Guide Representations of Death: A Social Psychological Perspective

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Individualisation is the outcome of socialisation and not its antithesis. The self in humans needs to be understood both phylogenetically, in terms of the evolution of the species, and ontogenetically, in terms of the development of each individual member of the species. Farr 54 For Mead, mind was the product of language. Therefore thinking is also a social activity, a kind of conversation held with oneself.

As a pragmatist philosopher, Mead fought against dualisms, such as the split between self and other, that Descartes had introduced into philosophy. Farr notes that Mead was repudiated by the positivists in psychology and his research findings were given little attention in the histories written about the discipline Allport or in handbooks Lindzey ; Lindzey and Aronson , From this historical perspective we can begin to understand the reason why so little truly social research has been undertaken by social psychologists in the last few decades, particularly in North America.

In the psychological traditions of social psychology the study of culture and of society has been unfashionable for The study. Without an understanding of, and sympathy for, culture, the study of death remains one-dimensional. The only option available is to research individual behavioural responses to death, i.

The theory of social representations also belongs to the sociological tradition of social psychology. This relatively new theory, founded by Moscovici a , hails from France. It provides us with the exciting opportunity of reintroducing culture to the discipline of psychology. Systems of values, ideas and practices with a twofold function; first, to establish an order which will enable individuals to orientate themselves in their material and social world and to master it; secondly, to enable communication to take place among members of a community by providing them with a code for social exchange and a code for naming and classifying unambiguously the various aspects of their world and their individual and group history.

This environment of thought shapes our perceptions and conceptions of an object. So what we perceive in the world is a socially constructed reality held within certain cultural and historical boundaries. Moscovici has always been loath to constrain these explanatory models of our world — these ways of seeing and thinking — through the use of operational definitions. Certain problems have probably stemmed from the translation of the term from French to English.

Alternative definitions, such as the object being represented, the social milieu within which representations arise, or the shared character of representations, appear to underestimate the truly social meaning of this act of representing the world. How do systems of social representations, this imposing heritage that turns us into active participants in society even without our being aware of it, how do these systems come into being and then evolve?

These are questions historians and anthropologists try to answer, and they are relevant even for us as social psychologists. At last British studies are beginning to surface, too. Representations perform these functions by the process of anchoring, in which we use classification and naming to give a new object meaning, and objectification, in which we make the unfamiliar familiar by objectifying it Purkhardt Moscovici suggests that social representations are both conventional and prescriptive. Yet he emphasizes that they are also dynamic, evolving and becoming transformed through communication and interaction.

Each individual, he suggests, has a part to play in the way we represent our world Moscovici b. The essentially fluid nature of social representations makes this theory particularly attractive when studying contemporary societies. Representations do not just exist in the cognitive sphere, but also in our cultural and historical artefacts.

These symbolic representations emerge during social interaction and communication. Joffe points out that it is refreshing to come across a The study. In effect, Moscovici placed social representations in opposition to science. Purkhardt notes that this separation of two different types of reality was to prove rather controversial. Our assumption that science is free of the value dimension Joffe which is found in mass media is open to question. Fortunately the acceptance that science is itself consensual Purkhardt does not detract from the study of the dissemination of scientific ideas into the general population.

It appears that when faced with a terrible new disease both the lay population and scientific communities were active in their efforts to name and to objectify this new phenomenon, as people attempted to understand the origin and spread of the disease. The developing representations which were closely associated with the assessment of risk and the attribution of blame drew on ancient cultural themes. Joffe found that media representations were loosely based on scientific medical literature, which, significantly, were themselves prone to the exploration and discussion of questionable origin myths that tapped into the theme of blaming out-groups.

Joffe argues that the media and government health campaigns acted as important vessels for the dissemination of dominant representations regarding both the origin and the spread of the disease. This realization that science is itself consensual serves to remind us that the presence of science in the Western world does not make contemporary society completely different from those societies without science.

The realization that the infiltration of scientific thought does not necessarily cause the collapse of religious and mythical thinking has been dawning on anthropologists for some time. The imagined clean break that contemporary Western society has made with its past is significantly lessened.

Rituals and representations Moscovici a has claimed that social representations are an ideal tool for the study of modern, contemporary life where the mass media play a central role.

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The investigation of this era was to be the task of social psychology. Moscovici appears to view the modern Western world as a land without myths and, as a consequence, a place of empty rituals. While it would be absurd to suggest that the systems of belief in a complex, heterogeneous, industrial culture would be as coherent or as clear-cut as those found in a tightly knit, organic, non-industrial culture, it is also obvious that religions continue to exist in the former context.

