ASA14: Anthropology and Enlightenment


The place of 'place' in wellbeing scholarship

Location Appleton Tower, Lecture Theatre 2
Date and Start Time 21 June, 2014 at 09:00


Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti (Durham University) email
Emilia Ferraro (University of St. Andrews) email
Mail All Convenors


This panel will critically engage conventional and contrasting approaches and understandings of wellbeing through the concept of place as an empirical and ontological category.

Long Abstract

This panel presents a forum for the critical engagement with conventional and contrasting approaches and understandings of wellbeing. Our panel aims to: 1) contribute to the emerging scholarship that calls for more complex and culturally nuanced considerations of "the everyday business of living in the world" (Whatmore 1999:30); 2) takes indigenous complex understandings of the world and how to live in it seriously; 3) responds to recent calls for "place-based" understandings of wellbeing; and 4) shows the methodological contributions of rigorous ethnography to wellbeing scholarship.

Are discussions of wellbeing not also ontological discussions of what it means to be human? If so, do different understandings of "wellbeings" beget different modes of humanities? The interdisciplinary nature of wellbeing scholarship focuses mainly on affluent societies of the North, hence mainstream ideas of wellbeing are framed within grand Western narratives of what it means to be human. What does a consideration of "place" bring to current understandings of wellbeing? In what ways do "alternative" understandings of wellbeing based on different modes of humanity challenge conventional ideas debated in mainstream scholarship and policy debates? Can such understandings of wellbeing represent possible viable alternatives to mainstream universalising concepts of wellbeing? We invite ethnographic and non-ethnographic papers that reflect critically on the importance that "place" as an empirical and ontological category plays in considerations of wellbeing cross-culturally.

Discussant: David Napier

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


Wellbeing, well-beings, and being well

Author: Emilia Ferraro (University of St. Andrews)  email


This introductory paper summarizes the main debates in wellbeing scholarship and policy debates, and their underpinning premises.

Long Abstract

This introductory paper summarizes the main debates in wellbeing scholarship and policy debates, and their underpinning premises.The paper argument is that the development of wellbeing scholarship mirrors the development of changing ideas and discourses about the individual, society and nature in "the West". As such, it is part of a "parochial" narrative about human-ness whose universality must be discussed rather than assumed.

Das Kind mit dem Bade ausschütten? Gadamer's concept of 'health' within contemporary discussions on (subjective) well-being and place

Author: Fionagh Thomson (University of St Andrews)  email


Contemporary discussions around Well-being and Place have been criticised for being formed and controlled by the medical model of care. This paper explores the role of Gadamer’s concept of ‘health’, that is notably absent within current debates.

Long Abstract

Contemporary discussions around Well-being have been criticised for being formed and controlled by the medical model of care, in particular by four dominant concepts. Firstly, as an abstract and objective concept, designed as a tool for policy makers and rarely linked to citizens' everyday worlds. Secondly, as an absence of medically defined disease, particularly mental health issues. Thirdly, a universal concept assigned to an individual by objective categories rather than by the individual themselves. Finally, as a quality belonging/confined to an individual rather than as being part of the wider community.

Recent challenges to these dominant representations of well-being, has led to, for example, i) the concept of subjective wellbeing being incorporated into future UK household surveys and - within the interdisciplinary field of wellbeing and place - ii) an increasing shift from individual wellbeing towards community and environmental wellbeing.

This paper explores the role of Hans-Georg Gadamer's concept of 'health' (as outlined in his 1996 work the Enigma of Health) within these current debates on Well-being and Place. Gadamer's work is notably absent, although he challenges the medical model of care in contemporary understandings of well-being and the importance of a human being's place within their everyday world.

Place attachment, ascetic topophobia, and self-transcendence

Author: Neil Thin (University of Edinburgh)  email


This paper will seek to enrich our analytical approaches to place-wellbeing links by exploring how place-transcendence is promoted as an implicit or explicit wellbeing strategy through ascetic theories and practices, collective rituals, and myths worldwide.

