attempt precisely that. Significantly, they find that their analyses do—for all the specifities they painstakingly tease out—draw them back to the anthropological interest in suicide as a kind of social action, communication and protest.
Imberton’s contribution, on suicide among the Mayan-Chol indigenous people of Southern Mexico comes first, in part because it offers a bridge from the universalising taxonomies that Chua and Widger describe to the more locally specific explanations that account for self-inflicted deaths. While official taxonomies are fixated on the autonomous suicidal individual, the Chol, Imberton tells us, perceive themselves not as individuals but as constituted of numerous animic entities. As such they were vulnerable to a range of supernatural beings and forces, including witchcraft, which acted upon them and shaped their intentions. A death that might officially be classified as self-inflicted, for example, for the Chol might be attributable to external forces over which the individual had no control. What is interesting here, however, is how, in the rapidly changing social context in which the Chol live, individualised explanations of suicide—blaming family problems, responses to incurable diseases or disagreements over inheritances, for instance—have also become prominent, but without supplanting supernatural explanations. Rather, the Chol appear to have expanded their repertoire of explanatory models, drawing upon different explanations in different contexts or, sometimes, combining apparently contradictory notions on an ad hoc basis to make sense of the otherwise inexplicable.
Stories of suicides, then, also tell stories about social groups in flux, while providing a means by which social groups can, in turn, tell stories about themselves living through a time of flux. For the Chol, the necessity of economic migration, exposure to consumerism, and state involvement in such areas as education and transport infrastructure, have collectively transformed their ways of living and, consequently, exposed them to alternative modes of explaining death. That radical social change emerges as a dominant motif in this and several of the other papers is not, we suggest, a coincidence, particularly in light of existing research that connects neoliberalism to a rise in particular kinds of suicide (Chua 2011; Livingston 2009; Parry 2012; Staples 2012b). While social change and suicide are, as Durkheim foresaw, related, the ways in which they interact are complex and not always predictable.
For Billaud, whose paper follows Imberton’s, the upheaval caused by the current war in Afghanistan is seen as opening up new spaces in which discontent can be voiced in culturally intelligible expressive forms. Greater freedoms, paradoxically, have led to higher numbers of women committing suicide; because, in part, it offers for the first time a culturally acceptable way through which women might protest against those same social values. Suicide attempts and self-harm are, she argues, facets of the ‘art of the weak’ (de Certeau 1984). For the college students of Billaud’s paper, however, those suicide attempts also index the difficulty, for women in particular, of re-imagining themselves in a newly liberalised urban space at dissonance with the expectations of their families and communities. As was the case for the Chol, stories of suicide in Afghanistan tell us not simply about deaths, but communicate narratives of dramatic social change.
The dissonances Billaud captures so well are evident in other places where suicide rates are rising too, as Kral’s ongoing collaborative research among young Inuit in Nunavut, Canada, makes clear. In a contribution which also explores alternative ways of carrying out suicide research (see below), Kral argues that social changes imposed by an external cultural force—in this case the Canadian Government—have diminished the social functions previously met by Inuit social institutions, including kinship ties and particular styles of parenting. Inuit practices have been challenged, for example, by the imposition of the Canadian education system. As Kral also argues, however, responses to such impositions must take full account of cultural specificities if they are to succeed in their own terms of reducing suicide rates, and anthropologists are uniquely positioned to explain such specificities to external agencies.
