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.

New blogpost on emotionally sensed knowledge

Ruth Evans’ Methods in Motion blogpost shows how an approach of ‘uncomfortable reflexivity’ can help to reveal the work of emotions in cross-cultural research. Thanks to the Centre for Citizenship, Identities and Governance, The Open University, for publishing this edited version of our original blogpost.

New Social Dynamics in Senegal workshop

Ruth Evans gave a very well received keynote at the New Social Dynamics in Senegal workshop organised by Aurélien Baroiller, Boubacar Barry & Hannah Hoechner, at Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels (13-14 March 2017). Her presentation, “Your tears are like pouring hot water on the body”: Caring for the dead and responses to a family death in urban Senegal, explored the social regulation of grief and how care for the dead is expressed. The workshop provided an opportunity to connect with other academics and researchers working in Senegal and think how best to continue the dialogue in future.

Towards an Anthropology of Grief

Ruth Evans was pleased to speak at the recent workshop Towards an Anthropology of Grief organised by Aurélien Baroiller, Laboratoire d’Anthropologie des Mondes Contemporains, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Brussels, Belgium (8-9 March 2017). Ruth’s paper explored the paradox of absence-presence and the importance of time-space practices in understanding continuing care of the dead in urban Senegal. It was an excellent opportunity to discuss the research findings with anthropologists of grief working in diverse contexts globally.

Interpreting ‘grief’ and emotions in cross-cultural contexts

In our latest article in Mortality, we discuss the complex process of translating and interpreting ‘grief’ and emotions in multilingual, cross-cultural settings. Our research in urban Senegal demonstrates the importance of involving interpreters and field researchers throughout the research process. This enabled us to gain insight into the cultural nuances of indigenous languages and how these are translated and potentially re-framed in the process.

Read the full post here.