Modern Asian Studies

Reading Sri Lanka's Suicide Rate  *


Department of Anthropology, School of Global Studies, University of Sussex, UK Website: Email:;


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.

(Online publication August 22 2013)


*  The research upon which this paper is based was kindly supported by two scholarships from the Royal Anthropological Institute (the Emslie Horniman Scholarship Fund and the Firth Trust Fund), the Wenner-Gren Foundation Dissertation Fieldwork Grant (Gr. 7259), the London School of Economics Alfred Gell Studentship, the University of London Research Grant, and the University of Essex LS Grant. The paper was written when I held an Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) Post Doctoral Fellowship in the Anthropology Department at Brunel University (PTA-026-27-2739).