Social upheaval does not in itself increase the propensity for people to take their own lives, however, as Dabbagh’s paper on suicide among Palestinians shows. In the case she describes, the backdrop is the turmoil wreaked by the intifada against Israeli military occupation of the Gaza strip and the West Bank, between 1987 and 1993. Although large numbers of people died during these uprisings, suicide rates among Palestinians were notably low during this period because, Dabbagh uses the ethnography to argue (here mirroring Durkheim), the intifada was socially unifying (see also Dabbagh 2005). In the years that followed it, however, the rate of suicides—as elsewhere, committed in response to the socio-economic, political and cultural specificities of Palestinians’ everyday lives—climbed back up. And like those cases described by Imberton, Billaud and Kral, the overriding explanations given for such acts, despite the fact that they were carried out in socially specific ways in response to very particular sets of circumstances, were strikingly uniform. People took their own lives as a means of escape and protest—albeit about a range of different social problems—when they were denied the agency they might otherwise draw upon to manage those problems. Imberton’s Chol informants escaped catalogues of everyday troubles and, sometimes, expressed their anger by committing suicide. For the students Billaud encountered in Kabal, meanwhile, poetry (in its various forms) and suicide or self-harm are presented as the only viable media through which young women might communicate their distress. The Inuit youth of Kral’s descriptions, too, expressed their frustrations at the parents from whom they had been alienated by killing themselves in formulaic ways. And for the protagonists for Dabbagh’s evocative case studies, suicide becomes an option when other, everyday, forms of protest are ignored.
For Niehaus’s informants in Bushbuckridge, South Africa, protest also featured high in popular explanations of suicide, particularly among women who, he found, killed themselves in protest against the worst excesses of masculine domination. What he also demonstrates, however, is that suicidal behaviours are shaped not only by class identity, as we have already seen, but by gender. Men, he argues, commit suicide not so much in protest as to escape the constraints of masculine expectations. While one might quibble over the distinction between ‘protest’ and ‘escape’—could men, for example, also be characterised as protesting against the norms to which they are expected to conform?—the significant points here, and those which tie a common thread through all the papers in this section, are: (a) that age cohorts, gender and class—as well as all the other identity categories people live by, and which our contributors draw out so effectively—are important in understanding how suicide might be interpreted in particular locations; and (b) that—despite the socio-cultural specificities that ethnography throws light upon—under-lying explanations for suicide are remarkably similar across diverse contexts.
We might, of course, argue that we find commonalities both because we define suicide in a particular way and because we use particular anthropological categories—akin to the official taxonomies critiqued in the opening papers—to understand them. It is important to remain alert to the possibilities of such traps, but this is not, we would argue, a valid criticism here. Indeed, in all the papers in this volume there is evidence of a concerted effort to chronicle the specific: to interpret individual cases of what have been locally defined as suicides in terms both of proximate circumstances—understood through rich ethnographic understanding of the locales in question—and the wider, but still local, background of economic and political events, from war and popular uprisings to heavy-handed government interventions. There is also a sustained attempt to analyse findings in terms of informants’ own categories, with careful attention to the idioms through which suicide acts are responded to. And yet, even when we work against the grain in actively seeking out difference—a point well made by Parry (2012) in his study of suicide in the steel-town of Bilai, central India—we still keep returning to the same broad classifications.
It is true, of course, that acts which might be referred to in, say, Britain, as suicides, in some of the other places encountered in this volume might be understood as something altogether different (although Owens’ and Lambert’s work on suicide in the UK—this volume—also challenge those taken-for-granted British classifications). Willerslev’s (2009) argument that what are officially classified as suicides among the Chukchi of Northern Siberia are, in fact, better understood as blood sacrifices—a ritual inversion of suicide—springs to mind in particular, and, in this volume, both Dabbagh (with her reference to the so-called ‘suicide bombers’ in west Asia; see also Asad 2007; Hage 2003) and Imberton (whose informants differentiated between suicides and deaths caused by, for example, witchcraft) likewise problematise the notion of suicide. But even in these contexts, there are also deaths that are locally explained with reference to more generalisable categories.
Could it be that to kill oneself—regardless of whether one is held individually responsible for that act of otherwise—is universally seen as such a powerful act of destruction that cross-cultural nuances in what those acts might mean are over-shadowed by what they have in common? Or might it also be that the official taxonomies we critique in the opening papers have become sufficiently hegemonic to obscure difference? The answer, in both cases, must be a qualified yes, although this should encourage us to explore even more closely the ways of which these similarities are different. We also need to be alert to the fact, as Widger’s paper makes clear, that superficially similar categories might be understood very differently by, for example, psychiatrists and the lay people who make use of them in everyday life.