Long Abstract

Place attachment, the belief that our identity and wellbeing are rooted in a particular location, is a specific subcategory of topophilia. It has recently become a major theme in architecture and in social gerontology and in urban and rural planning, adding to its already long-recognized importance as an issue in planned migration and forced displacement. Wellbeing is often believed to require secure attachment to a particular home and to the associated community. Conversely, deracination and insecure place attachment are commonly assumed to be psychologically damaging. However, people can also become pathologically home-bound, just as they can be unhealthily attached to specific people or to material possessions. Place-transcendence, as an aspect of self-transcendence, is widely recognized as vital to mental health and to personal and ‘spiritual’ growth. In most cultures, although there are rituals that reinforce and celebrate place attachment, there are also ‘world renouncing’ or escapist cultural elements that deliberately disrupt it and question its value. No human grows up without being subjected to a variety of ascetic theories and practices, collective rituals, and myths, that encourage or celebrate at least temporary detachment by valorising excursions into the wilderness, permanent wilderness residence, and even permanent vagabondage. By analyzing these we can access a diversity of traditional beliefs and implicit theories concerning the costs and benefits of place attachment, and of how people should achieve balance or harmony between the will to localise and the will to explore.

Place of birth and concepts of wellbeing

Authors: Christine McCourt (City University London)  email
Juliet Rayment (City University London)  email
Jane Sandall (Women’s Health Academic Centre)  email
Susanna Rance (King's College London; Plymouth University)  email
Camilla Schneck  email


Based on a series of ethnographic case studies of birthcentres in the UK and Brazil, this paper discusses the conceptual and practical associations between place of birth and wellbeing in childbirth for women, families and professionals, as well as the use of place as a metaphor for wellbeing.

Long Abstract

This paper is based on analysis of a series of ethnographic case studies of birth centres in the UK and a cross-cultural case study in Brazil. Birthcentres are spaces that were developed to provide more homely and less medically oriented care for birth, run by midwives, either on a hospital site, proximate to an obstetric unit (AMU) or more remote from the hospital (FMU). Birthcentres have been designed and intended specifically as locations of wellbeing and this claim is supported by a large epidemiological study, which found that birthcentres provide safe care while reducing use of medical interventions. The birthcentre is intended as a protected space, one which uses domestic features as metaphors of home and contrasts these with the medical environment of most hospital births in order to promote a sense of wellbeing and to re-normalise concepts of birth, which had become inhabited by medical models and a preoccupation with risk. They also appear to function as protected spaces for midwives, intended to protect midwives' wellbeing following decades of professional struggles to maintain autonomy, midwife-led care and a professional identity founded on supporting normal, healthy birth. Comparisons are drawn between this recent development in UK policy and the creation of birthcentres as a major aspect of the Brazilian Ministry of Health's response to the 'rehumanisation of birth' (REHUNA) movement - the Rede Cegonha - which is focused on restoring wellbeing on individual, professional and community levels, particularly through a focus on the place of birth.

Sacred places and human well-being in contemporary Shimla

Author: Jonathan Miles-Watson (Durham University)  email


This paper engages theoretical ideas about wellbeing that I developed in ‘Ethnographic Insights into Happiness’ with ideas generated through fieldwork in Shimla. Through this process I demonstrate the complex range of ways that place is central to wellbeing in a contemporary postcolonial city.