Given the intense emotions aroused by death, it is hard to see even the most apparently modern funeral in terms of mere habit. It seems that in his attempt to modernize social representations, Moscovici left behind a key element of culture. In contemporary society, where science and the media play a huge role, rituals and customs are active agents too. This is particularly obvious when we come to study death; the dead cannot just be talked away. So what is a custom? Or a ritual? Seymour-Smith The study.

Custom presents fewer problems of definition, but is also used less frequently in anthropological text, presumably because customary behaviour is subsumed beneath descriptions of culture. Seymour-Smith provides another useful definition: customs can be seen as cultural traditions or habitual forms of behaviour within a given social group. Many committal services held in churches or chapels illustrate the features of sacred rituals.

Such a suspension of rational thought is aided by ritualistic activities such as singing and praying and ritualistic props such as architectural space, incense, altars and clerical robes. The funeral wake, on the other hand, could be described as a mortuary custom. British wakes have a long history and originally preceded the funeral service. During a wake the friends and family give a party in honour of the deceased. Typically, sandwiches, cakes and tea or alcohol are served in the house of the deceased, hosted by the closest next of kin. Collective representations Moscovici a identified Durkheim, a powerful force in both sociology and anthropology Lukes , as the ancestor of the theory.

This clearly marked out his theory as belonging to a sociological tradition of research and went some way in helping him achieve his goal of forging closer links with the social disciplines of anthropology and history Moscovici b. Deutscher is not alone in his reservations concerning the choice of just Durkheim as the ancestor of the theory Farr In Durkheim distinguished collective representations from individual representations.

Durkheim argued that while sociologists should study collective representations, the study of individual representations was the domain of psychologists Farr Yet sociological forms of social psychology have developed. The social representation appears to work. It is possible that we are about to enter into an era of collective representations. Farr suggests that in these times of globalization there may be a place for this concept. Summary and conclusion In this chapter I have sought to find a way of understanding contemporary British death practices from a social psychological perspective.

My study therefore lies in a social tradition of research founded on the philosophy of Hegel. Naturally, adopting this Hegelian position will enable me to make use of both anthropology and sociology. In the chapters that follow, I explore the role played by contemporary death customs and rituals in the production and reproduction of representations of death. Our deathways exist in time and place and I have attempted to give a brief social history of British death practices. Death practices have been undergoing relatively rapid transformations for almost years and the period while I was in the field was no exception.

I saw the launch of the natural death movement, discussed in some detail in Chapter 6. This is a topic in which every action appears to be invested with layers of meaning and it is particularly helpful to adopt an open-ended approach. Not knowing in advance what conclusions will be drawn from the research project is a positive feature of qualitative studies.


In the simultaneous process of data collection and analysis I used the theory of social representations, described in the previous chapter. I have taken my inspiration from field studies by Humpheys , Festinger et al. As I shall illustrate in this chapter, my presence during the fieldwork had an effect on what people did or said. Further, my life experience and personality has had an incalculable impact not only on the interpretations I made of the data, but also on the way in which I present this material in written form.

Such an approach represents something of a departure from traditional social psychological research in which quantitative methodologies dominate. With the exception of social psychologists such as Radley , , who argues for the Researching death 27 use of qualitative research methods, most social psychological studies are positivistic. The use of inappropriate quantitative methodologies suggests that for many, including Moscovici, the transition to a sociological form of social psychology has not been easy.

Abric ; Codol ; Flament Semin The preference for quantitative studies also helps to explain why there has been so little research into the role of customs and rituals which cannot be sensibly explored by quantitative research techniques. Joffe identifies two strands of research in the field. But as Joffe points out, people may respond to a social representation and yet not be consciously aware that they are doing so.

Access to such representations is not possible through efforts of tapping consensuality, she argues. Therefore to understand social representations we have to look at culture as well as at what people have to say. In a theory that focuses on the circulation of knowledge, as expressed in cultural artefacts, talk and behaviour, the striking avoidance of qualitative research methodologies has been a disappointment.

The role of pilot work Any piece of social research benefits greatly from a period of free-ranging, openminded exploration. This is called pilot work. There is nothing mysterious about undertaking pilot work. I then formulated a second list of people who work in these institutions. I began to hold informal chats with funeral directors; I sat in on bereavement support groups, interviewed therapists and bereavement counsellors; I talked to attendants at crematoria and cemetery managers.

I well remember spending long days in unfamiliar places, asking inappropriate questions. I suffered agonies of self-consciousness and self-doubt that were made all the more acute given the emotional and sensitive nature of the topic. Researching death in our own culture can be uncomfortable. However, a thorough pilot study is worthwhile and can alter the whole direction of the final main study.

That was the case in the present project. I launched into a few pilot interviews with women who had lost their husbands some months previously. Although their descriptions of sorrow were all too lucid, I soon found that their accounts were not dominated by talk about insomnia or an inability to concentrate on things, but by the social experience of Researching death 29 bereavement. For example, the women talked in great depth about the days leading up to the death; they vividly described the moment of death; they articulated their views on medical care; they talked about their relationship with the funeral director; they shared their thoughts on embalming; they told me about their fights with bureaucrats regarding insurance or social security claims and they often told me about their altered status as a widow.

