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Singer, J 2008, 'Listening to refugee bodies : the naturopathic encounter as a cross-cultural meeting place', PhD thesis, Southern Cross University, Lismore, NSW.

Copyright J Singer 2008


This thesis examines the meanings of naturopathy through the experiences of twelve women with refugee backgrounds involved in naturopathic treatment at the Victorian Foundation for Survivors of Torture (Foundation House), a refugee torture and trauma rehabilitation service in Melbourne, Australia. The findings of this research show that the naturopathic encounter provided a transformative and meaningful meeting place for healing, a place in which the women felt at ease and in place. At Foundation House naturopathy has been practised alongside counselling since 1989, two years after the organisation’s inception. The women I interviewed for this project came from diverse sociocultural backgrounds and a wide range of countries including Iraq, Iran, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, Burma and Serbia. The thesis brings together two contemporary fields of practice: Western models of refugee health care and traditional medicine. It argues for the place of non-biomedical approaches in refugee health care in a Western setting. The thesis takes an interdisciplinary approach to theorise the naturopathic encounter. The distinction between holistic and reductionist perspectives on health, illness and the body is underpinned by the theoretical work of medical anthropologists Nancy Scheper-Hughes and Margaret Lock and that of medical sociologist Aaron Antonovsky. A cultural studies perspective, influenced by the work of embodiment scholar Elspeth Probyn is employed to theorise these women’s experiences of the naturopathic encounter. This qualitative study is based on in-depth interviews and draws on grounded theory as an approach to data analysis. Descriptions of respite, renewal, and healing in the naturopathic encounter are cited as the most observable themes emerging from the women’s stories. These themes represent a health-oriented, as opposed to a disease-focused, perspective. Importantly, a health-orientated approach is congruent with the core tenets of naturopathic philosophy. Listening to the body is a crucial therapeutic tool in the naturopathic encounter, where primacy is given to supporting and strengthening health-creating strategies. I argue that this orientation disrupts the existing dominant biomedical approach to refugee health care. I draw on the work of Probyn to theorise the movement from the naturopathic encounter (NE) to the naturopathic meeting place (NMP). Central to this transposition is Probyn’s articulation of the body’s awareness of being in and out of place. This awareness lends itself to an understanding of the connectedness between past and present in the bridge-making that these particular refugee women have engaged in across cultures in the NMP. The thesis addresses an important but often neglected focus in refugee research: the resilience and agency of refugees. This positive aspect of refugee recovery is revealed in the research by theorising the women’s stories through Probyn’s embodiment analysis and cognisance of the ‘everyday’ as a productive and creative process. The research interrupts the ubiquitous image of the ‘disempowered refugee victim’. It highlights the practical wisdom and agency of these particular women that is often overshadowed in the complex resettlement process. It makes a call for further health-orientated research to broaden and deepen our understanding of the refugee experience.