Giddens’ sequestration of experience

In a previous post, I discussed Philippe Ariès’ theory on the way in which death has become ‘denied’ or hidden in contemporary Anglo-American society.  The sociologist Anthony Giddens (1991) expanded on this theme in arguing that in ‘modern’ times, aspects of human experience can be divided into ‘normal’ and ‘non-normal’ experiences. ‘Non-normal’ experiences are those that are considered outside of typical social life, such as illness, death, or criminality. Because they differ from the norm, these experiences become concealed from social life through the sequestration of ill, dying, or criminal individuals into specially designed institutions, such as hospitals and prisons. By hiding and sequestering non-normal experiences, it becomes possible to regulate ill, dying, or criminal individuals through means of control and surveillance. By extension, it also gives society at large the impression that these non-normal aspects of life are under control. However, Giddens warns that there are consequences to the systematic obfuscation of experiences that are part of the human experience; as a society, when we fail to directly engage with the more existential issues that define human existence, we become enmeshed in “moral dilemmas;” effectively repressing “a cluster of basic moral and existential components of human life” (Giddens 1991:169; stress in original). What happens, then, when ‘normal’ social life comes into contact with experiences that are sequestered? Giddens describes these “frontiers of sequestered experience” as “battlegrounds, sometimes of a directly social character” (Giddens 1991:168). In order to assess Giddens’ theory, I examine a situation in which ‘normal’ society reacts to the encroachment of sequestered ‘non-normal’ human experience.

Fear and loathing in Minnesota

In May 2010, the New York Times’ blog The New Old Age reported on a controversy that erupted in Woodbury, Minnesota associated with development plans to convert a vacant strip mall into an assisted living facility that would specialize in care for individuals with dementia (Span 2010). Some residents of a nearby residential subdivision objected to the plans; among concerns raised, a pattern emerged in which residents expressed their fears that the facility’s residents would present a danger to children in the community, especially because of the planned facility’s proximity to a nearby primary school (Span 2010). I reviewed the 131 comments posted by readers of the original Star Tribune article and the large majority of them condemn the community for not welcoming the facility and the elderly patients; however, some residents continue to be uncomfortable with the plans (see Tevlin 2010). I would argue that this particular issue has become one of Giddens’ “battlegrounds,” in which ‘normal’ society is forced to engage in the moral dilemmas for which it may be ill prepared because of the regularized and institutionalized sequestration of ‘non-normal’ experiences.

This example is of course just one and does not span the many instances in which facilities for the ill and dying are welcomed in communities; indeed, many of the readers who posted comments on the articles referred to these instances as positive models for intergenerational integration. Yet, it is also likely that Woodbury is a relatively typical mid-western community and that the views espoused by opponents to the institution would be shared by other communities;  rather than treat the situation as anomalous, it provides a starting point for discussing the moral dilemmas associated with the sequestration of experience. Furthermore, these kinds of moral dilemmas will likely become even more problematic as baby boomers deal with old age. Lynn (2004) describes the increasing lifespan of Americans today coupled with end-of-life experiences that consist of a number of illnesses and disabilities. Many of us will spend part of our old age in care facilities, such as hospitals or nursing homes. These demographic and epidemiological changes have effectively reordered the ‘norm’ for many Americans, situating ‘non-normal’ experiences of illness and disability within the experiences of baby boomers about to reach old age and their children. For these reasons, it would seem that US society urgently needs to grapple with the moral dilemma of old age and dying. Is it realistic to continue to conceal the elderly and ill out of the public eye?

Room for hope?

Fortunately, there seems to be some attempts to try to incorporate the ‘non-normal’ experience of the elderly into ‘normal’ social life through the development of innovative intergenerational programs that bring children and the elderly together in institutional settings, such as school programs and shared daycares. In this way, perhaps through developing new values, successive generations will be encouraged to actively face the moral dilemmas that emerge from the sequestration of experience, transforming battlegrounds, such as that in Woodbury, into opportunities for learning from and understanding all aspects of the human experience.

Works referenced

Giddens, Anthony. 1991. The sequestration of experience. In Modernity and Self- Identity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Lynn, Joanne. 2004. Sick to Death and Not Going to Take It Anymore! Reforming Health Care for the Last Years of Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Span, Paula. 2010. A Danger to the Community? (New York, NY: New York Times, May 12), http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/12/a-danger-to-the-community/, accessed October 14, 2010.

Tevlin, Jon. 2010. Troublesome undercurrent wells up in Woodbury. (Minneapolis, MN: Star Tribune, April 26), http://www.startribune.com/local/east/92145794.html?elr=KArksUUUoDEy3LGDiO7aiU, accessed October 14, 2010.

Death has arrived
dancing the carisisqui
she has come to take with her
the visitors of Mixquic.


