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Exploring children’s worlds through their stuff

15 March, 2013

Okay, the blog has been inactive for a while but I’d like to try and breathe some new life into it. To kick things off, here is a nice photo essay doing the social media rounds at the moment. The photos, which show children from a range of countries with their most “prized possessions”, their toys, give us an interesting view into their lives through their material worlds.

Cun Zi Yi – Chongqing, China

The project’s author, Italian photographer, Gabriele Galimberti, sees this study as anthropological in nature and he argues that children’s  relationships to their toys can throw light on both universalities and differences in the experience of childhood. For example, children are all the same in that they essentially want to play,

But it’s how they play that seemed to differ from country to country. Galimberti found that children in richer countries were more possessive with their toys and that it took time before they allowed him to play with them (which is what he would do pre-shoot before arranging the toys), whereas in poorer countries he found it much easier to quickly interact, even if there were just two or three toys between them.

The photos are very effective at conveying at a glance all sorts of information about the lives of these kids, including contrasts in living conditions, income levels and the gendering of childhood. There is also something quite intimate about the shots of the kids with their favourite loot which also helps to convey that stuff is never “just stuff” but an integral part of how we make, and are made by, our material worlds.

But as well as intimacy the essay is also testimony to the ubiquity of capitalism. All the kids display stuff that was made in factories, even Chiwa from Malawi, in one of the more poignant images, standing among the mosquito nets in what appears to be a very basic brick hut, showing off a couple of stuffed kitties and a plastic dinosaur. It might seem like an obvious point, but all these kids are making their intimate worlds with objects that begin their lives as mass-produced and anonymous commodities. I wonder if it’s this fact which cause the photos, even those showing kids in relatively affluent contexts, to evoke a certain pathos in me?

Chiwa from Malawi.

 

Plastic Matters in Sydney

18 October, 2012
by Jennifer Anayo (Graduate of the Master of Applied Anthropology program at Macquarie University) 
 

Plastic is ‘highly visible’ in food packaging, plastic carry bags at the check-out and the many applications of plastic in the food and beverage service. Due to these consumer experiences, plastic is often linked with notions of disposability, convenience, and low financial cost. Our interactions with them are for short periods of time, and often taken for granted. Similarly, since plastic has found its place in every-day consumer products, and the banal and mundane functions of daily life, plastic often fades into the background, ‘invisible’ until attention is brought to it.

Commonly, we understand the things we buy, use or get given as ‘objects’. Dichter points out that the objects we own reveal a great deal about ourselves, and that studying objects is a useful way to find out about people and gain insight into, as he puts it, “the soul of man” (Dichter 2004: 91). Traditionally, the study of material culture has focused on ‘objects’ and their relationship with humanity. However in this case, my interest lies not the object itself, but the material it is made of – plastic. Having a design background, I became interested in the impact that this material has on the culture of Sydney.

Bottles and Health

Bundanoon is a country town, southwest of Sydney, and in July of 2009, the town was the first in Australia (possibly the world) to ban the sale of pre-packaged, bottled water. Wingecarribee Shire Council installed several public water fountains, and the town’s retailers removed bottled water from their shelves. This response was sparked by commercial interest to extract spring water within the Bundanoon precinct (Roderick, 26 September, 2009). The townspeople found the idea of an international company taking their water, processing it on a separate site, and then selling it back to them in their local shops ridiculous. Local businessman, Huw Kingston is quoted in Southern Highland News: “If we were saying we were against water extraction, the logical step is to say no to the end product” (Murray, 9 July 2009). Huw led the petition against Norlex and the ban of bottled water in the township. Since 2009, several schools and universities across Australia, which are small towns in themselves, have adopted similar bans in a stance against the environmental impacts of bottled water (list of schools and universities are on www.gotap.com.au).