Regaining Control—Limiting the Impact of Suicidal Behaviour
What is also interesting is that, whatever those who kill themselves intend—consciously or otherwise—to communicate by ending their lives, meaning is not fixed at the point of death, simply waiting to be read, but continues to be made through events that follow. This is, broadly speaking, what the remaining papers explore. What these papers demonstrate is how people after the fact seek to limit the efficacy of suicide, or their own responsibility for the suicide, and thus transform, or perhaps create afresh, meanings and popular readings of suicide.
Owens and Lambert, firstly, draw on interviews with relatives of 100 people from the southwest of England whose deaths were recorded as suicides, to explore how the past is reconstructed by those left behind. In addition to highlighting—like Niehaus—stark differences in how the suicides of men and women are made sense of, they also show the work done both to preserve the moral integrity of the deceased that may have been threatened by the suicidal act, and to remove any suggestion of their own culpability that the act might have implied. Women’s suicides, for the most part, are pathologised and explained with reference to mental illness. Male suicides—explained in more heterogeneous terms—are often talked about with reference to possession-like states (an explanation that parallels—and thus challenges again a simplistic ‘west versus the rest’ dichotomy, or the ‘culture of suicide’ view—those given by the Mexican Chol of Imberton’s description), or the victims are cast in the role of tragic hero.
For Toulson, whose fieldwork focuses on funerals and mortuary practices in Singapore, the reconstruction of the past alluded to in Owens’ and Lambert’s paper is even more explicit. Here, through the performance of funeral rituals, relatives of the deceased often play out a performance designed to silence, or at least obscure, whatever message the original suicide might have been said to convey, and, like Owens’ and Lambert’s informants, shifts blame for the death away from themselves. At their most successful, a funeral might even redefine the death as an unfortunate accident rather than a suicide at all, marking out an alternative—more idealised—life path for the deceased. The suicide of an elderly woman that might have marked her son as unfilial—given that suicides here, too, were read as protests—was re-scripted by her descendants as a ‘good death’ through public rituals, while the body of a student who had escaped the pressures of life by jumping from a balcony was sent into the afterlife with the burning of a paper replica of a graduation gown and degree diploma. Such reconfiguring of deaths, as in the cases Chua described in Kerala, depends on the varying capacities of those left behind to shape events, but they also show, as Toulson points out, the spaces within apparently rigid rituals for innovation and communication.
Finally, Picone’s paper, in drawing our attention to the role of popular religion in making sense of suicides in Japan, also takes us beyond the event of the death itself, as well as dovetailing nicely with the papers that opened the collection by referring back to the broad taxonomies through which suicides are officially classified. She begins with the assertion that the categories that have dominated research on suicide in Japan—drawn both from Durkheim’s typologies and Ruth Benedict’s setting out of broad cultural patterns in her best-selling ethnography The Chrysanthemum and the Sword (2006)—have blinded scholars to the quotidian explanations drawn upon in everyday life. As was the case for those Toulson worked with in Singapore, for many Japanese people, Picone tells us, a suicide is a ‘bad death’, with the spirits of the deceased consequently remaining close to the world and causing problems for the living. This is not, she demonstrates, simply a mythical construction, but is taken literally in ways that has very real implications for the living. Estate agents, for example, claim they are unable to sell properties in which a person has committed suicide because people fear that the spirit will remain, and landlords have even gone as far as attempting to claim lost rent from the kin of suicide casualties, on the grounds that they can no longer let the property. Here, it might be argued, the narrative not only continues after the suicide—as set out so neatly in Owens’ and Lambert’s and Toulson’s papers—but shapes the context in which subsequent suicides take place, since people can foresee the ways in which their deaths might be interpreted. It also throws light on why the families Toulson describes go to such lengths to present the suicides of their kin in more favourable light.