As a project defined around the central aim of investigating “suicide cultures” in Scotland, we thought it might be a good idea to start talking about what we mean when we say we want to understand cultures of suicide. Culture is a concept that has been used to understand the ways that people live around the world. It brings out the nuanced nature of human connections and will be a useful tool in trying to decode the complexity behind why someone would take their own life.
The Evolution and Diffusion of Culture
Culture has been one of the most controversial concepts in the history of anthropology. Just as quantum physicists debate the nature and properties of particles, so anthropologists debate culture. The first theorists of culture in anthropology were firmly allied with European colonial power. The prominence of scientific racism in the 19th century opened the door to a hierarchical view of culture that saw different races on different stages of linear development that could be tied to characteristics such as skull size, social organisation, and “primitive Vs civilized” cultural practices (Chakrabarty 2007; Bridges 2011). Culture had a direction, said early anthropologists, who took for granted that European white culture was the most desirable and highest expression of human life, a form of organisation that all other societies would eventually arrive at.
In 1871, Edward Tylor defined culture as “that complex whole which includes knowledge, belief, art, law, morals, customs and any other capabilities and habits acquired by man as a member of society” (1920 ; 1). Tylor’s definition relies on several vague notions like “society” and effectively says culture is anything people do and think. Accurate maybe, but too vague to be used as a framework which might help us understand why suicide occurs and takes particular forms in different places.
Franz Boas (1910) challenged early assumptions about culture in the mid 20th century by emphasizing the relativity of social and moral values in his studies of the Iroquois Indigenous people in North America. This was radical at the time, suggesting that all cultures appeared as they did because individuals were bounded within a particular cultural context, whether you are an American of European or Indigenous descent. This approach ungrounded scientific accounts by suggesting that each group should be assessed against their own cultural, moral, and spiritual norms rather than being seen as by-gone examples of the history of Europe progressing naturally towards liberal capitalist democracy.
Boas and his students Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, and Ruth Underhill decentered culture by showing that no-one holds an objective view of the systems in which we are caught. Our judgments of other cultures are formed by our culture. Yet this approach still saw culture as a bounded, static thing that an anthropologist could go and collect then display in the form of writing for others to consume – more like a dead butterfly in a museum collection than the dynamic, multi-faceted reality of social groups.
Culture as Webs of Significance
“The study of other people’s cultures . . . involves discovering who they think they are, what they think they are doing, and to what end they think they are doing it”
– Geertz, 2000, p16
Clifford Geertz explained culture as a kind of network, suggesting that people are “suspended in webs of meaning they themselves have spun” (1973). So, if we want to study culture, we have to access and understand the different frames of meaning in which people live and are constantly making themselves. These frames are layered on top of each other, forever adjusting to circumstance, and can be contested or re-made in public forums.
The concept of scale here may be useful. To understand culture, researchers will have to work out at what level people identify as a “we” and to acknowledge that this “we” is always changing. Scottish culture has no centre that would allow us to definitively say this is what it is like to be Scottish. People generate their belonging to Scotland through personal relationships and experiences, social groups, activities, political beliefs and action, and religious commitments.
When we talk about suicide cultures in Scotland, we should acknowledge that there is no one group or official body who holds authoritative knowledge about suicidal thought and behaviour. Nor does anyone have a full understanding about how to respond collectively to suicide. As we embark on research with people who have attempted suicide or have been affected by it, we are entering murky ethical territory. This is why an openness to the many unique ways people have spun their webs of meaning around the act or presence of suicide in their lives is crucial in approaching this research.
The Crisis of Representation
“Cultures do not hold still for their portraits” – Clifford and Marcus, 1986, p10
If cultures exist within overlapping spheres of meaning at different levels of scale, then how can scholars hope to write a representative account of a culture without locking it into an inauthentic, static form? Given that writing by its very nature removes people from the naturally occurring flow of events that defines their life, what methods of investigation and analysis are best suited to representing culture?