In 2008, research into use of public water fountains was commissioned by Do Something, a not-for-profit organisation that works to create positive social and environmental change. The study found that 85% of Australians do not trust the water that comes out of old-fashioned water fountains (Manly council website). Concern over water quality and cleanliness has led to a reduction in the use of public water fountains. As a result, water fountains have disappeared from public precincts over the years. Do Something’s study also linked these statistics to the increase in Australia’s use of bottled water. In conjunction with Do Something, the Manly council chose to take a stand against bottled water. Manly council has installed over twenty public water stations along Manly Beach and surrounds, to encourage a culture of re-filling and re-use. I have personally re-filled my drink bottle in Manly, and appreciate the convenience.

The Manly water fountain initiative was trialled with six water stations, before installing more, upon its popularity and success.  Manly Water estimates that from August of 2008, when the stations were installed, and the time of review, May of 2009 the six water fountains prevented the purchase of 150,000 litres of bottled water. This potentially translates into a quarter of a million plastic water bottles removed from the waste stream. The council also reports that there is a 15-29% decrease in volume of garbage collected in the area where the water fountains are, presumably due to the drop in the consumption of plastic bottles (Manly council website).

Four years ago, I started carrying around my own refillable drink bottle. I still have the same one. I bought it because I had joined the gym, and it became a necessity. The gym has conveniently placed water stations throughout, and the idea is that you can take a sip there, or fill up your bottle and go about your work-out. Of course, the gym also sells bottled water at the front reception, but who would spend $3, when you could get chilled, filtered water for free? I also received a free drink bottle with their ‘welcome pack,’ but I couldn’t use it. I didn’t like the ‘plastic’ smell. And I wanted to avoid the ‘plastic’ taste that I had experienced in the past. In the interim, I maintained the option of refilling one of those disposable spring water bottles, which I had saved several weeks before. However, I was hesitant to continue with this practice as I had heard you shouldn’t re-use them – that chemicals in the bottle can leach into the water, which obviously would be bad for you.

Whilst checking into the gym a couple of weeks into my membership, there was a new line of drink bottles on display. I was attracted to the shiny silver one – not plastic! (Well the lid is plastic, but the body is metal.) It was only $5, so the smart thing to do was to commit. I had to commit to a new way of life. I started bringing my bottle with me wherever I went, not just to the gym. I fill it at home before a day of shopping and hope that I find a place to re-fill — which is often hard. Some takeaway places like McDonald’s and most coffee shops don’t mind filling your bottle as long as you’re paying for something else. I have my bottle on me in class; I use it throughout the day at work. And I even use it whilst I’m at home.

Plastic Worlds

Both Manly and Bundanoon highlight the environmental debates prevalent in our society today. We are challenged to reduce our environmental impact by changing our consumption habits and in particular, by cutting out plastic. Plastic is a very large part of our material reality, yet we often do not give it a second thought. Plastics are currently used in the value chains for a majority of manufactured products in the world. They have been on the forefront of product innovation and development for more than 150 years. Plastic has found its place in nearly every sphere, field and profession. Our modern technological and social ‘advancements’ would not be as they are, without the help of plastics. Plastics have helped fade class distinctions and raise living standards. Ironically, plastic was first sought out as an ‘environmentally friendly’ solution, it stopped the slaughter of elephants for ivory, it increases manufacturing efficiency, and reduces costs. However in our minds, these positives are outweighed by the negative environmental and health impacts of plastic we have heard about in the media.

Like many of the people I’ve interviewed, I don’t actually think about plastic all that much. Yet on the occasion I do, my thoughts are both negative and positive. Plastic bags, bottles, disposable plates and spoons come to mind… The hundreds of Lego blocks my brothers and I would build up and break down, as children. I am reminded of plastic Coke can rings strangling albatross, penguins and sea turtles. I laugh about the huge collection of plastic bags my mother stores in the garage, which I’m sure dates back to a time even before I was born. And as I have grown up and matured in a world with plastic, I honestly can’t imagine a world without it. I could really identify with Susan Freinkel’s book, Plastic, A Toxic Love Story (2011, Pg 2):

