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Suicide, youth and farmers in South India

Funding body

Brunel University London


Project description

James Staples

The research was carried out over two summers at the site of my PhD research (published as Staples 2007) – incorporating supplementary work with informants in Delhi and Hyderabad. The research set out to explore what suicide means – to the individuals and families involved as well as within wider social contexts – and how it is enacted as a set of socio-cultural practices.

Until now, despite a growing interest in suicide in India by journalists, psychologists and others working from biomedical perspectives, there has been almost no ethnographic research on suicide. My research – alongside a workshop at Brunel University in 2008 which the Academy also supported (CSG-49727) – aimed to address this lacuna and, in doing so, to help nuance the existing material, which tends to attribute causality to the economic deprivation that has arisen from an agrarian crisis in India, and easy access to pesticides as the means. While these factors are convincing as general underlying causes, they do not explain why suicide is a more likely response to these stimuli among some groups of economically deprived people than others. An ethnographic approach, by contrast, attempts to understand the particular, situated circumstances of people’s lives in particular communities, and to set them against the wider economic and political backdrops against which those lives were played out. In taking such an approach, I found Ian Hacking’s notion of ‘ecological niche’ (1998, Mad Travelers. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press) especially illuminating; an approach which enabled me to consider how the convergence of particular circumstances at particular times made suicide a more or less likely response. The decision to partake in suicidal behaviour, at a particular moment, was a) informed by multiple, converging and interacting factors; and b) largely unconscious, or not based on deliberative thinking (cf Kral and Johnson 1996, Suicide, self-deception and the cognitive unconscious. In Antoon A. Leenaars and David Lester, eds, Suicide and the Unconscious, pp.67.89. Northvale NJ: Jason Aronson).