I found these descriptive passages peopled by family, friends, work colleagues, pets and dozens of deathwork professionals. The accounts of loss were tainted by medical, commercial and bureaucratic concerns. Reformulating my research questions, I began to move away from an exploration of grief symptoms and focused instead on the cultural organization, or constructions, of dying, death and bereavement.

After a while, we find we are able to anticipate the general topics and broad themes that will emerge from a day in the field. This kind of saturation does not tend to occur so quickly in a main study, because the fine-tuned research questions generate their own data and make the data-collection process more complex and interesting.

Representations Of Death A Social Psychological Perspective

The researcher undertaking a pilot study is more like a journalist than a social scientist — they do make discoveries, but they are really just skimming the surface. After three or four months of pilot work I had reached a stage where I could articulate my new research questions, some of which are described below. As I was undertaking a qualitative research project, I was aware that these research questions were not fixed.

I would need to restate my hypotheses having considered the in-coming data. I had by now developed an interest in the cultural constructions of death. By this I mean I was keen to unravel the meaning behind the apparently normal acts which constitute our social organization of death: why do funeral directors move bodies from the hospital mortuary in unmarked vans?

Why are men, rather than women, seen as more able to cope with the sight of a disfigured corpse? Why do we spend so much time and money embalming a corpse that is cremated two days later? What happens when there is no body? From these vague and apparently disparate questions I began to distil my central research hypotheses. Influenced by the work of the anthropologists Durkheim , Hertz 30 Researching death and Van Gennup I began to conceptualize contemporary British deaths as representing some kind of threat to the existing social order.

I imagined that the survivors responded to the threat of disorder by participating in a variety of death customs and rituals. Yet in this industrialized, urbanized and multicultural society I could not expect the pattern of responses to be necessarily coherent. Drawing on the work of the anthropologist Douglas , , I was interested in looking at the way in which we react to the dead body. Faced by the shocking and inert corpse, I was intrigued to observe our reactions to an object that has the appearance of humanity yet lacks its essence.

What we do to the corpse may not necessarily be so rational or scientific, but symbolic, representing a discourse about death, an analysis of which provides insights not only into our views of mortality, but also into the very social fabric of contemporary culture. By this I mean a glimpse into the distribution of the social order, control and power. Our reaction to death is made more complex by the relatively recent handing over of the process of dying and the acts of disposal to groups of specially trained deathwork professionals.

Making use of the sociologist Goffman , I wanted to look at the ways in which our death practices are dramatized between deathwork professional and grieving client. Finally, making use of the social psychological theory championed by Moscovici a I wanted to explore how representations of death and loss both shape and are shaped by our mortuary practices. For example, what is the nature of the interplay between a representation of the good death and the practice of embalming? These became my working hypotheses which were shaped by and in turn shaped my fieldwork.

Participating and observing Participant observation lends itself to certain research environments. Funeral directors and crematorium attendants run most of their operations behind the scenes, hidden from view. For example, very few people know what an embalmer does when they embalm a body. We are unlikely to know what tools they may use. We may not have ever paused to consider what qualifications they have acquired and we are most unlikely to be familiar with the appearance of an embalming room.

Knowledge about the funeral industry is not general knowledge. Until quite recently, detailed information about the Researching death 31 social organization of death in contemporary Britain was scanty even within the academic world. Research into this field requires familiarity with sites, scenes, conversations and behaviour which at first may seem extraordinary. Participant observation provides the ideal means to such an end Jorgensen By participant observation we mean that method in which the observer participates in the daily life of the people under study, either openly or in the role of researcher or covertly in some disguised role, observing things that happen, listening to what is said, and questioning people, over some length of time.

They suggest that it should involve some genuine social interaction in the field, direct observation of relevant events, some formal and informal interviewing, some systematic counting, some collection of documents— artefacts and an open mind in regard to the direction that the study might take. For a fuller description of the practice of participant observation I would direct the reader to the works of Becker , Lofland and Burgess , and Malinowski A major difficulty facing the budding participant observer is the issue of gaining access.

Jorgensen outlines two distinct entry strategies: overt and covert. Overt approaches entail gaining permission from those in power through formal applications. Naturally, this sort of overt approach is necessary if we wish to enter into any kind of participatory role. Indeed, I wrote so many letters to funeral parlours, hospitals, crematoria, etc. People are naturally wary of psychologists and, in my experience, slightly alarmed by qualitative researchers who are not clutching a questionnaire booklet.