It wasn’t clear to me just how plastic my world had become until I decided to go an entire day without plastic. The absurdity of this experiment became apparent about ten seconds into the appointed morning when I shuffled bleary-eyed into the bathroom: the toilet seat was plastic. I quickly reversed my plan. I would spend the day writing everything I touched that was plastic… Within forty-five minutes I had filled an entire page… I’d never thought of myself as having a particularly plastic-filled life. I live in a house that’s nearly a hundred years old. I like natural fabrics, old furniture, food cooked from scratch. I would have said my home harbours less plastic than the average American’s – mainly for aesthetic reasons, not political ones. Was I kidding myself?

I too have furnished my home and bought my appliances seeking to create a look and feel, in which I generally avoid plastic. However, I can say that it is hard to avoid plastic completely, many objects disguise their use of plastic very well and in some instances I actually prefer the plastic option. When I made the commitment to my re-usable drink bottle, I was definitely aware of the positive environmental impact I was making by consuming fewer plastic bottles, however it was not the only factor in my decision making process. I weighed up usability, practicality, cost and aesthetics. I also asked myself if I could do it – was I able to make room for remembering, maintaining and re-filling a bottle in my life? Disposable bottled water have become a popular convenience, especially as public water fountains have slowly disappeared. Whether we deliberately avoid or are ignorant to the presence of plastic, plastic has become essential in our day-to-day lives. We have come to rely on this material. It has become so ubiquitous that we are often blinded to its omnipresence in our lives. Yet ironically, on the other hand, plastic is a glaring point of contention in environmental debates about bottled water, plastic bags, and waste management – all of which skew our overall perception of plastic.

My respondents identify the place, look, feel and even a sound of plastic. They recognise that objects have a mix of materials, can distinguish between them, and employ a ‘litmus test’ – flicking and tapping to positively confirm the presence of plastic. We further explored where plastic is accepted and rejected – where, when and why. I found it interesting to discover a link between notions of disposability, convenience, and its impact on other products when presented in plastic. We see that plastic is not acceptable in certain forms. Strong resistance or expressions of distaste is evident when my respondents were offered an engagement ring made of plastic. There is discord between the temporality, convenience, ‘cheap-ness’ and ‘fake-ness’ of plastic, with objects of high value and status. We find a disconnect with the value, wealth, status and purity, required to qualify as a bottle of wine, a car or tea-pot.

Modernity’s Partner

Freinkel (2011) claims that plastic is modernity’s partner, with which we have a love–hate relationship. Many of my respondents feel the tension between modern conveniences and the ten minutes it takes to drink a takeaway coffee, and the apparent tens of thousands of years it takes to break down its packaging – making it a mathematical, environmental and moral problem. This tension between convenience and culpability is what Freinkel describes when she says we have a love—hate relationship with plastic. We enjoy the conveniences, the advances in technology and the efficiency that plastic presents, but hate the responsibility and environmental consequences that come along with its use. Plastic has shaped a ‘disposability’ and ‘convenience consumerism,’ which has warped into a ‘hyper-consumption’, an unsustainable practice threatening our planet.

Despite the fact that my respondents are often blinded to the amount of plastic that surrounds them, they are quite aware of the environmental costs of plastic. Though they may not articulate this awareness in extreme consumption and disposal practices, my respondents have expressed a latent concern about the environment and social mores surrounding plastic bags, bottles and plastic’s inability to biodegrade. Plastic has been almost demonised in the media, and by proxy we become bad people by using it. This causes a strong sense of guilt in using plastic. Bundanoon’s ban on bottled water, the ‘green bag’ campaign and Manly’s installation of water stations are examples of plastic being caught up in the greater appeal for humanity to consume resources and energy in a more considerate way. Cutting back on the use of plastic bags and not buying bottled water are just two suggestions to do so. My respondents all espouse the need to recycle and the danger of plastic bags in our waterways, but concede that convenience often weighs heavier in their decision making process.

