Image: Flowers and seeds of the yellow oleander ('kaneru') plant. The seeds are a very popular method of self-harm and suicide in Sri Lanka
Anthropology of Self-Harm & Suicide
The Sri Lankan 'suicide epidemic'
By the final decade of the 20th century, rates of suicide in Sri Lanka ranked amongst the highest in the world. Rapidly increasing year on year from the middle of the 20th century, between 1983 and 1993 more than 90,000 people were known to have committed suicide. For the past ten years I've been conducting anthropological research into the causes of suicide in Sri Lanka.
What is the anthropology of suicide?
In its broadest sense anthropology is the study of human nature in social and cultural context. As an anthropologist I'm interested in explaining both the universality and the local specificity of features of human sociality, one example of which is the capacity to commit acts of self-harm and self-inflicted death. The anthropology of suicide is, then, the study of suicide as a universal feature of human beings' social and psychological make up within specific times and places.
What has my work involved?
Between October 2004 and June 2006 I conducted ethnographic, clinical, survey, and archival research in a small per-urban locality in western Sri Lanka. Working in two village communities and a range of organisations in the area that managed the prevention and treatment of suicidal behaviour, I collected data relating to how people understood and performed suicidal behaviours, and the kinds of problems that led them to doing so. This included collecting detailed individual case histories, recording popular understandings and ideas about suicidal behaviour, and mapping features of local social structures including of caste, class, kinship, and religion.
What have my findings been?
My research revealed how locally epidemiological patterns of suicidal behaviour reflect the class and kinship structure. In particular, acts of self-harm and self-inflicted death were found to arise in response to the breaking of core kinship rights, duties, and obligations, or as a challenge to inflexibilities or contradictions within the system. In either case, the morality of kinship was closely associated with the causes of suicidal behaviour, as the 'inevitability' or 'evitability' of kin relationships was negotiated and lived in practice.
My work also revealed how popular understandings of suicidal behaviour are deeply class contingent, and related to colonial and post-colonial systems of governance. The data suggests that individuals of different social groups and classes have different understandings of what kind of behaviour suicide is, and what its possible causes and consequences might be. These different understandings help to define the reality of suicidal behaviour for people, and must be taken into consideration when trying to develop suicide management and prevention strategies.
Finally, my work has revealed that despite all the social and cultural specificity revealed by my work, clear 'universal' features appear, including the use of suicidal behaviour as a kind of communication. Cross-cultural work suggests that this function of suicidal behaviour appears around the world, while the work of ethologists and primatologists points to an evolutionary basis for this.
What implications does my work have?
Primarily, my work highlights how anthropology can illuminate suicide studies and is essential for the development of appropriate management and prevention strategies across different cultural settings, both in 'the West' and around the world. The research methods and theoretical models I have developed have a strong comparative value, and may be of interest to others working in the field. I am extremely interested, therefore, in developing links with other researchers and practitioners. To this end, I curate the Forum for Suicide and Culture Research, which links to news, publications, resources, reviews and discussions in the field of cross-cultural suicide research and interventions.
© Tom Widger 2010