The psychologist in the field may have to rely on their persuasive powers. Finally, however clearly we try to explain what happens during the research process, we can discover that those who have agreed to take part in a study imagined something very different. In such instances, I had little choice but to adapt to the restraints of the situation. I never did get to see his embalming room. It is useful to remember the issue of motivation. Wax , working on a model of reciprocity, identifies the following, somewhat depressing, reasons why people agree to help in social research: loneliness, boredom, curiosity, ego and vanity.

These individuals may be outsiders and may be more likely to approach a social scientist than those who are highly integrated into the community in question. Meanwhile, the researcher should remain aware of their motivations. This is particularly tempting when carrying out same-culture studies. Any group of persons — prisoners, primitives, pilots, or patients —develop a life of their own that becomes meaningful, reasonable, and normal once you get close to it, and that a good way to learn about any of these worlds is to submit oneself in the company of the members to the daily round of petty contingencies to which they are subject.

Staff members within these very different institutions or sites are loosely held together by their common activity and their mutual aims: namely to discover, report and note the cause of a death and to dispose of a corpse. At first the extent and form of my sample was chosen on the basis of my pilot study. By this I mean I purposely chose subjects to compare with those spoken to previously. For example, having spoken to several traditional family-run funeral directors, I sought out an interview with a business involved in aggressive buy-outs of old familyrun firms.

This enabled me to compare the widely differing perspectives and aspirations of the old and the new. This kind of sampling decision was very much conditioned by my frame of reference but, as Zelditch notes, this is acceptable. By its nature, a participant observation study offers the researcher various sources of data. These come in many different forms. We can also use documents, audio-recorders, photographs, video-recorders, artefacts and a personal fieldwork diary or log. I made use of all the other sources of data, such as audio-recorders, etc. Choosing the right kind of role for the researcher is very important.

Geer suggests that fieldworkers should try not to stand out as different from those whom 34 Researching death they are studying. We should be neutral, yet approachable. Maintaining such a role can be a strain and, of course, much depends on the topic under study. For example, in their classic study of a Messianic cult, Festinger et al.

As it turned out, this middle-of-the-road mildness aroused great suspicion from fellow cult members who were, after all, anticipating the end of the world. Similarly, when researching death, we have to get the balance right between the quest for good data and the need to adapt to social situations which are often emotional.

I had to live with myself after a day in the field; I was cautious. Degrees of participation over observation can vary from study to study, ranging from full participation to full observation. Rose has identified the following sets of fieldwork roles: complete participation; participant-as-observer; observer-asparticipant; and complete observer. Another way of looking at these various roles is to think of them as insider versus outsider. Thus, the role adopted has a great impact on incoming data.

During the data-collection process and the analysis and presentation of the data it is important to keep in mind which roles were used and to think about what influence this may have had on things. So what kind of balance between participant-observer or insider—outsider did I achieve in my roles as researcher? Researching the social organization of death requires that we follow the corpse from site to site, institution to institution.

Mainly, I adopted the role of observer-asparticipant. More interactive and involved than a passive observer, I would interview, converse and even lend a helping hand if it seemed appropriate which was rare. He has a point. Sadly, without an unlimited time scale or an endless budget, observeras-participant research roles are the most sensible option available to the social scientist who wishes to understand multisite phenomena. Researching death 35 Sometimes I found it useful to adopt the role of complete observer. The visiting general public and many of the members of staff were unaware of the presence of a watching social scientist.

Spared from direct social interaction, we lose the perspective of the participants but gain the advantage of an opportunity for more objective observation. Of course, we cannot observe or participate in everything — certain phenomena occur too erratically or maybe are taboo or private.

In such instances we need to turn to informants. Indeed, Agar suggests that recorded interviews with key informants should be viewed as the primary source of data, with observation holding a supplementary, though important, role. These long interviews, which often spanned several hours, provided the bulk of my participant observation data.

I found this to be the case and I rarely had to use prompts. On the other hand, while it is important to leave these interviews relatively unstructured, so that we do not impose our world view on the informant, it is also useful to have some idea about where the interview will go. All questions are, by their nature, leading. Common sense and tact must be used in the deployment of such a strategy.

In the sample of script given below I was asking a casualty doctor who was working in a busy London hospital about breaking bad news after a death. We may be unsure whether we have understood what the informant means and this 36 Researching death cannot be achieved by simply parroting back the words of the subject. My selfreflective informants also wanted to check on my meanings or understanding. The ability to negotiate is an essential tool in this research process. Dean and Whyte , in a chapter ominously entitled How do you know if the informant is telling the truth?

They warn the researcher to be aware of ulterior motives, bars to spontaneity, the desire to please and various unspecified idiosyncratic factors. A multisite study could be characterized as a series of meetings and partings. Given the more superficial nature of the research relationship, saying goodbye to an informant is not as significant as it would be after many months of research in one site in close company with a few subjects, yet, in my experience, leaving the field can still be an odd moment. While the fieldworker may feel somewhat relieved, already thinking of their next fieldwork site, the research informant may feel rather insecure.

