Academic journal article Family Relations

Ambiguous Loss in a Non-Western Context: Families of the Disappeared in Postconflict Nepal

Academic journal article Family Relations

Ambiguous Loss in a Non-Western Context: Families of the Disappeared in Postconflict Nepal

Article excerpt

Ambiguous loss has become a standard theory for understanding the impact of situations where the presence of a family member is subject to ambiguity. A number of studies of ambiguous loss have been made in a range of situations of ambiguity, but almost all have been firmly located within a Western cultural context. Here, ambiguous loss is explored in a different cultural context through a study of the families of persons disappeared during Nepal's decade-long Maoist insurgency. Through the use of qualitative research methods, a sample of families (n = 160) of those disappeared during the conflict has been studied to understand the impact of disappearance. The results of this study are compared with the expectations of ambiguous loss theory to test its relevance in the Nepali context.

Key Words: ambiguous loss, boundary ambiguity:, disappearance, missing. Nepal.

Disappearance is defined as "the arrest, detention, abduction or any other form of deprivation of liberty by agents of the State . . . followed by a refusal to acknowledge the deprivation of liberty or by concealment of the fate or whereabouts of the disappeared person" (UN Convention on Enforced Disappearance, 2006, Article 2). In practice, it is most often a mechanism for states to kill opponents covertly. Disappearances were widespread in Nepal during the decade-long Maoist insurgency that began in 1996; 3 years after the end of the conflict, more than 1,300 persons remain unaccounted for (International Committee of the Red Cross [ICRC], 2008). Disappearance leaves families with uncertainty regarding the fate of loved ones, unsure if fathers, husbands, and sons are alive or dead. Interventions to support such families have few theoretical foundations; ambiguous loss theory (Boss, 2006) is one of the few that may be relevant. Existing studies on ambiguous loss, however, are largely restricted to a single cultural context, namely, that of Western, and largely North American, families. Here, the impact of disappearance on families in Nepal is studied with a view to empirically testing theories of ambiguous loss, and understanding family boundaries, in a different cultural context and to steer interventions with families of the disappeared in Nepal.

The qualitative study reported here is the first explicit test of the extent to which the ambiguous loss model, largely developed from data taken in a single culture, has relevance for a very different one, with radically different family and social structures. Disappearance is a phenomenon that has become routine in war and political violence. The findings of this study permit culturally sensitive and relevant interventions to be proposed to assist such families. Beyond the context of Nepal, the extended and patriarchal families studied here are similar to those found elsewhere in Asia. This study can provide lessons for the application of ambiguous loss theory in other contexts where disappearance occurs and, indeed, in other situations of ambiguous loss.

This paper begins by discussing the existing literature on the impact of disappearance and introduces the ambiguous loss model as a potential descriptor of how disappearance affects families. The cultural context is then introduced, with a brief description of the economic, cultural, and social context of the Nepali families impacted by disappearance; a summary of typical family dynamics; and an overview of the conflict. The methodology of the study is described and themes identified, around which findings are presented. The data are then compared with the ambiguous loss framework as a test of its relevance to families of the disappeared in Nepal. Finally, the implications of these findings for intervention with affected families are discussed, as well as the limitations of this study and potential for further research.

The Impact of Disappearance and the Ambiguous Loss Model

Studies have been carried out on both the general impact of war on civilians and on families of the disappeared in particular, dominated by approaches that privilege investigations of the psychological sequelae of trauma and in particular posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD). …

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