What I discovered in my ethnographic research is that we desire a discharge of the environmental debt, which we accumulate in the use of plastic. My respondents attempt to discharge this debt by re-purposing plastic bags for the lining of rubbish bins, and re-cycling in specialised collection bins. In spite of these practices, remnants of guilt remain – as if my informants feel that what they are doing is not enough. However, my respondents concede that convenience usually outweighs their social conscience, and choose not to do much more. Mathematically and morally things still may not completely cancel out, but we have yet to find a convenient alternative.

References

Adler, R & Coster, H, 1956; Plastics in the Service of Man, Pelican Books, Baltimore

Appadurai, A 1986; The Social Life of Things, Cambridge University Press, New York

Australian Government Productivity Commission; Chemicals and Plastics Regulation Research Report, Feb 2008

Belk, R W. 1988; Possessions and the Extended Self. The Journal of Consumer Behavior

Dichter, E 2004; The Strategy of Desire, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick (Originally published in 1960 by Doubleday & Co)

Freinkel, S. 2011; Plastic A Toxic Love Story, The Text Publishing Company, Melbourne

Roderick, L, 26 Sept 2009; Bundanoon Gives up Bottled Water, Illawarra Mercury

Murray, R; 9 July 2009, Bundanoon Bans Bottled Water, Southern Highland News

 

Websites

GoTap – Accessed June 2012

http://www.gotap.com.au

Manly City Council – Accessed June 2012

http://www.manly.nsw.gov.au/environment/climate-change-and-sustainability/portable-water-stations/

Documentary on Social Collapse in Greece

1 October, 2012

Here is a powerful piece of film-making about the current social crisis in Greece. Athens: Social Meltdown, by film-maker Ross Domoney, is based on research by, and features extensive interviews with, University of Sussex anthropologist Dimitris Dalakoglou.The film deals with the changes in Greek society since 2010 and paints a picture of increasing radicalisation of the middle, a society alienated from its political elites and the caste of police — itself increasingly viewed as an enemy of the people — that protect them.

The film contains plenty of scenes of conflict between protesters and police, but what makes it particularly rending are the emotionally charged scenes of Greek protesters explaining the nature of their anger. It also presents a fairly dark view of the future for Greece. Although there are some hopeful signs of Greeks self-organising in order to create alternative systems of currency and exchange, this development of informal economic spheres could also be taken as evidence of increasing social fragmentation as people disconnect from the formal structures of economy and governance.

Here in Germany the media is dominated by hand-wringing over the future of the Euro and the apparent Greek recalcitrance which is endangering it. The image of lazy and disorganised Greeks prevails and not much comes through about the social impact of the crisis and the austerity measures being pushed especially by the Germans. This film helps to show the human side of current events and to make tangible the sense of desperation that is underpinning what seems to be a thoroughgoing radicalisation of Greek society.

A friendly Turanic people

6 September, 2012

At the end of August, Hungary extradited to Azerbaijan an Azeri military officer who had, while attending a NATO-sponsored training in Budapest in 2004, killed an Armenian participant with an axe and was sentenced to life in prison. Upon his arrival in Azerbaijan, the man, Ramil Safarov, was granted a presidential pardon and a promotion, and was feted as a national hero.

The reactions to this affair in Hungarian politics give an interesting snapshot of the state of culturalism in the country. Not-government-aligned media (there aren’t many of those left), which tend to criticise the government from liberal positions, largely attack the decision for selling out to “Oriental dictatorships”  – not just Azerbaijan but also China and Saudi Arabia — in the hope that they will finance Hungary’s debt. Indeed, there is little doubt that there is a link between the extradition and an announcement that Azerbaijan would buy Hungarian debt, just as, during Chinese premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Hungary last year, the police prevented Tibetans living in Hungary from demonstrating. Prime Minister Viktor Orban has repeatedly made clear that he wishes to shift from an exclusive Euro-Atlantic orientation to an Asian one, a shift he sees necessary for economic growth but in which he has also mused about the usefulness of non-democratic methods of governing. This summer, in a widely quoted, semi-joking speech, he said that Hungarians, as “half-Asian progeny,” sometimes only understand force. Yet, simultaneously, Orban frequently assumes the mantle of the defender of European values such as Christianity, the family, and democracy, which the EU has lost track of.