In these I would discuss what had been covered in the interview. However, I have decided to describe these under a separate heading as there were certain differences in the way in which I chose subjects and the ways in which I conducted the interviews. Researching death 37 Most importantly, these interviews were very different because I was not talking to deathwork professionals, for whom death was safely abstracted, but to people who had lost someone they loved.

The twelve women who spoke to me told me stories of loss that were intimate, touching, even humorous at times. Most of all they were always, always heart-breaking. Interviews are such a common event in our daily lives that it is easy to overlook the subtle processes that are at work whenever two or more people share information through talk.

In Farr provided the theoretical framework for interviewing which was first called for by Cannell and Kahn back in Rather than merely providing another guide on how to conduct interviews for example, Douglas , Farr attempts to unravel the internal dynamics of the interview. An inter-view is a social encounter between two or more individuals with words as the main medium of exchange.

It is, in short, a peculiar form of conversation in which the ritual of turn-taking is more formalised than in the commoner and more informal encounters of everyday life. At the core of this theory, he was keen to emphasize the co-existence of more than one perspective. During an interview both the interviewee and the interviewer, who may well swap roles, negotiate around a quite natural divergence of perspectives. Statistically women live longer than men, so there are more widows to interview.

Constrained by time and personpower it was simply easier to get access to the larger pool of bereaved women. Further, as I wished to interview people in their homes, I felt it was prudent to stick to my own gender. There were advantages to be gained from this decision.

Certainly I found that my intimate interviews with bereaved women did not conform to any idealized image of a formal exchange see Radley However, I am well aware that, by focusing on female conjugal bereavement, I am continuing a tradition of research that excludes not only widowers but the surviving partners of other couples, such as gay, extra-marital or non-married relationships. Finally, it is worth remembering that there are many other kinds of dyadic relationships, such as parent—child, friend, sibling and colleague, all of which can be torn apart by death and any of which would make worthy material for research.

Raphael provides an excellent account of these various types of bereavement and the repercussions of such loss. Finding people willing to talk about their bereavement was not easy.

Representations of Death | A Social Psychological Perspective | Taylor & Francis Group

This is a group of people who deserve protection. I had to rely on volunteers and I made up my small sample through requests in the national press, through the help of the bereavement-support group Cruse and a funeral director who had a parlour in London. The women I interviewed came from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds and ages.

Choosing an appropriate timespan after the death in which to interview this highly vulnerable sample was difficult. In the end I chose to interview respondents seven to eleven months after their bereavement. This gave them time to make some small progress in coming to terms with their loss.

I avoided interviewing people at the time of the first, painful anniversary of the death Bornstein et al. Although we are a culture that is familiar with social research and commercial Researching death 39 surveys, taking part in bereavement research shortly after a death does represent a departure from the social norm. I am not sure how I would respond to a request to be interviewed after the death of my partner.

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It is therefore worthwhile to look at the issue of respondent motivation. At the end of the long interviews I asked the women why they had agreed to take part in the study. Their reasons were varied. Several women discussed the need for more studies to be carried out in this field and said that they were keen to help in research. One woman was very angry about the bad treatment she had had from a funeral director and she said she wanted to complain to someone.

Two respondents had been encouraged to take part by other family members who perhaps had in mind some idea of a therapeutic interview. One woman admitted that she needed to talk to someone, anyone, even me. Another woman had not had a guest in her home for three months and I guessed that loneliness was also her motive. I shall never forget these interviews. They had not only lost their partner: over the span of a few months many aspects of their lifestyle, identity and status had also changed.

Most of the women were struggling to come to terms with their new role as a single person. They were often short of money, nearly always suffered from loneliness and were, to a woman, full of sorrow. On some occasions surrounded by a sea of cakes and sandwiches, I would listen to their stories of love and loss.

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I was often near tears. Death concentrates the mind and people who have watched someone they love die do a great deal of thinking. Certainly many of the women impressed me with their wisdom and maturity. The experience of being interviewed is all too familiar to a bereaved person who, having arranged a funeral, has become used to these formal conversations with professionals.

Further, in our culture we are constantly bombarded with interviews on radio and television. The media teach us how to take part in interviews.

Representations of Death: A Social Psychological Perspective

So perhaps it is not surprising that I found my respondents relatively confident at the start of the interviews. I had expected them to be more intimidated by the recorder than they appeared to be. One woman asked to have a copy of the tape, which I sent her. I understood that she wanted to give it to her son, as she had felt that she had not been able to communicate with him face to face. Our culture is often ambivalent about women without men. Indeed, at the time I was conducting my research Scottish Widows was airing a series of televised 40 Researching death advertisements in which a young woman stalked around a set in a black hooded cape.

