Dying and death are profound aspects of human experience whose definitions and meanings are fabricated through cultural and historical lenses. Though death is biologically inevitable, it is also a social fact; knowledge about it is made. It is understood through frameworks of religion and social structure, science and medicine, loss and disruption that are available to individuals within societies. There is no such thing as a natural death, that is, a death that occurs beyond the boundaries of culture and historical moment, social norms and expectations, tradition and innovation.
The anthropology of dying and death itself, considered from the early days of ethnographic practice, illustrates a major shift in how those terms have been situated and employed. Late 19th and early 20th century studies of death were conducted within the frameworks of the anthropology and sociology of religion, ritual practice, and structural-functionalism. Recent critiques of early studies note their attention to normative practices surrounding the corpse, the funeral, and the bereaved to the exclusion of acknowledgement of the dying person and the intense emotions surrounding the dying transition. Late 20th century and contemporary studies focus primarily on controversies that emerge from biomedical understandings about the physiologic body, the brain and the idea of consciousness, and how the cessation of life can be measured or unequivocally known, especially in the contexts of organ transplantation and values about life prolongation. Social and cultural studies of the body, medicalized death, and biotechnologies point to a double problematic: first, that death is negotiable terrain, rather than an absolute status; and second, that the separation and opposition of life-and-death is a culturally produced dualism, rather than a natural fact. Exploration of forms of biopower, influenced by the work of Foucault and Agamben, underscore ways in which life and death are politicized concepts that acquire meaning through law, science, and state practices.
World events throughout the 20th century, especially the Nazi holocaust and more recent genocides, displacements and political violence, and AIDS and other epidemics have fostered anthropological studies of the normalization of violence, ways in which the effects of war and terror are embodied, emerging considerations of risk in the face of disease and natural and human-made disasters, narratives of illness, dying, trauma, and how death is lived, and ethnographic explorations of social suffering. In much of this work, death is central to the events which are considered ethnographically, yet, as a biopolitical topic, it hovers in the background and is not taken up analytically.
Within anthropology and medical anthropology, the subjects of dying and death must be placed, too, in the changing shape of disciplinary knowledge and practice. Early investigations of death were undertaken in an anthropological enterprise that conceived the object of study to be discrete cultural groups whose native practices were considered perduring. The framework for approaching death was the individual within a bounded cultural group, the threat of death to social stability, and the role of ritualized, generalized mortuary practices in the re-stabilization and re-integration of small-scale societies. Studies of war and violence were not conceptually connected with studies of death or their associated rituals. Critiques of colonialism, the deconstruction of "the native," and the impacts of migration and globalization have forever altered earlier conceptions of culture as static and territorially demarcated. Thus, ideas about death as an easily identifiable part of some cultural whole, and the singular disruptive or integrative role death plays, have been dismantled as well.
The addition of interpretive methods and experiments in ethnographic writing also have changed the ways in which ethnographic facts come to be established. Highly complex notions such as life, death, and dying are viewed, in contemporary investigations, as subjects without clear boundaries, and any analytic exploration of those themes now problematizes their definition. Subjects of longstanding anthropological interest foundational to contemporary death studies include: personhood, identity, liminality, and the relationship between the sacred and the secular. Of more recent interest to medical anthropologists are three lines of inquiry: (1) studies of death situated in social science analyses of technoscience are concerned with biopower, body commodification, bioethics, and a rethinking of the culture/nature and human/non-human dichotomies; (2) AIDS/HIV has fostered anthropological work on the social underpinnings of disease acquisition and its spread, the political economy of epidemics, and the culture of risk; and (3) the anthropology of violence, war, and terror explores ways in which death is "lived" in memory, in illness, in the body, and in everyday practices. Critical, narrative, and phenomenological analytic approaches come to the fore in these contemporary explorations. Death is now a site where investigations of technology, medicine, and science; epidemics, poverty, and structural inequality; state and ethnic conflict and genocide; intersections of person, community, and the state; and traditional and innovative approaches to "culture" and "nature" come together.
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