Modes of explanation and treatment for ill-health based on ideas about spirit attack or other non-material causes exist in many societies, usually alongside forms of explanation and treatment which appear more 'rational' by Western biomedical standards. The separation between mind and body, and between self and other, in Western thought present obstacles to understanding such modes of treatment. They lead anthropologists and others to see spirit healing and similar techniques as concerned with 'subjective' aspects of ill-health (illness rather than disease, in Kleinman's well-known formulation) and to focus explanatory and analytical models on social aspects of the healing process. The body can only be integrated into such analyses through assumptions of 'somatization', the 'placebo effect', etc., but these are of only limited use in understanding how spirit healing might affect bodily processes. I argue that we can go further, but only if we take the spirit-language more seriously; not in terms of occult forces, but as providing tokens and images for operating on the structure of human life at all levels, within a framework which does not assume rigid distinctions between mind and body, or self and other. An initial approach derives from taking spirits as representative of particular modes of action and feeling. This enables us to see the language of the spirits as a way to rebalance organismic functioning in relation to various kinds of physiological stress, a rebalancing which may be seen as contributing directly to organismic healing at a physiological (material) level, rather than operating in purely 'psychological' terms.
Journal of Ritual Studies Vol. 24, Issue 2, p. 7-20