I was not without certain fears. Unfamiliar with death, I superstitiously worried that I would in some way be contaminated by the bereavements I was hearing about. People often express their sense of embarrassment when faced with the newly bereaved. What does one say? I have to admit that it was sometimes a relief to hide behind my research role which required me to listen, not talk. So during the interviews I did not say very much. The respondents would then launch into their story, usually approaching it chronologically.

Most of my communication was non-verbal consisting of head-nods, smiles and such like. This first half of the interview could take several hours and could be harrowing. The women often broke down as they remembered some poignant detail. When this happened I would switch off the recorder and would either quietly wait in silence or, if it seemed appropriate, I would say how helpful she was being and how privileged I was to hear what she had to say.

When the woman felt she could continue we would start up the tape again.

Ann and Christine not their real names cried so much and so often that in the end we just kept on recording. Talking about death cannot always be a dry subject. After a break we would enter the second phase of the interview in which I asked some questions about various aspects of the experience of being bereaved. I explored other issues, too, such as their sense of satisfaction or otherwise with the funeral arrangements and what improvements they thought could be made to our death system.

I was aware that an upsetting interview could be hard on the women and I felt it was particularly important to carry out some kind of debriefing exercise in these interviews.

A morning spent talking about the death and bereavement was clearly going to revive the pain of the loss. In the third stage of the interview I attempted to wind things down by lightening the tone. I asked the women what advice they would give to a newly bereaved person. This was a popular question as it allowed the women to be active, practical and helpful.

At this stage the conversation would often move on to other topics. For example, I would be shown family snapshots and other memorabilia. While I tried to create a reasonably cheerful atmosphere, I have no doubt that the women were exhausted after I had gone. The data Various types of data were produced by the participant-observation study and the in-depth interviews with the women. It is important to be sensitive about writing out these notes while in the field, for there is nothing more off-putting than a jotting social scientist.

I would usually make these notes on my way home or later on in the day. I noted the obvious, concrete details such as the who, what, when and where of the research. I also wrote about my feelings and the emotions aroused by the exchange. These were often complex. It took a certain amount of defence to stride into the world of death and bereavement. If I quoted statements made by subjects, I was careful to distinguish between my own speech and that of my respondents.

Another source of data took the form of documents. As Zelditch has noted these are usually unsystematically obtained. This was certainly true in my own experience. I collected various forms connected with the organization of the funeral, such as the cremation forms. I collected a fascinating sample of trade brochures advertising cremators, ashes urns and a whole selection of memorial artefacts.

From both sets of ethnographic interviews I ended up with two important artefacts: the interview tapes themselves and, later, the transcriptions. I transcribed many hours of recorded interviews. This was an arduous task that took more than three months. Listening and relistening to the same chunks of speech certainly made me very familiar with the data. During this time I became embedded in talk about death. I made many memos while I transcribed. These were simply thoughts, ideas or hunches concerning my research. Sometimes I wrote a few lines; other times I took 42 Researching death several pages of notes.

The memos form the groundwork for the analysis that follows. Although I have dedicated a separate section to the topic of data analysis, which can be found in the Appendix, I must emphasize that the process of data analyses went hand-in-hand with the procedures of data collection.

Moving from straight descriptive observation, in which I asked myself a series of questions concerning context and behaviour in each site and situation, I could begin to make more focused observations, in which I compared and contrasted and in which I actively sought out discrepancies. Hypotheses were formulated on the basis of this incoming data and these were verified against further data. Johnson Ethical considerations Earlier I mentioned one of the ethical dilemmas facing a social scientist researching death: that of gaining access.

Precisely at a time when respondents want to know exactly what the study is about, the researcher is in a state of open-minded freeenquiry. Although I am not sure what I will find at the moment, I want to look at our current social representations of death. As you can see, my cover-story was somewhat flexible. The biggest ethical dilemma I had to face was the issue of approaching bereaved people and asking them to volunteer to take part in research interviews. Ethical committees are becoming very cautious about giving researchers access to such Researching death 43 vulnerable individuals as these.

People who have just suffered a bereavement should be protected, but it is also important that we do not blindly follow cultural restrictions that merely express our discomfort with the topic of death. The sentiments, views and opinions of people facing this universal experience need to be heard if we are to forge a humanistic response to death and bereavement. In all exchanges I made every effort to be sensitive. However, I was often painfully aware that the interviews sometimes caused distress. Talking about loss and death is rarely easy. On the day after collecting the data, pseudonyms replaced real names and I continued this practice throughout the research process.

I was careful not to reveal to anyone the names of those businesses or institutions that took part in the study. Given that some of the material I collected could be considered controversial, I made the decision to keep the raw data out of the public sphere. To this day I am the only person who has listened to the tapes or read the full transcripts.