Although liberal media generally oppose Orban’s clericalism, in its criticism of the extradition there are frequent references to Armenia as “the first Christian state” with which “we,” therefore, share a lot more than with Azerbaijan. (In this respect, they agree with a communique issued by the government after the extradition that states that Hungary “respects Christian Armenia.”)  

Interestingly, the leader of Jobbik, the ultranationalist opposition party, which generally also operates with Christian symbolism but which is also drawn to that strand of Hungarian exceptionalism that emphasises the Asian roots of the nation, defended the alliance with Azerbaijan as “a key partner” on the basis that Azeris were a Turanic people — “Turanic” being a keyword in this self-Orientalising root mythology.

New winds in intercultural communication — from Macquarie!

6 May, 2012

In the Master of Applied Anthropology course at Macquarie University that inspired us to start this blog, and in the book Seeing Culture Everywhere that later resulted from the course, Joana Breidenbach and I were particularly critical of intercultural communication (IC) both as academic discipline and as industry. We think mainstream IC perpetuates stereotypes and a “container model” of national cultures in a way that is remarkably similar to Huntington’s views on international relations.

We are now writing an entry on IC for the new edition of the International Encyclopedia of Social and Behavioural Sciences. In the process of updating our overview on the field, I was surprised and please to discuver the work of Ingrid Piller, whose take on mainstream IC is very similar to ours, but whose critique comes from inside the discipline. She, too advocates a contextual approach and rejects a priori cultural categorizations.

The biggest surprise is that Piller is a professor of linguistics at Macquarie University, in the very department in whose applied linguistics courses one of our students was pressed to demonstrate a “typical Japanese greeting.” We used the incident, which made him very upset, as an example of IC stereotyping in our book.It is clear that Piller is equally critical of such approaches.

It seems that Piller joined Macquarie in 2008, just when I left, but I am surprised we haven’t discovered each other’s websites earlier!

Bird xenophobia, dog nativism

5 April, 2012

When I was new to Australia I was struck by the vehemence with which locals differentiated between native and non-native animal species. “That’s a pest!” they would say, frowning at the Indian minah and reserving their affection for the slightly different aboriginal (i.e. also immigrant, but earlier) variety.

I am hapy to report that my homeland Hungary finally got the one-up on Australia. Parliament recently passed a law introducing a dog tax. The law stipulates that autochthonous Hungarian races, such as the vizsla, the puli or the komondor, are exempt. The idea is, of course, to promote the population growth of these natives at the expense of the immigrant varieties.

So these politics of the soil really do work across species, don’t they? Hungary was, after all, the first European country in the 20th century to cap the percentage of Jewish students at universities.

(By the way, I love vizslas, pulis, and komondors.)

More novel teaching methods, or anthropology lecture as spectacle?

30 March, 2012

Last year I posted about Latrobe Uni anthropologist Alberto Gomes and his use of a Bollywood flash mob in his first introduction to anthropology lecture. Given how much interest the last video generated, with over 400,000 hits on Youtube, I suppose it was inevitable that he would have another go at doing something out of the ordinary.

I really liked last year’s use of Bollywood to both introduce themes from the course and to engage students in that crucial first lecture. It was easy enough to see how it could be used to set up key issues to be dealt with throughout the course. This year’s effort is a little harder to parse. It brings together elements of different musical and performance traditions, a hip-hop anthem with a kind of feel-good, we-are-the-world sort of vibe. But it’s harder for me to see what the teaching points here are. Is it creating a spectacle for its own sake? Also, maybe it was the way the video was cut, but this time round all the students seemed to be in on the joke from the start, which spoils the “flash mob” dimension of the exercise.

