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Transcultural psychiatry

Mass fainting in garment factories in Cambodia.


PMID 28398195

Abstract

This paper reports an ethnographic study of mass fainting among garment factory workers in Cambodia. Research was undertaken in 2010-2015 in 48 factories in Phnom Penh and 8 provinces. Data were collected in Khmer using nonprobability sampling. In participant observation with monks, factory managers, health workers, and affected women, cultural understandings were explored. One or more episodes of mass fainting occurred at 34 factories, of which 9 were triggered by spirit possession. Informants viewed the causes in the domains of ill-health/toxins and supernatural activities. These included "haunting" ghosts at factory sites in the wake of Khmer Rouge atrocities or recent fatal accidents and retaliating guardian spirits at sites violated by foreign owners. Prefigurative dreams, industrial accidents, or possession of a coworker heralded the episodes. Workers witnessing a coworker fainting felt afraid and fainted. When taken to clinics, some showed signs of continued spirit influence. Afterwards, monks performed ritual ceremonies to appease spirits, extinguish bonds with ghosts, and prevent recurrence. Decoded through its cultural motifs of fear and protest, contagion, forebodings, the bloody Khmer Rouge legacy, and trespass, mass fainting in Cambodia becomes less enigmatic.