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  • Suicide in Sri Lanka: The Anthropology of an Epidemic by Tom Widger
  • M. W. Amarasiri de Silva and Steven M. Albert
Tom Widger, Suicide in Sri Lanka: The Anthropology of an Epidemic (Routledge Contemporary South Asia Series). New York: Routledge, 2014. 222 pp.

Anthropology deals with "living people in small places" (Eriksen 2001). In this sense suicide raises fundamental issues for anthropologists. The person who commits suicide successfully dies and is, by definition, not available for interviewing. This may explain why anthropologists mostly pay little attention to suicide. Researchers who have ventured into this field, most notably Durkheim (1951), have had to rely on second hand information, such as published statistics, postmortem reports, hospital records, letters left behind, and interviews with survivors. Yet suicide is clearly a cultural event demanding study. Its incidence varies across societies and by social status within a society. It disrupts social relationships but can also be used to assign blame and provoke guilt to accomplish social goals. How people talk about it (or not) may reveal strong moral preferences: for example, even to consider a death a suicide is often contested.

In Suicide in Sri Lanka: The Anthropology of an Epidemic, Tom Widger has taken on the task of examining the social dynamics of suicide in Sri Lanka. Chapter 1 states the anthropological rationale for the study of suicide. The author notes that suicide is a learned behavior emerging from defined social contexts and not just an expression of psychopathology. Chapter 2 describes the context of suicide in Madampe, a suburb of Colombo, and gives detailed description of "arenas" of suicidal practice, such as police stations and police investigations, coroners' courts where suicide deaths are recorded and investigated, and hospitals and mental health clinics where attempted suicides are "treated." In Chapter 3, "Suicide There and Suicide Here," Widger ethnographically locates [End Page 531] suicides in Madampe (here) within the broader context of suicides in Sri Lanka (there). Chapter 4 focuses on the ways people in the village explain suicides using case studies, with a particular focus on kinship ties. Chapter 5 proposes an indigenous typology of suicides: "suffering," "frustration," or "anger" suicides. Chapters 6 and 7 look at suicidal practices pertaining to young people's romantic involvement and adult suicides, which are analyzed in relation to alcohol, migration, masculinity, and female infidelities. Chapter 8 examines suicide relative to popular Buddhist concepts. The concluding chapter explores implications of the "suicide process" in Sri Lanka.

Suicide in Sri Lanka (like India) mostly involves ingesting poison in the form of pesticides and fertilizers. Widger was motivated to examine suicide because its incidence in Sri Lanka is among the highest in the world. He also suggests that the features of suicide in Sri Lanka allow researchers to examine the key role of social and cultural factors in what is typically considered a psychiatric disorder. He draws on many years of experience in Madampe, Sri Lanka, where he first served as a volunteer with a social services organization and later returned for fieldwork.

Previous studies in Sri Lanka attribute its high suicide rates to factors associated with social change, such as the disintegration of family and other kinship systems, conflicts between parents and children, the mismatch between expectations created by modernization and traditional practices and behaviors, conflicts relating to marriage and extramarital relationships, the breakdown of love relationships, migration, and dislocation (Berger 1988; Silva and Pushpakumara 1996; Marecek 1998, 2006). Most of these studies fail to explain why other populations in similar social contexts have lower rates of suicide. Studies that focus on social change also inadvertently put the blame on the individual who commits suicide for lack of courage, poor resilience, or inability to adapt. A related approach sees suicide as a kind of drama or performance involving protests or complaints, again based on conflicts between traditional practices and changes in social roles. Studying females who had attempted suicide and who had been hospitalized for treatment, Marecek (1998) saw suicides as "performative" challenges to traditional views of female sexual comportment.

The great weakness of these studies is their neglect of class and social hierarchies in the discussion of putative risk factors, such as "social environment," "harsh realities...


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pp. 531-535
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