In the Journals

Special Issue: “Embodied Belonging”

This special issue of Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry, edited by Dominik Mattes and Claudia Lang, proposes the notion of “embodied belonging” which engages with the “entanglements of the political, social, and affective dimensions of belonging and their effects on health, illness, and healing.”

This special issue includes two articles published in the journal’s previous issue; they are also included below. 

“Embodied Belonging: In/exclusion, Health Care, and Well-Being in a World in Motion” (open access)

Dominik Mattes & Claudia Lang

In this introduction, we propose the notion of ‘embodied belonging’ as a fruitful analytical heuristic for scholars in medical and psychological anthropology. We envision this notion to help us gain a more nuanced understanding of the entanglements of the political, social, and affective dimensions of belonging and their effects on health, illness, and healing. A focus on embodied belonging, we argue, reveals how displacement, exclusion, and marginalization cause existential and health-related ruptures in people’s lives and bodies, and how affected people, in the struggle for re/emplacement and re/integration, may regain health and sustain their well-being. Covering a variety of regional contexts (Germany/Vietnam, Norway, the UK, Japan), the contributions to this special issue examine how embodied non/belonging is experienced, re/imagined, negotiated, practiced, disrupted, contested, and achieved (or not) by their protagonists, who are excluded and marginalized in diverse ways. Each article highlights the intricate trajectories of how dynamics of non/belonging inscribe themselves in human bodies. They also reveal how belonging can be utilized and drawn on as a forceful means and resource of social resilience, if not (self-)therapy and healing.

“Placing precarity: access and belonging in the shifting landscape of UK mental health care” (open access)

Natassia F. Brenman 

This paper engages with the notion of ‘embodied belonging’ through an ethnography of the social and material aspects of accessing mental health care in the UK. I focus on moments of access and transition in a voluntary sector organisation in London: an intercultural psychotherapy centre, serving a range of im/migrant communities. Whilst both ‘belonging’ and ‘place’ are often invoked to imply stability, I explore how material contexts of access and inclusion can paradoxically be implicated in the ongoing production of precarity—of unstable, uncertain, and vulnerable ways of being. A sociomaterial analysis of ethnographic material and visual data from two creative mapping interviews attends to material and spatial aspects of the centre and its transitory place in the urban environment. It demonstrates how these aspects of place became entangled in client experiences of access: uncertainties of waiting, ambivalence towards belonging to a particular client group, and questions around deservingness of care. This engendered an embodied and situated experience of ‘precarious belonging’. I therefore argue that precarity should be ‘placed’, both within the concept of embodied belonging, and ethnographically, within the material constraints, impermanence, and spatial politics of projects to include the excluded in UK mental health care.

“Social Exclusion and Care in Underclass Japan: Attunement as Techniques of Belonging”

Jieun Kim

While Japan boasts a universal healthcare system and state-of-the-art medical technology, healthcare has often been denied to those who do not conform to moral ideals of a deserving patient. In underclass enclaves known as yoseba (day laborers’ quarter), patients have been frequently turned away or blacklisted on grounds of their abnormality and non-compliance. As much as healthcare was enmeshed in the normative bonds of family and community sanctioned by the state, yoseba men were considered as outsiders who neglected their duties of care, thus, undeserving of any form of care themselves. Focusing on the struggle for healthcare in a yoseba enclave in Yokohama over the past three decades, this paper explores how various practices of care have been improvised in this last refuge for the underclass men. The relentless endeavor pursued by local medical activists reveals how attending to yoseba patients required creative techniques of spatio-temporal attunement to make healthcare a communal project. Here, a form of “embodied belonging” was sought through bodily care coordinated among various agents and things, rather than through claims for membership in a bounded entity.

