Award Information

International Dissertation Research Fellowship 2020
Institutional Affiliation (at time of award):
Anthropology, Boston University
‘Self-Illness,’ Biomedicalization, and Reformist Sunni-Islam: Living Ethical ‘Modern’ Lives in Contemporary Malé, Maldives

In the Indian Oceanic South Asian nation of Maldives, nafsani-bali ('self-illness' or madness) has long been a cultural category of (ill) personhood among Muslim-Dhivehin. As part of the state's 'modernization' program, nafsani-bali has become biomedicalized as "mental illness." Maldives' 'psy' turn (psychological and psychiatric) of 2019 has also been part of global mental health initiatives of the World Health Organization. The normalization of this biomedical knowledge form is potentially at odds with another state-led 'modernization' project: reformist Sunni-Islam, which is a precondition of Maldivian citizenship. The proposed 12-month ethnographic study in Male', the capital city of the Maldives, asks the following overarching question: how are Muslim-Dhivehin with nafsani-bali, along with their kin, constructing themselves as ethical 'modern' subjects amidst these global and local debates about 'modernity'? In light of major epistemological changes underway regarding this Dhivehi cultural category of personhood, this study investigates how global discourses of health and religion, and the modernization efforts of a newly democratized nation state, become implicated in the formation of complex subjectivities. Whereas previous studies on 'psy' globalization have centered on the dissemination of 'psy' discourse among educated middle-classes, or in places with a variety of 'psy' services, the Maldives is marked by widespread state-led 'psy' discourse without commensurate access to such services. Thus, using both family-centered and person-centered methodologies, this project considers the formation and enactment of ethical subjectivities that may differ along gender and class lines. Through exploring these aspects, this research contributes to problematizing the reification of Muslim subjectivities and the universalization of the human condition in discussions on Islamic modernity and on the globalization of psychological and psychiatric practices, respectively.