Dissertation Abstracts

Illusions and sufferings of migration : the use of psychiatric care by Chinese migrants and their descendants in Paris

Author: WANG, Simeng , simeng.wang1017@gmail.com
Department: Department of Social Sciences
University: Ecole Normale Supérieure (Paris), France
Supervisor: Stéphane Beaud and Richard Rechtman
Year of completion: 2014
Language of dissertation: French

Keywords: Chinese migrants in Paris , Therapeutic relationship , Mental health , Ethnography
Areas of Research: Migration , Mental Health and Illness , Clinical Sociology


This PhD thesis draws on ethnographic surveys carried out from 2010 to 2014 both in the medical field – a dozen of medical services in French psychiatry public and private sectors -, and in the private sphere of Chinese families. The word « psychiatric » is used here in broad term, to describe all mental health care activities resorting to different psychiatric approaches such as psychological, psychotherapeutic and psychoanalytic care.

The ethnographic approach brings a new perspective of the logics to go for psychiatric care, without forgetting the links among the social uses of those cares, and the contexts of the Chinese immigration which influence the latter. This work reveals the daily life of migrants, but also the work of healthcare professionals in psychiatric institutions, behind the scenes. In the same way, the perception of the migrants and of the health professionals were captured and reinscribed into the economic, political, social and moral contexts of transnational migrations. The ethnographic survey takes into account the diversity of subgroups of Chinese in Paris : intellectuals having immigrated in Paris after the Tian’anmen square events, students freshly arrived, illegal migrants of the first generation, descendants of this first generation having immigrated through family reunification, descendants of migrants born in France.

The central research question of the dissertation, the social distinction in psychiatric care uses within Chinese migrants and their descendants in Paris, is assessed via objective and subjective indicators. The former concern the migratory generation, the total capital owned by the individual through different forms, and the structure of this capital. The latter refer to the individual’s subjective perception of his own social status, before and through the psychiatric care use. Migrants indeed differently apprehend their psychological troubles. Thereafter, they differently appropriate and/or reappropriate the western psychiatric knowledge – more precisely when it has a psychanalytic orientation and is mainly based on the use of speech.

Finally, by also focusing on the points of view of the healthcare professionals, this PhD thesis demonstrates to what extent the relationship between those practitioners and Chinese families, could be understood as power struggles, based on both the ethnic alterity and on the social distance between the protagonists. The participation of the interviewer at consultations and the multiple identities she took – interviewer, mediator, and sociologist – enabled to clarify the logics simultaneously of the linguistic translation, the intercultural mediation, and the sociological analysis in a care-giving situation. In a more direct epistemological perspective, these thoughts enabled to explain the possibilities and the limits of the sociologist’s intervention in the psychiatric field: the knowledge of several languages and of different speech levels enable the interviewer to navigate through the power dynamics that occur. This perspective leads here to a detailed analysis of the language construction in the psychiatric field, the specific context of psychotherapies intended to migrants, where the ethnic heterogeneity and the social distance between the healthcare professionals and the Chinese families take a substantial importance.