Understanding the social contexts of a family death

We are pleased to share our most recent article published from our research with families in urban Senegal. In this article, we try to understand how people made sense of a family death, within the social contexts of their lives. We theorise this in terms of ‘meanings-in-context’, since meanings and contexts are inextricably bound up together and cannot be separated out: meanings are shaped by particular – local and global – contexts. Contexts are also shaped by the meanings through which people experience their life circumstances. We discuss how people made sense of the family death in relation to three main contexts: family, religion, and materiality.

Families are considered to be absolutely central to people’s lives, being the major source of support and security in precarious life circumstances. After a death, then, families were a key source of support and also of motivation, for the future of the family as a whole. When a family member died, it was the role they played in family life that was central to the sense of loss, and they were often described as ‘irreplaceable’ in these terms.

In relation to family and religion (primarily Sufi Islam) particularly, the death was understood very much as a key communal context for making sense of the death. It was only a minority of people who gave a medical cause of death, although others might refer to physical symptoms. Rather, detailed holistic accounts were often given, of events leading up to the death, and the idea that the death was ‘God’s Will’ was frequently mentioned. This idea provided many people with a significant basis for accepting the death, although sometimes this might also mean that ‘too many tears’ might be frowned upon as indicating an inability to accept God’s Will.

The third context that we discuss is materiality, and in particular we consider how emotions were bound up with the material consequences of the death, which could be severe. This particularly contrasts with ideas of affluent Minority worlds, where emotions are generally understood as something separate from material life.

For more in-depth discussion of these ‘meanings-in-context’, read our blogpost and article.

UK could learn lessons from Africa in dealing with death

British society is not paying enough attention to how a death may risk pushing families into poverty and could learn valuable lessons from West Africa, according to a new report. Researchers from the University of Reading and the Open University say Britain could actually learn much from the example of less affluent countries in Africa, such as Senegal. Dr. Ruth Evans’ and colleagues’ research explored people’s experiences of a family death, and analysed levels of financial, emotional and practical support offered to bereaved families in urban Senegal. The study, funded by The Leverhulme Trust, provides the first in-depth understanding of responses to death, care and family relations in an urban West African context.

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A local mosque, Guédiawaye, Dakar.

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Download the Executive Summary or full Report

Télécharger le Résumé ou le Rapport (en français)

Résumé de la recherche ‘Décès dans la famille en milieu urbain au Sénégal’

Nous avons le plaisir de présenter le Résumé de notre projet de recherche sur : ‘Décès dans la famille en milieu urbain sénégalais: deuil, prise en charge et relations familiales’, financé par le Leverhulme Trust. Les résultats seront présentés et discutés avec les intervenants lors des séminaires de diffusion à Kaolack et à Dakar et le rapport final sera publié en février 2016.

Our paper at the CDAS conference

Jane recently presented a paper, ‘Death and its futures beyond the global North: exploring responses to family deaths in urban Senegal’ at the Centre for Death and Society Conference. The paper drew on our preliminary analyses of the data and discussed how responses to death are embedded in cultural understandings of family relationships. It was great to share our findings with death and bereavement studies scholars and practitioners and receive helpful comments and feedback.