CE27 - Culture, créations, patrimoine

Phantoms or fantasies? Experiences of Loss in Changing Therapeutic Contexts – PHANTASIES

Submission summary

The Western world is currently steeped in vigorous societal and scientific debates about how to deal with the experience of grief. The recent introduction of grief related mental disorders into the two international psychiatric diagnostic manuals can be seen as an historical landmark, signaling for some the culmination of the medicalization of grief and establishment of what “normal” grieving should be. Still, anthropology teaches us that the ways of dealing with the loss of a loved one and the management of the somatic and emotional experiences that mourners may undergo varies from one society to another. For example, in the central Himalayan region - the Indian state of Uttarakhand and Nepal - experiencing the presence of the dead through rituals allowing the deceased to take possession of the living is frequent.

What happens then when different and conflicting modes of grief management coexist within the same society?

The natural disasters that recently affected the central Himalaya, and the many psycho-social initiatives that followed, have created a new therapeutic landscape. Rituals increasingly coexist with psychiatric practices. While both associate somatic and perceptual disorders with the presence of the dead, they differ significantly in the status they assign to the deceased. Ritual practices reinforce the idea of the deceased’s real presence among the living and ground it in tangible bodily experience. Medical and paramedical interventions tend to attribute, not an ontological, but a psychological status to such “presences”: they are “beliefs” or “forms of delusion.” In short, the dead are on one side phantoms, and on the other, fantasies.

This situation generates several questions: How do people deal with somatic states which, accepted as signs of the presence of the dead by one therapeutic system, are re-qualified as the harmful effects of traumatic loss by the other? How do interactions with different specialists help shape emotional experiences of loss in this pluralistic health arena? How do diverging modes of presence and action assigned to the deceased impact people’s ways of thinking about death and the dead?

PHANTASIES addresses these issues by adopting an innovative methodology largely neglected in the anthropology of death: a critical phenomenological perspective focusing on the analysis of the lived experience of loss. Fully embracing the paradigm of embodiment, this approach maintains that eventual reshaping of subjective experience stemming from medical pluralism cannot be thought of solely in terms of explicit knowledge: it also involves non-conscious shaping of sensations and emotions. The project will therefore explore three interconnected aspects of the experience of loss and their transformations: bodily sensations, emotions and understandings about the dead and their presence in the world of the living.

PHANTASIES will contribute a nuanced understanding of the experience and representation of death and its illnesses in the Himalaya, and beyond. By addressing previously unexplored research questions and adopting an innovative approach to the study of death, PHANTASIES will participate in renewing the fields of medical pluralism and death studies, while also contributing to ongoing interdisciplinary debates on the experience of grieving.

PHANTASIES also has a practical objective: to support healing among individuals and communities which were affected by disasters. In order to do this, activities have been planned to cultivate spaces for reflection with local communities about their therapeutic experiences and to share their insights with practitioners in the field of mental health. The team members are in a privileged position to access multiple perspectives, and will communicate diverse perspectives on grief, loss, and the presence of the dead between communities and practitioners, in order to support a therapeutic practice that is sensitive to concerns of local populations.

Project coordination

Serena Bindi (Centre d'anthropologie culturelle)

The author of this summary is the project coordinator, who is responsible for the content of this summary. The ANR declines any responsibility as for its contents.


UPDESCARTES -EA 4545 Centre d'anthropologie culturelle

Help of the ANR 239,271 euros
Beginning and duration of the scientific project: March 2020 - 48 Months

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