Anyway, I don’t want to be too critical. I applaud the effort to play with the usual lecture mode of teaching and finding ways to make material more memorable. This year’s effort didn’t work so well for me. Maybe it would have helped to know how the performance was used to introduce themes for the course, and maybe these elements could have been included in, or with, the video to give it some context for us internet viewers.

Ethics approval for student research projects to use in teaching

27 March, 2012
by

Nearly 3 years ago, I posted here on Culture Matters about my attempts to get ethics approval for students to do research projects as part of the classes I was teaching.  In that post, I linked to 4 different ethics applications I’d written for student research project, each of which used different research methods, from convenience sample street surveys of mobile phone users to participant observation in a virtual world to an oral history project of international students’ experiences at university to a commissioned observational study of how students use social space on campus.

Since then, I’ve gotten ethics approval for an additional 3 student research project that are used in 4 different anthropology classes at Macquarie:

I have posted the entire ethics applications (linked above) for others to use.  These things take a surprising amount of time and effort to write, and it would make me feel better about the time I spent working on these ethics applications if I knew that they were making things a bit easier for other people!  So please feel free to cut and paste: nothing in them is proprietary.

If you’re at Macquarie, then you’re really in luck, since you can just cut and paste into the most current ethics application form on the Research Office’s website.  Unfortunately, most institutions have their own unique forms for everything, so teachers at other universities might find it a bit more work to translate from my ethics application to theirs — but the basic ideas are there, including:

  • techniques for designing a participant observation research project that is unique for every student, that avoids any high-risk (and thus tricky to supervise when you have a whole classful of students) research areas (hint: no drugs, no illegal activity, including dumpster-diving), and that also navigates the tricky terrain of getting informed consent from people to write about them when their lives are inextricably intertwined with the students’;
  • how to recruit friends and family members to participate in an illness narrative project without putting any implicit pressure on them to do so (i.e. no “Mom, I need to interview you about the time you had cancer so that I don’t fail this class”) and that describes how students will talk about their research projects in class without revealing their informants’ very personal information; and
  • elaborate scripts that students can use when approaching a restaurant manager, for example, to get permission to write about their eating experience, and really straightforward and easy-to-understand informed consent forms.

If you end up using one of these as the model for one of your own student research projects, please let me know how it goes!  In particular, I’m interested in knowing what ethics committees at different institutions do and don’t find acceptable in student research projects, so if you get hassles about a particular research method, participant population, or participant recruitment technique, shoot me an e-mail and tell me about it (lisa.wynn[at]mq.edu.au).  I’d love to compare your experience with my own.

Lisa Wynn

Call for comments: Applied anthropology and contemporary indigenous art

18 March, 2012

A small announcement. Dr Silvia Lanzetta, a former student in the Macquarie Applied Anthropology program, and who completed her PhD between Sociology at Macquarie and Philosophy at the University of Florence, has an interesting paper online connecting applied anthropology with the study of contemporary indigenous art. She is seeking comments on the current draft (PDF).The paper focuses on the Boomalli  Aboriginal  Artists‘  Co-op in Sydney and sets out to target “the mainstream art-critique in order to contribute to a change in the epistemological attitude towards the so-called Aboriginal urban art.”

If you have any feedback on the paper, feel free to send it to Silvia at: silvialanzetta [at] libero.it or leave a comment on this post.

I don’t believe anymore that someone put a curse on her. I believe medicine and god will cure her.

12 December, 2011

A Hindu temple in South India combines psychiatry and religion to treat people with mental ailments.

by Lesley Branagan

 In 2001, a fire occurred at Erwadi dargah in south India, a highly popular Sufi Muslim shrine with reputed miraculous powers to heal people with mental ailments. The fire killed 25 people who had been chained up in the surrounding boarding houses. Sensational media reports portrayed healing shrines as ‘backward’, and revealed that psychiatric services were in a dismal state across most of the country. There were widespread calls for the modernisation of the mental health sector.

