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The state construction of affect: Political ethos and mental health among Salvadoran refugees


This essay seeks to extend current anthropological theorizing on emotion. Although anthropologists have convincingly established the specifically cultural status of emotion, recognition also of "state" (including sociopolitical institutions of nation-states) constructions of affect has been slow in coming. The present essay seeks to expand the emerging scholarly discourse on the emotions by examining the nexus among the role of the state in constructing a political ethos, the personal emotions of those who dwell in that ethos, and the mental health consequences for refugees. This analysis is intended as a bridge between analyses of the state construction of affect, on the one hand, and the phenomenology of those affects, on the other. To illustrate, I examine the state construction of affect and its traces in the narrative and clinical presentations of Salvadoran refugees in North America. The saliency of fear and anxiety among a group of psychiatric out-patients is framed by bodily experience, knowledge of illness, and the ethnopsychology of emotion within the context of chronic political violence and poverty. Distinctions between terror and torture, distress and disease are proposed as essential to an account of refugee experience. Future directions for the study of the "state construction of affect" are suggested.

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