“Trauma, Violence, and Memory in African Child Soldier Memoirs” (open access)

Stacey Hynd

Child soldiers have been heavily involved in contemporary African warfare. Since the 1990s, the ‘child soldier crisis’ has become a major humanitarian and human rights project. The figure of the child soldier has often been taken as evidence of the ‘barbarism’, dehumanization and trauma generated by modern warfare, but such images can obscure the complex reality of children’s experiences of being part of armed groups during conflict. This article uses the published memoirs of former child soldiers from Sierra Leone, Sudan, Uganda, Eritrea and the Democratic Republic of the Congo to explore the instrumental and discursive nexus between child soldiers, memory, violence and humanitarianism. It assesses how (former-) children combatants remember and recount their experiences of war, and how these narratives can be shaped by humanitarian, literary and/or therapeutic framings. The article argues that these memoirs’ significance lies in their affective truths and what they reveal about children’s experience, and narrations, of war. Former child soldiers engage with, but also challenge, dominant contemporary humanitarian discourses surrounding childhood and violence to develop a ‘victim, savage, saviour, campaigner’ framework for their narratives. The article historically contextualizes the emergence of the ‘child soldier memoir’, before analysing the narratives of recruitment, indoctrination, and violence recounted by these former child soldiers, and their attempts to rework their identities in a post-conflict environment. It explores how former child soldiers narrate suffering and deploy discourses of trauma in their memoirs: some seeking to process wartime traumas, others leveraging their own suffering to position themselves as campaigners for those children still caught in conflict.

“Traditional Healers and Mental Health in Nepal: A Scoping Review”

Tony V Pham, Bonnie N. Kaiser, Rishav Koirala, Sujen Man Maharjan, Nawaraj Upadhaya, Lauren Franz & Brandon A. Kohrt

Despite extensive ethnographic and qualitative research on traditional healers in Nepal, the role of traditional healers in relation to mental health has not been synthesized. We focused on the following clinically based research question, “What are the processes by which Nepali traditional healers address mental well-being?” We adopted a scoping review methodology to maximize the available literature base and conducted a modified thematic analysis rooted in grounded theory, ethnography, and phenomenology. We searched five databases using terms related to traditional healers and mental health. We contacted key authors and reviewed references for additional literature. Our scoping review yielded 86 eligible studies, 65 of which relied solely on classical qualitative study designs. The reviewed literature suggests that traditional healers use a wide range of interventions that utilize magico-religious explanatory models to invoke symbolic transference, manipulation of local illness narratives, roles, and relationships, cognitive restructuring, meaning-making, and catharsis. Traditional healers’ perceived impact appears greatest for mild to moderate forms of psychological distress. However, the methodological and sample heterogeneity preclude uniform conclusions about traditional healing. Further research should employ methods which are both empirically sound and culturally adapted to explore the role of traditional healers in mental health.

“Authentic Self and Last Resort: International Perceptions of Psychiatric Neurosurgery”

L. Y. Cabrera, C. Courchesne, M. Bittlinger, S. Müller, R. Martinez, E. Racine & J. Illes

Psychiatric neurosurgery has resurfaced over the past two decades for the treatment of severe mental health disorders, with improved precision and safety over older interventions alongside the development of novel ones. Little is known, however, about current public opinions, expectations, hopes, and concerns over this evolution in neurotechnology, particularly given the controversial history of psychosurgery. To fill this knowledge gap, we conducted a study with eight focus groups in Vancouver and Montreal (Canada; n = 14), Berlin (Germany; n = 22), and Madrid (Spain; n = 12). Focus group texts were transcribed and analyzed using qualitative content analysis in the language local to each city, guided by the theoretical framework of pragmatic neuroethics. Findings indicate that participants across all cities hold concerns about the last resort nature of psychiatric neurosurgery and the potential impact on the authentic self of patients who undergo these procedures. The views captured serve to advance discussion on the appropriate timing for psychiatric neurosurgery, promote sound health policy for the allocation of this resource, and foster scientific literacy about advances for mental health internationally.

