Skip to main navigation menu Skip to main content Skip to site footer

Think Pieces

Vol 4 No 3: September issue

An uncritical encounter between anthropology and psychiatry: AIIMS psychiatrists reading 'Affliction'

  • Bhrigupati Singh
February 22, 2017
November 6, 2020


In what ways do two bodies of knowledge meet? Anthropology and psychiatry most often meet in a mood of mutual suspicion, the danger of which is that each confronts (or avoids) the other as a straw man. In this introduction I describe a refreshingly different encounter in which a group of psychiatrists from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in Delhi respond to an anthropological text, Veena Das’s 'Affliction: Health, Disease, Poverty', which engages with lives and issues quite similar to those encountered by these psychiatrists in their clinical practice. Rather than rehearsing relatively predictable debates (for instance on the importance, or lack thereof, of ‘culture’, often assumed to be the sole meeting ground between anthropology and psychiatry), what is instead surprising in the psychiatrists’ engagement with Affliction is their recognition of a shared terrain of uncertainty and complexity that moves across the realms of the spiritual, the ‘vernacular’ uses of biomedical terms, and the political economy of health. I outline three domains of inquiry that this interdisciplinary discussion opens up as regards the study of mental health and illness: 1) ecologies, circuits, and tempos rather than institutions and subjectivity; 2) not-yet ontologies and etiologies; and 3) methodological consequences, beyond quantitative/qualitative divides and towards patterns, singularities, and modes of attunement.