Reflections on Sri Lanka’s Suicide Rate

Tom Widger

widger-22ABSTRACT of Article entitled ” Reading Sri Lanka’s Suicide Rate” in Modern Asian Studies 48/3 pp. 791-825. : By the final decade of the twentieth century, rates of suicide in Sri Lanka ranked among the highest in the world. However, in 1996 the suicide rate began to fall and was soon at its lowest level in almost 30 years. This decline poses problems for classic sociological theories of suicide and forces us to question some fundamental assumptions underlying social scientific approaches to the suicide rate. Drawing from sociological, medical epidemiological, historical, and anthropological secondary sources as well as 21 months of original ethnographic research into suicide in Sri Lanka, I argue that there are four possible readings of the country’s suicide rate. While the first three readings provide windows onto parts of the story, the fourth—a composite view—provides a new way of thinking about suicide, not just in Sri Lanka but also cross-culturally. In so doing the paper poses questions for how the relationship between suicide and society might be imagined.ALSO SEE

WHO via Wikipedia] 2012: ” Sri Lanka sustains tit High Suicide Rate,

Tom Widger, 2015:Suffering, Frustration, and Anger: Class, Gender, and History in Sri Lankan Suicide Stories,” Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 2015, 36(2): 225-244.

Tom Widger: 2012: “Situating suicide as an anthropological problem: ethnographic approaches to understanding self-harm and self-inflicted death,” Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry 36(2): 183-203

Tom Widger 2012: “Suicide and the morality of kinship in Sri Lanka,” Contributions to Indian Sociology 46(1-2): 83-116.

Tom Widger 2015 Suicide in Sri Lanka: The Anthropology of An Epidemic, Routledge.

Robert N. Kearney & Barbara Miller 1985 “The Spiral of Suicide and Social change in Sri Lanka,” Journal of Asian Studies, 45/1: pp. 81-101

Anthony Wood 1961: “Crime and aggression in Changing Ceylon: A Soociological Analysis of Homicide, Suicide and economic Crime,” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 51/8, 1-132

JH and MA Strauss 1953 “Suicide, Homicide and social Structure in Ceylon,” American Journal of Sociology 58/1, pp. 461-69


Situating pesticides within wider landscapes of the public (mis)trust of science, conspiracy theory, global-local regulation, relationships between human and non-human things, and allopathic and Ayurvedic toxicologies, I am developing a ‘pesticide’s eye view’ of agrochemicals’ toxic fate. The ultimate aim is to ‘reimagine’ the terms of debates that pesticides generate, as they are contested by the agrochemical industry, environmental NGOs, and government regulators.

In dialogue with my work on pesticides is an interest in corporate social responsibility and philanthrocapitalism in South Asia, and the ways in which private businesses and foundations engage in health and social development and environmental protection activities. Funded by ESRC and DfID, I have explored the role of private enterprise in war/post-war transitions in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, coining the phrase ‘philanthronationalism’ to explain the partnerships that have emerged between private philanthropy and nationalist movements in those countries.

From this work I have also developed a strong interest in humanitarianism of the poor. Thus I am exploring the simple observation that the poor give differently to the rich, and as such our current theories of charity and humanitarianism fail to adequately capture the experiences of those at the bottom of the social pyramid. I am currently preparing a monograph on poverty, charity, and ‘the empathetic life’ in Sri Lanka. Arguing that if for the wealthy the poor exist as a distal fantasy and ‘bare life,’ ‘the poor’ for the poor exist as a proximate reality and ‘reciprocated life.’

Finally, my work on suicide and charity has also led to an interest in gerontological care, and the processes of biopolitical and thanatopolitical morality that accompany ageing populations in Europe and Asia. Exploring this via current writing projects, I am interested in how ageing people and ageing bodies approaching death attract particular kinds of interventions and the ethical questions that surround them. … taken from…….For more information see:



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