The Supreme Court issued suo moto intervention directives to address conditions at healing shrines and to reform mental health services and institutions. The chaining of people at shrines was banned, and the adjoining boarding houses were ordered to meet mental health licensing requirements or close down. State governments were directed to galvanise mental health workers to identify people with mental illness at shrines, and to move them into psychiatric homes. These interventions were justified by the various statutory agencies as a mode of defending the human rights of people with mental illness, and as protecting them from exploitation by the operators of shrines and unlicensed asylums.

Reputed healing shrines in India attract visitors with the common belief that mental ailments are caused by sorcery or bad spirits. This explanation is generally accepted and it avoids the negative stigma associated with mental illness. Attendance at a shrine allows the potent power of the shrine’s resident deity to overcome the evil spirit within the afflicted person. The denomination of the shrine does not matter—cure seekers of different religions will visit well-known Hindu, Sufi Muslim or Catholic healing shrines.

Many health seekers in India will also incorporate biomedicine into their religious healing approach. Even though psychiatric services are weak and very limited in many areas, many people suffering mental ailments will visit doctors and try psychiatric medication if it is accessible and affordable—particularly if they are diagnosed with serious mental illness.

Gunaseelam Temple, photograph by Lesley Branagan

In response to the Supreme Court directives, one Hindu temple in Tamil Nadu state has adapted its practices and now offers a combined ‘medicine and prayer’ model of healing. The Gunaseelam temple has a longstanding reputation for curing devotees who suffer “mind problems”, and it recently established a licensed rehabilitation centre in its grounds, where the healing is overseen by the temple priests and a psychiatrist from nearby Tiruchirapalli (Trichy) city.

Gunaseelam Temple, photograph by Lesley Branagan

At Gunaseelam, the aim has been to create a culturally relevant mental health care system where families can share the responsibilities of care. The rehabilitation centre accepts approximately 12 patients diagnosed with chronic schizophrenia at a time. They stay with their family members for a ritually significant period of 48 days and receive free biomedicine prescribed by the psychiatrist. The patients and families also attend five pujas (prayer rituals) a day in the temple. In two of these pujas, the priests splash holy water onto the faces of the devotees, which they believe drives out their bad spirits. This combination of “medicine and god” is largely believed by patients, families and priests to be a more efficacious method of healing than just undertaking one aspect.

Faith healer at Hanumanthapuram Temple, photograph by Lesley Branagan

While the patients generally worship local ‘small’ gods in their own villages, at Gunaseelam, they are required to worship the ‘big’ or Brahmanic god Venkatachalapatty, which belongs to an upper-caste model of religion.  Concerns have been raised by activists that freedom of religious expression would be impinged upon by government intervention at religious sites, yet my research at Gunaseelam found no evidence to support this. The majority of people in India readily adapt to worshipping other deities for specific purposes, and the patients and carers at Gunaseelam did not believe their usual practices and beliefs were constrained. They expressed a willingness to worship Venkatachalapathy while at the temple, and deemed him to be a ‘powerful’ god, and firmly believed that he had more power to cure them than medicine.

As an ethnographer, it is not possible to assess the progress of patients in terms of biomedically acceptable parameters. However, the majority of the patients’ carers believed that their ailing family member got better at Gunaseelam. World Health Organisation (WHO) studies acknowledge that there are better recovery rates for serious mental illnesses in ‘developing’ countries than in ‘developed’ countries.1 They all acknowledge wide use of non-Western therapies at developing country research sites. Yet the studies fail to investigate medical pluralism as a factor in differential outcome. This issue needs further research.

However, it is questionable whether the perceived improvements in patients at Gunaseelam are long-lasting. Patients’ narratives indicate that their illnesses often recur when they return home and can no longer access free medication. This supports other studies demonstrating that a significant proportion of patients in India abandon orthodox psychiatric treatment or stop medication. It must also be acknowledged that Gunaseelam offers a level of care and proximity to a powerful deity that is considered healing, and when patients leave the place of care, the cure diminishes. This acknowledgement in patients and carers is often what drives repeat visits to religious healing sites.

