Theses Doctoral

Beyond the asylum: Colonial psychiatry in French Indochina, 1880-1940

Edington, Claire Ellen

This dissertation looks beyond the asylum to consider the development of psychiatry in French Indochina as the product of everyday exchanges between lay people and experts. Drawing on archival research conducted over two years in Vietnam and France - including hundreds of patient case files - I trace the movements of patients in and out of asylums and between prisons, poor houses, youth reformatories, hospitals and family homes. Together, these individual patient itineraries challenge our notion of the colonial asylum as a closed setting where patients rarely left, run by experts who enjoyed broad and unquestioned authority. Instead, they reveal how ideas about what it meant to be abnormal, as well as normal enough to return to social life, were debated between psychiatrists, colonial authorities and the public throughout the early decades of twentieth century. By examining the dynamics of patient movements in and out of psychiatric care, this study shifts our perspective from the asylum itself to its relationship with the world beyond its walls. Colonial scholars have focused on the way psychiatry provided a new scientific discourse of racial difference and how it figured within a wider biopolitics of colonial rule. However the social histories of the asylums themselves, and how they functioned within colonial political systems, remain little explored. I argue that by situating the history of psychiatry within the local dynamics of colonial rule, the asylum emerges as less of a blunt instrument for the control and medicalization of colonial society than as a valuable historical site for reframing narratives of colonial repression and resistance.

Geographic Areas


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Sociomedical Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Bayer, Ronald
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
July 16, 2013