“Existential Displacement: Health Care and Embodied Un/Belonging of Irregular Migrants in Norway” (open access)

Synnøve K. N. Bendixsen

Drawing on fieldwork and interviews in Oslo and Bergen, Norway, this article discusses irregular migrants’ experiences of existential displacement and the tactics they use to try to re-establish a sense of emplacement and belonging. More specifically, it argues that irregular migrants’ experiences of embodied unbelonging are a consequence of a violent form of governmentality that includes specific laws, healthcare structures, and migration management rationalities. The article makes this argument by tracing how these experiences translate into embodied effects that feature prominently in migrants’ narratives of suffering while living in a country that purports to provide welfare services to all. The narratives of their state of being-in-the-world are ways through which migrants both experience and express the violence and deprivation they face. I argue that these narratives are instances of structures of feeling (Williams 1973), which are shaped by modes of governmentality. The article shows that irregular migrants’ coping strategies centrally involve faith, religious communities and friends. Irregular migrants draw on these relationships to get by, access healthcare, and to resist the (health) effects of social deprivation and political violence. These relationships allow irregular migrants to find meaningful ways of being-in-the-world and rebuilding, to some extent, a sense of entitlement and belonging.

“The Power of Shared Embodiment: Renegotiating Non/belonging and In/exclusion in an Ephemeral Community of Care” (open access)

Anita von Poser & Edda Willamowski

In this article, we explore the power of shared embodiment for the constitution of an affective community. More specifically, we examine how people afflicted by long-term, arduous experiences of war, migration, and discrimination sensually articulate and, at least temporarily, renegotiate feelings of non/belonging, care, and in/exclusion. Methodologically, we draw on emplaced ethnography and systematic phenomenological go-alongs with a group of elderly migrants, born and raised in different parts of Vietnam, who had arrived in Germany within different legal–political frameworks and who, during the time of our psychological–anthropological research, frequented the same psychotherapeutic clinic. We apply the notion of “affective communities” (Zink in Affective Societies: Key Concepts. Routledge, New York, 2019) to grasp how the group experienced a sensual place of mutual belonging outside the clinic when moving through different public spaces in Berlin as part of their therapy. Particular attention is paid to the participants’ embodied and emplaced memories that were reactivated during these excursions. Shared sensations and spatiality, we argue, made them feel they belonged to an ephemeral community of care that was otherwise hardly imaginable due to their distinct individual biographies, contrasting political attitudes, and ties to different social collectives. In analyzing this affective community, we highlight how significant spatio-sensorial modes of temporal solidification can be in eliciting embodied knowledge that positively contributes to therapeutic processes.

“On Exclusionary Violence and Its Subcutaneous Consequences: A Commentary”

Sarah S. Willen

In lieu of an abstract, here is the first paragraph of the commentary:

These ethnographic glimpses of embodied disruption and embodied (re)connection, all drawn from this exemplary collection of papers, remind us that while the body is the “existential ground of culture and self” (Csordas 1994), this ground can itself be shaky and unstable. In these papers, we see how state power, bureaucratic institutions, political ideologies, and social norms can violate individuals’ and groups’ sense of embodied groundedness—sometimes as a form of collateral damage accompanying larger political projects, at other times by design. Yet we also peer into therapeutic spaces that spotlight modest possibilities for repairing brokenness, or for restitching oneself or others into the fabric of embodied social life, through practices that generate meaning, produce tendrils of relational connection, and offer the promise of hope. Weaving together insights from medical and psychological anthropology, the anthropology of migration (and other forms of precarity and sociopolitical exclusion), population health, and the therapeutic psy-disciplines, the authors of these pieces remind us of the many ways in which “sociopolitical distinctions,” as I have proposed elsewhere, “become embodied: how they can penetrate the ‘inward parts’ of people who have been cast out as Other, as abject” in ways that affect “their sense of self, personhood, and interconnection with others” (Willen 2019:230–231, 11; cf. Kleinman and Kleinman 1994).


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