When quotations or descriptions do occur in the book, the identities of the people and places described in the book are heavily disguised. So while my respondents may recognize their feelings and points of view, I trust they will not see themselves on the printed page. Hockey discusses the way in which her gender and age influenced her treatment as a fieldworker in nursing homes. She notes that she was pigeon-holed by staff as a nice middle-class mum. Caring about the elderly was a natural extension of her role as housewife and mother. In such a role she enjoyed the advantages of getting backstage.

The reaction may have been very different had she been a male academic. I certainly found that my status as a young married woman worked for me in the fieldwork situation. Women are very often perceived as being good listeners and I made the most of this. My age and gender did not always work for me, however. I interviewed one particular woman who had two daughters my age who tried to spare me the painful details.

She was very clear that this was her aim for her offspring but it was only months later when I was analysing the text of the interview that I was struck by the motherly tone of her account. My letters of reference came from 44 Researching death a department of social psychology. This had an impact that I had not anticipated. Alternatively, I was informed that I was being confided in. At times, this seemed like a weighty responsibility. I always found the assumption that I could in some way help very disconcerting as I did not see my interviews in therapeutic terms.

If anything, they seemed to be quite the reverse. In contrast to this familiarization of the researcher as counsellor, during my participant observation I was more often likened to some kind of journalist: a sort of academic private detective. Unusual facts, juicy details, suggestions for further research through contacts or sites and other such titbits were given to me with great enthusiasm.

Howarth , in an account of investigating deathwork in funeral parlours, which involved sitting in on arrangement interviews, mentions how we may become embroiled in mild deceits. For example, neatly dressed in black skirt and white blouse, as instructed by her host, she found that the funeral director would implicitly present her to the grieving relatives as a trainee undertaker. I had much the same experience in a funeral-directing firm.

By some alchemy which did not involve anyone saying anything, I found myself being presented as an apprentice. Summary and conclusion The theory of social representations has taken root in social psychology departments. This is as it should be. To reveal the genesis and communication of representations, social psychologists interested in the theory face the challenge of employing qualitative, rather than quantitative, research methodologies. The enduring popularity of quantitative research tools may partly explain why certain social representationalists have shied away from the study of the interplay between rituals and representations.

I believe that an understanding of something as complex as the representations expressed and created in current mortuary practices can only be obtained by going into the field and by making use of qualitative research techniques. I would argue that had I used traditional quantitative methodologies, I would not have been able to penetrate this Researching death 45 culture of death. Chapter 5, in which I discuss the role of the body and the way our fear of pollution influences our death practices, owes its existence to my participant observational study.

While I also illustrate the chapter with quotations gained from interviews, it was my fieldwork observations which alerted me to the existence of our fear of the ambiguous corpse. Much the same happened to Jodelet in her study of the social representations of mental illness. The qualitative study described in some detail in this chapter was designed to help me identify our current social representations of death. I achieved this perspective by means of two quite distinct, yet related, methodologies: participant observation and in-depth interviewing.

Such a combination allowed me to verify information, contemporaneously and in situ, by referring to alternative sources of data. Yet while I have come to a unique perspective, this perspective is not idiosyncratic. I trust that the scenarios and explanations I have described would be recognizable to any of the actors I observed or spoke to.

It is simply that, belonging to only one part of a complex picture, these actors could not have arrived at the same conclusions themselves. In the next two chapters I attempt to give a picture of contemporary death practices in London. By the end of these twin chapters we shall have a clearer idea of the complicated nature of contemporary death.

When someone dies a small drama is set in motion. The key players are the deathwork professionals, the grieving next of kin and the corpse itself. In the first few busy days after a death the corpse passes through medical, bureaucratic, commercial and ritual domains. While there is a great deal of overlap and to-ing and fro-ing between these domains, it is easy to see that the social organization of death is processual.

During my time in the field I travelled the whole route, as it were, moving between frontstage and backstage areas. I was able to get a broader picture than that gained by a grieving relative or someone whose job is connected with the disposal of the dead. To talk of the organisation of death is therefore to talk of the body of rules and practices through which human actors relate to death at both a physical and theoretical level.

The rules are contained and expressed in and through conversations, behaviour, manuals of procedure, text-books, death certificates and the like, and they are composed and utilised in specific sites or settings. And, put together, one can see that these diverse and varied elements form a discourse on death, a discourse which defines the very nature and meaning of mortality in the modern world.

Prior Medicine and bureaucracy 47 In an inspiring study of the social organization of death in Belfast, Prior looked at the ways in which discourses of death are used to socially organize this biological event. This point of view informed the research described in the next two chapters. Death and the medical model Since , the biomedical model of disease has been the dominant influence in the practice of medicine and the education of its practitioners. In this model, disease is defined as physical and biochemical deviations from established norms, and the body is treated as a broken machine subject to recovery through replacement or repair of defective body parts.

