Interview with James B. Waldram

The next few months we’ll be highlighting authors who have published in Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry.

Jim Waldram is a Distinguished Professor of Anthropology at the University of Saksatchewan. A canadian anthropologist with specializations in applied and medical anthropology, he obtained his PhD from the University of Connecticut in 1983, after completing Bachelor’s (University of Waterloo) and Master’s (University of Manitoba) degrees in Canada. He is the author of several books, including Hound Pound Narrative: Sexual Offender Habilitation and the Anthropology of Therapeutic Intervention (2012, University of California Press) and An Imperative to Cure: Principles and Practice of Q’eqchi’ Maya Medicine in Belize (2020, University of New Mexico Press). He is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the Canadian Anthropology Society, and the Society for Applied Anthropology.

What is your articleDoes “Susto” Really Exist? Indigenous Knowledge and Fright Disorders Among Q’eqchi’ Maya in Belizeabout?

This article examines the knowledge held by a group of Indigenous people – the Q’eqchi’ Maya of Belize – with respect to fright-related disorders. It challenges the idea that one particular fright disorder, known as susto, is essentially the same everywhere. Susto is well documented in cultural psychiatry, and the term appears in major psychiatric textbooks. But it appears to be an overlay of Indigenous knowledge by western psychiatric researchers, with the result that the complexities and nuances of Indigenous fright disorders are rendered invisible. This article takes that Indigenous knowledge seriously and uses it to talk back to susto, to question the rote applicability to Indigenous peoples of this particular western conceptualization of disorder.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your research interests. 

I live in Saskatchewan, Canada, known for bright sunshine and long,hot summer nights, as well as cold, dark winters. So, researching in Belize is very nice! I have been working with a group of Q’eqchi medical practitioners, and their patients, for almost twenty years. I am intrigued by the concept of ‘healing’ and much of my work has examined therapeutic practice in settings such as northern Indigenous communities, prisons, clinics, and now southern Belizian Q’eqchi’ villages.  

What drew you to this project? 

I was invited by the Q’eqchi’ medical practitioners to research, document, and share their medical practice and knowledge, in response to efforts by evangelicals and others to paint them as satanic or charlatans.

What was one of the most interesting findings?

I had a notion of ‘healing’ as fundamentally about repairing social relationships and psychological harms, based on my work with Indigenous groups in Canada. I was surprised to find that the Q’eqchi’ medical practitioners – who some would refer to as ‘healers’ – are focused mostly on diagnosing and treating medical conditions and seeking a cure for their patients.

What are you reading, listening to, and/or watching right now?

I don’t have much time for reading outside of my scholarly pursuits and teaching. I do listen to blues music regularly, and I watch a great deal of football (Canadian style).

If there was one takeaway or action point you hope people will get from your work, what would it be?

It is imperative to take seriously the deep and complex knowledge of Indigenous peoples and allow their understandings and explanations to exist equally alongside those of western science. 

Thank you for your time!

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