Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry

, Volume 36, Issue 1, pp 51–77 | Cite as

When Love Meets Drugs: Pharmaceuticalizing Ambivalence in Post-Socialist China

  • Zhiying Ma
Original Paper


In this article, I examine the interaction between intimacy and psychiatry to explore the ambivalences in the use of pharmaceuticals in psychiatric practice. Of particular interest is how pharmaceuticals come to constitute in multiple ways what pathology is and what form of life needs to be restored, and how psychiatric medications reconfigure the ambivalence of intimacy in post-socialist China. Following the life of Mei, a female psychiatric patient, for two years, I have made a series of discoveries related to medicine and intimacy in China. Specifically, I show that psychopharmaceuticals indicate a diseased body that threatens the intimate bond. They also highlight a socially suffering subject that is in lack of love from the intimate partner who demands the latter’s redemption. I discuss how these multiple and contradicting meanings of psychopharmaceuticals and intimacy are socio-historically situated. Thus, while previous research in medical anthropology criticizes pharmaceuticalization for reducing the socio-political life (bios) to a biological body (zoē), I argue that these life forms co-exist in a pharmaceutical “zone of indistinction” (Agamben, Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1998), in which they constitute and contradict each other. This discussion warns researchers against falling back into the usual orientation of either biomedicine or the social sciences.


Pharmaceuticalization Ambivalence Intimacy Psychiatry Post-Socialist China 



This study was supported by the Summer Research Grant from the Social Sciences Division, University of Chicago, and the Lemelson/Society for Psychological Anthropology Pre-Dissertation Fund, made possible by a generous donation from Robert Lemelson. I am indebted to Prof. Judith Farquhar, Prof. Eugene Raikhel, Julia Kowalski, Meghan Hammond, and Michael Chladek, who have critically read through the earlier versions of this paper in great details. Prof. Susan Gal, Prof. Julie Chu, and members in the Clinical Ethnography Workshop also generously spent time to discuss with me this project and provided deep insights. I am grateful to Allison Schlosser and Kristi Ninnemann, who organized a wonderful panel on psychopharmaceuticals in the Society for Psychological Anthropology Biennial Meeting, 2011. It is their persistent efforts in putting together this special section and Prof. Janis Jenkins’ kind encouragement that pushed me to turn my original thoughts and presentation into a full-length article. I would like to thank my anonymous reviewers and journal editors, who raised challenging questions that pushed my analysis in productive directions. Last but not least, I am grateful to the patients, families, and doctors who openly participated in my research and shared their stories/opinions.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, LLC 2012

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Comparative Human DevelopmentUniversity of ChicagoChicagoUSA

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