This was certainly supported by my own research. Even the home deaths were, to varying degrees, medical events. While sudden death has always been part of the human condition, dying over a longer period of time as the result of chronic illness and the deterioration of ageing is a singularly twentieth-century phenomenon. When we come to speak to the dying we talk of their terminal illness and how to fight it. Bauman called the process the deconstruction of mortality. One side-effect of the denial of mortality Becker , this fight for life at all costs, is the way in which death has become hidden.

Ironically, this obsession with mortal diseases 48 Medicine and bureaucracy has permeated life itself as we have become preoccupied with health in a dietary and fitness war against the various causes of death. Some women felt bitter and betrayed. Indeed, even in these times of enlightenment regarding palliative care of the dying person I found that the accounts of loss and bereavement were still spoiled by a description of medical staff battling against death. In my study I also came across instances in which communication was poor.

Bert, a retired window cleaner, had cancer of the colon. A few weeks before his death he went into his local hospital for surgery. Doris was dismayed to find her convalescing husband to be extremely poorly. She said she had presumed that the surgery would make him better. She looked to the doctors for further medical intervention and was shocked when she found they were expecting him to die. It is hard to believe that anyone could have surgery without being told about their condition but Doris stated that neither of them knew why he was having surgery or, for that matter, what disease was attacking him.

Even if the couple were given information, it is clear that it was not given well. And apparently he had two growths in the bowel, that had fused. Doris Palliative care and the hospice movement Descriptions of the industrialization of medical care do not completely cover the story, however. In Britain today there are other ways of looking after the dying. In my sample there were some fortunate couples for whom the pretence of cure had been dropped by medical staff and success had been reinterpreted as a good manner of dying.

From its inception in the s the hospice movement has had a great impact on Medicine and bureaucracy 49 our experience of dying, especially when death is from cancer Field Indeed, Hockey argues that cancer deaths undermined the success of the medical model and gave rise to the felt need for a new way of caring for the dying. Cancer can befall the relatively young, is characterized by a long illness and it is often varied and unpredictable in its nature. The ideology of the hospice movement centres around three core ideas Field and Johnson : holistic care; multidisciplinary teams who work in a non-hierarchical fashion; and the incorporation of the family of the patient as part of the unit to receive care.

Efforts are made to address the fears and anxieties of the dying person and to care for them in a caring and affectionate environment Lattanzi-Licht and Connor Hospices often rely heavily on volunteers, mostly women who have experienced a bereavement themselves. As Field and Johnson note, however, these ideals are constantly being corroded by the development of larger institutions with their associated needs for more bureaucracy, greater formality and the promotion of status differentiation between staff see James and Field As a better understanding of the process of dying was reached, the care of the dying as a specialism developed within the medical sciences see Clark The discipline of palliative medicine emerged in the late s and was only recently recognized by the Royal College of Physicians.

Interventions include pain control and symptom management, as well as the more ethereal issues of spiritual and emotional health, sharing many of the aspirations of the hospice movement. In a book by Nuland, a doctor working in the United States, impressively entitled How We Die, was published in Britain with a flurry of publicity. These accounts are full of medical facts, yet remain essentially humanistic. His book neatly reflects the fine balance we struggle to achieve between the aspiration of personal empowerment and the seduction of medical interventions. The three of them spent the evening together talking about the likely progression of the disease and its symptoms.

Similarly, Ann felt her husband broke out of a severe bout of depression exacerbated by his first course of chemotherapy after he had asked a medical friend to come over for a chat about his dying trajectory. These men were active in the decision-making process regarding when to start opiate-based drugs to relieve their pain.

Both men were busy tidying-up loose ends in their work and were keen not to lose the ability to think clearly. When they were too poorly to make their own decisions, their wives took over the role, weighing carefully the benefits and costs of pain relief. While still relying heavily on the support and advice of medical practitioners, they felt they had been in charge and in control. Their close involvement in the dying process seemed to ease them into the first hours of their bereavements.

List this Seller's Books. Payment Methods accepted by seller. AbeBooks Bookseller Since: May 31, Stock Image. Published by Routledge, New Condition: New Hardcover. Save for Later. Shipping: Free Within U. About this title Synopsis: Drawing upon a rare and highly original ethnography of contemporary mortuary practices, Representations of Death takes the reader through the medical, bureaucratic, commercial and ritual aspects of death Going behind the scenes at hospitals, funeral parlours, crematoria and cemeteries, as well as holding poignant, in-depth interviews with bereaved women, Bradbury has been able to illuminate the very different perspectives of the deathwork professional and the grieving relative.

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