Clifford and Marcus propose a way to think about this problem, suggesting that ethnography (the qualitative investigation of culture) is a fundamentally artistic or poetic attempt to tell multiple stories within one account of culture. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has argued something similar and in much more accessible language in her Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story”. It asks that we recognise that people may not even conceptualise themselves as existing in a culture and instead that culture is in the eye of the beholder (the researcher in this instance). Telling multiple stories from different positions within that culture is a good way of understanding the diverse ways that people experience life.
This approach also suggests that “Culture is produced in the ways it is textualised for circulation” (Clifford and Marcus 1986: 10). This might include overt nationalist projects like the COVID-19 vaccine roll out which asks us to consider a shared medical-biological destiny for British people who do or do not get the jab, or it may be produced by researchers themselves. For example, my doctoral research was on something called “gun culture” in the United States, yet this culture rarely identified itself to me. Rather I identified it by selecting certain people to spend time with, defining them in relationship to their gun ownership, and by describing them in writing as linked through this practice.
The Writing Culture approach emphasizes the inherently shared nature of studying and writing about culture. There are no humans, including researchers, who are not culturally situated. Our assumptions about the field are data in themselves and so self-reflection is going to be a key tool for us to use in approaching our work. The way the field presents itself to us is a kind of poetry that we will write with our participants.
The Pluriverse and Amazonian Ontology
A more recent turn in anthropology has come from Latin American anthropologists including Viveiros DeCastro (1998), Marisol De La Cadena and Mario Blaser (2018), who draw on indigenous Amazonian and Andean cosmology to suggest that we have been thinking about culture in entirely the wrong way. Cadena proposes that people do not just live in different cultures, but different perceptual universes. She looked at Andean attitudes towards the mountain Ausangate in Peru. Locals do not just “believe” that the mountain is a spiritual entity with life, they experience Ausangate as a being with whom they can have reciprocal conversations. For more on Andean cosmology see this trailer for a documentary about how Andean women have been protesting exploitation of sacred land.
In a western intellectual and rationalist worldview, Ausangate can only be a physical object and therefore holds less importance in conversations about worldly matters like suicide than someone’s mental health. Yet from the inside of this Andean cosmology, Ausangate does things, speaks, and is important within politics in the same way that the leader of a country might be in Europe. This approach shows the importance of understanding local ways that people explain and understand their world. Cadena suggests that in order to understand culture, the researcher has to think about where (i.e. what universe) they are listening from and de-centre how data can be produced or presented in the field.
In the Suicide Cultures project, we are going to draw on a wide range of qualitative methods including long term, situated ethnography with people bereaved by suicide or survivors of attempted suicide in different areas of Scotland. Our researchers will interview local people, public health experts, leaders in the therapeutic and caring fields, doctors, and anyone else who has a stake in suicide prevention in these areas.
However, we also want to approach this study with creativity by bringing in arts-based methodologies and outputs that can help shed light on the complexity of the emotions and cultural specificity behind suicidal behaviour. This broad approach will allow us to understand how the culture of suicide in Scotland is constructed and how it varies across different areas. Using culture as a framework for understanding this project, we can remove our assumptions about suicide so that people can tell us their stories in their language.
Blaser, Mario, and Marisol de la Cadena. 2018. Introduction: Pluriverse: Proposals for a World of Many Worlds. In A World of Many Worlds” ed Cadena and Blaser. Duke.
Boas, F. 1910. Race, Language, Culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Bridges, K. 2011. Reproducing Race: An Ethnography of Pregnancy as a Site of Racialisation. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Chakrabarty, D. 2007 . Provincialising Europe: Post-Colonial Thought and Historical Difference. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Clifford, J. and Marcus, G. 1986. Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography. California: University of California Press.
Geertz, C. 1973. The Interpretation of Cultures. Routledge.
Geertz, C. 2000. Available Light: Anthropological Reflections on Philosophical Topics. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Tylor, E. 1920 . Primitive Culture. New York: J.P. Putnam’s Sons.
Viveiros De Castro, E. 1998. “Cosmological Deixis and Amerindian Perspectivism, The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute, 4 (3), 469 – 488.