The relative ‘success’ story of Gunaseelam, from a governmental intervention point of view, lies in the fact that its new model continues to survive at all. Throughout India, there has been a variety of reactions from shrines to the intervention, but few have reconfigured in any substantial way. Attempts to introduce psychiatry services at healing shrines have often not been sustained, and many shrines continue to allow the practice of chaining people. This may not be emphatic resistance to laws on the part of shrines, but rather suggests that the state itself is not particularly uniformly effective in a large and diverse country like India. In practice, a number of intervention initiatives into temple practices quite simply dissolve over time, due to lack of will, lack of coordination, geographical issues and the difficulties of implementation, rather than because of any explicit resistance.

The notion of ‘lack of will’ and associated concepts of apathy and corruption are commonly used in India to explain the non-delivery of services and the failure of certain initiatives. But the lack of follow-through of the Supreme Court directives could possibly be better explained as a fundamental mismatch between the worldviews of the paradigms of psychiatry and religion in India. There has long been an uneasy dialogue between culture and psychiatry, where the relative credibility and ‘truth claims’ of scientific models such as psychiatry are pitted against the ‘folk models’ held by patients, and their rather different notions of cure. It is also important to acknowledge the difficulty of incorporating notions of spirit possession and exorcism into the same paradigm of illness that antipsychotic drugs claim to treat.

Although the notion of integrating the two paradigms is plausible only in a rudimentary fashion, Gunaseelam appears to be a practical and relatively successful marriage. The head priest and psychiatrist do not overwhelmingly endorse each other’s methods, but can see the benefits of co-treating patients. From a psychiatric point of view, patients can be treated within a framework that is cheaper and more community-based than a hospital. From a priestly point of view, the benefits of the rituals are assisted by medication that helps control symptoms, and the consistent patient recovery rates reinforce the temple’s long-standing reputation as a healing site.

Gunaseelam has also been a favourable site for intervention for other reasons. Unlike many temples, it does not have large commercial interests to protect, such as those gained from healing services or shops. There was also an already-established relationship between the temple and the psychiatrist before the intervention – and therefore a degree of recognition of each other’s paradigm. Additionally, the local culture supports such pluralistic measures, and the model of healing on offer is acceptable to a wide range of people. Gunaseelam is therefore one of the few examples of the intervention in India that sustains an interface between the paradigms of medicine and religion.

The fact that very little has changed in the way that most healing shrines operate indicates that the new technologies of rule do not always achieve their stated effects. Ironically, it is the very looseness of the Supreme Court directives, and their lack of benchmarks, models or clear objectives that not only allows shrines to sidestep governmental intervention, but also enables them to respond with new models of mental health healing that are sensitive to the local context and capacities.

Gunaseelam seems to be a rare case of a collaborative effort where the paradigms of psychiatry and religion have combined harmoniously to meet local needs with a culturally relevant model of healing. Such projects are generally driven by committed people who have utilised the uncertain space offered by the mismatch and the lack of detailed directives, to develop appropriate initiatives that are responsive to the needs of people with mental illness. The scope for NGOs to utilise the fluid terrain to further develop innovative new collaborative models of mental healing is large, yet very few NGOs in India work in this area.

Reference

  1. WHO. Report of the International Pilot Study of Schizophrenia, Volume I. Geneva, Switzerland: World Health Organization; 1973. WHO. Schizophrenia: An International Follow-up Study. Chichester, UK: John Wiley & Sons; 1979.

Lesley Branagan received a Prime Minister’s Australia Asia Endeavour Award to undertake fieldwork in India. This fieldwork was utilised in a thesis for her Master degree in Applied Anthropology at Macquarie University (in affiliation with Delhi University).

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