Long Abstract

In this paper I engage theoretical ideas about the importance of place for well-being that I first developed in 'Ethnographic Insights into Happiness' (2009) with ideas that were generated through the process of subsequent fieldwork in contemporary Shimla, North India. During this paper I will show something of the way that competing sacred geographies of place operate in counter-intuitive ways to weave a coherent (if at times discordant) 'implicit mythology' that transforms the space of Shimla into a series of nested (both personal and communally held) places. These seemingly competing processes of becoming in relation to place reveal an essential feature of many contemporary Shimlites well-being: the both historical and ongoing relationships that constitute both person and place. During my fieldwork the most dramatic way that these tensions and resolutions were revealed is through the relationship of colonial Christian places of worship to postcolonial Hindu places of worship. By focussing on the interplay of two key places in particular, one centred on Christchurch Cathedral and the other on Shimla's giant Hanuman, I will explore the way that the apparent tension of these places is resolved through the flow of human and non-human interaction around these sacred places.

The angry earth: the Ashaninka pursuit of wellbeing in times of war and extractivist industries (Peruvian Amazonia)

Author: Juan Pablo Sarmiento Barletti (Durham University)  email


Building on notions of the agential and transformative qualities of land in indigenous Amazonia, this paper posits that some of these groups see land as a living entity but also see a parallel between land and themselves as moral agents that is key to their understanding of wellbeing.

Long Abstract

This paper expands on the literature on the agential and relational aspects of land in Amazonia, focusing on how some indigenous Amazonians posit it has memory and a high sense of morality that is key to their understanding of wellbeing. This is especially important in today's context of extractive practices and increased indigenous interest in economic activities which require a more intensive use of the environment.

My work amongst Ashaninka people offers a different view into the agency and memory of land. I will show how Ashaninka understanding of the current scarcity of fish and game and the diminished productivity of their gardens is grounded on aipatsite's ('our land/territory/earth') capacity as a moral and memorious agent whose emotions have been affected by the extreme violence of the Peruvian internal war (1980-2000) and of extractivist industries.

I propose that not only do Ashaninka people see aipatsite as a living entity they must interact with in socially productive ways, but that they see a parallel between it and themselves as moral agents. Just like the antisocial behaviour of many Ashaninka people in the wake of the war is understood to be fuelled by anger stemmed in 'not being able to forget violence', scarcity is understood as evidence of aipatsite's anger due to this continuous violence. Thus, for a return to their pursuit of wellbeing in the wake of war, people and aipatsite must be reminded of the positive pre-war social relationships in order to eradicate the memory of violence from their bodies.

La "selva es nuestra madre y el origen de la vida": Siona notion of wellbeing

Authors: Emilia Ferraro (University of St. Andrews)  email
Sandro Piaguaje  email


This paper relates Siona’s concept of wellbeing “from the inside” through the words of the Siona’s spokesperson. Siona people believe that healing their wounded territory (la Selva) and thus restoring its wellbeing is the only possible way to human survival and wellbeing.

Long Abstract

This paper relates Siona people's concept of wellbeing "from the inside" through the words of the Siona spokesperson. Siona People live along the Putumayo river, across the boundaries between Colombia and Ecuador. Target of the "plan Colombia", the area is plagued with a number of military, economic, and social conflicts. Siona concept of wellbeing does not operate any difference between human, social and environmental well-being. Furthermore, they are adamant that healing their wounded territory (la Selva) and thus restoring its wellbeing is the only possible way to human survival and wellbeing.

Wellbeing, health and ancestral knowledge for sustainable futures

Authors: Emilia Ferraro (University of St. Andrews)  email
Oscar Dario Forero Usma  email


Drawing on years of work with indigenous peoples of the Amazon, and of practice as a medical doctor, in this paper the author will discuss and propose a novel way of looking at wellbeing, health and the body, one which also puts forward a new mode of humanity for a sustainable future.

Long Abstract

Wellbeing, whatever its definition, necessarily includes the body. What type of body underpins current medical understanding of wellbeing? This paper will discuss critically and challenge conventional medical ideas of body and health. Drawing on years of work with indigenous peoples of the Amazon,and of practice as a medical doctor, the author of this paper will discuss and propose a novel way of looking at the above issues, one which also puts forward a new mode of humanity for a sustainable future. The discussion will also show the relevance of "ancestral" knowledge for this process.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.