Empathy and Healing: Essays on Medical and Narrative Anthropology


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Skultans, Vieda (2007) New York: Berghahn Books. 282 pp. $90.00.Empathy and Healing comprises a collection of articles and chapters published by Vieda Skultans over the course of 30 years. Prof. Skultans, a professor at the University of Bristol (UK), occupies a distinguished place in the history of medical anthropology and the subdiscipline called narrative anthropology. This book now permits readers to follow the development of her distinctive vision of anthropology as a humanistic and interpretive discipline, attentive to the centrality of narratives to the life worlds of informants. Her earliest work was conducted in Wales, among spiritualists, and explores the efficacy of doctrine, ritual, and empathy in the amelioration of psychological and somatic pain. Within this community, individuals are encouraged to publicly narrate the etiology and experience of their suffering. In the course of ritual, the stories become communal property: collectively owned and collectively shaped. Members are expected to “take on” a sufferer's condition; their empathy is somatic and intersubjective, not merely a gesture. The conventional Western articulation of the self presumes that a person's existence is bounded and insulated from other selves. When spiritualist practices ignore this presumption, and persons are permitted to interpenetrate, the healing potential of the group is supposedly released. This early work sets the pattern for Skultan's subsequent research: an effort to delineate the dialectics of self-awareness, narrative, suffering, and social identity.During the 1980s, Skultans conducted fieldwork in Maharashtra, India, “focused on the gendered nature of beliefs about the management of madness, affliction and trance and their practical implications for men's and women's lives.” Here again the theme is the collective sharing of distress facilitated by possession, but there is a second theme, emphasizing the pathogenic possibilities of group life—more specifically, the consequences of severe gender injustice on the life course and prospects of afflicted women. Mentally ill men that Skultan observed at a Mahanubhav healing temple were perceived by their communities as generally improving and their illnesses were not regarded as an obstacle to the orderly progression of their lives. For distressed women, it was a different story: they were stigmatized and disqualified from the range of family support that would follow other misfortunes. However, Skultans cautioned, it would be a mistake to assume that culture is monolithic or that women are without psychological and symbolic resources. “Priests viewed women's propensity to possession as a gender-linked character defect, whereas women viewed possession as something they actively cultivated for the benefit of the families, particularly its male members.” Skultan's account is subtle and ironic, and in contrast to the tendency of many current writers to represent analogous circumstances by a one-size-fits-all psychosocial mechanism such as “resilience.”In common with an earlier generation of anthropologists—including Bronislaw Malinowski, S. F. Nadel, and many others—Skultans' identity bridges 2 cultures. Unlike her predecessors; however, Skultans wished to cross back over the bridge. In 1991, soon after the collapse of the Soviet Union, Skultans visited Latvia, her parents' homeland. She has returned several times since then for extended periods of fieldwork, and this ethnographic research is the basis for nearly half of the articles in this collection. In the early years of independence, Latvians routinely alternated between 2 versions of self-identity. When asserting their ethnic solidarity, individuals expressed an unchanging and adamantine self. When talking about particular events or circumstances from the Soviet period, they spoke of identity as changing and relational.

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