It’s that time of year again. Skeletons, cobwebs, ghosts and zombies have been placed in the workplace and front lawn, and countless individuals are preparing their costumes.  Personally, I have three that I’m working with, but the pride and glory is a Dia De Los Muertos one that I’ll be showcasing on All Hallows Eve.  It involves wearing a full black skirt, a black corset, roses in my hair and painting my face to look like one of the intricate sugar skulls that serve to remind us of death and lost ancestors.  Basically, for all intents and purposes, I am going to be parading around as a decorated skeleton.  And given our countries fascination with death, I will definitely not be alone.

But why is it that as a culture, which sequesters death 364 days out of the year, do we have one day devoted to it and all the images used to celebrate?

To examine this question further, we have to think of Halloween and similar celebrations as a form of corpse porn.  Jacque Lynn Foltyn (2008) theorizes that death has replaced sex as the new cultural taboo. Where in the Victorian era the treatment of sex as a distasteful subject lead to a rise in prostitution and sex-porn; nowadays, as we have become increasingly open about sex and sexuality, death has slid into the ‘distasteful’ slot sex occupied and its own form of corpse porn has emerged. (pg. 163-164)  In terms of what this means for Halloween as a time to display corpse porn, it serves as a time where we can all come out and play with death without fear of social ostracizing.  Sex had its own holiday too, Mardi Gras.

Mardi Gras was traditionally viewed as the one day out of the year people could be sexually deviant and publicly lewd without fear of punishment.  While many people still celebrate Mardi Gras in modern times, it’s original purpose and meaning have been lost because we no longer live under such strict sexual guidelines.  Basically sex has become part of public conversation and experience, while death is still only acceptable to discuss within controlled settings.  This, as Foltyn (2008) suggests, may be the result of death being uncontrollable, and the sense of losing control disturbs us.


Death is part of the unknown. We don’t know when death will take us or our loved ones, and in terminal illness we can slow it down but not stop it.  Add to the undeterminable time of death the fear of what actually happens after death, and you are left with a plethora of unknowns.  For cultures that are based on science, reasoning and certainty, the idea of dying and death is daunting and unanswerable.  So out of these ideas of corpse porn and loss of control, Halloween has become the new Mardi Gras of our culture.  It is the one day a year we can play with death, know when we will experience it (even if in a constructed model), and create ideas of life after death.

In her book, Maintenance of Life, Frances Norwood departs from previous definitions of social death, properly widening its scope.  The previous definitions limited the occurrences of social death to very specific domains at the margins of life.  As cited in Norwood’s first chapter, Erving Goffman first coined the term when referring to the treatment of mental patients and subsequent definitions were limited to the treatment of patients in hospitals (1996, 6-7).  Norwood argues that social death “is probably best described as a series of losses – loss of identity and loss of the ability to participate in social activities and relationships that eventually culminates in a perceived disconnection from social life” (1996, 7).  This is a more accommodating definition of social death.  A definition that potentially describes what happens to chronically ill patients living with degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS).  Specifically, the theory of social death, in Norwood’s terms, can help explain why many of the victims of these diseases suffer from depression.  The following is an investigation of the common symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease, how they relate to social death and how the experience of social death of Parkinson’s patients could account for their depression.  


Parkinson’s Disease, according to the National Parkinson Foundation, the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, and Parkinson’s Disease Foundation, is a slow progressing neurodegenerative brain disorder that negatively affects a person’s motor system.  The four primary motor symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease are tremors, bradykinesia (slow or incomplete movement with difficulty initiating movements as well as sudden stopping of movement), rigidity and postural instability.  There are several secondary motor symptoms of the disease such as speech problems, loss of facial expression, difficulty swallowing, sexual dysfunction and impaired fine motor dexterity and motor coordination, to name a few of the more acute symptoms.  There are also some common non-motor symptoms such as cognitive difficulties, compulsive behavior problems and sleep disturbances, again, to name just a few.  Parkinson’s patients are usually on medication or undergo surgery to slow down the degenerative process of these symptoms but there is no cure.  The severity of these symptoms increases over time and Parkinson’s patients often live with these symptoms for up to 20 years or more. 


According to the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation website “[d]epression is one of the major, and most common, difficulties that faces people living with Parkinson’s”.  Although there is no definitive answer as to what causes this depression, researchers suggest that in the early stages of the disease, it’s a normal reaction to their anticipated reduction in quality of life.  In the later stages, clinical depression is due to chemical deficiencies in the brain.  What neither of these theories addresses however, is the actual series of losses that Parkinson’s patients experience long after the initial shock of learning they have the disease.  Chemical deficiencies are of course a viable explanation but may not be the only explanation.  It seems that social death as Norwood describes it, could be another explanation for clinical depression in Parkinson’s patients.  These “series of losses… eventually culminates in a perceived disconnection from social life” (Norwood 1996, 7).  The next few paragraphs describe some of the symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease and demonstrate how they support Norwood’s definition of social death; specifically (1) the loss of the ability to participate in social activities and (2) how that loss can result in the loss of relationships and/or identity.


Loss of the ability to participate in social activities is a particularly devastating result of this disease because it often results in losses of relationships and identity.  Speech problems are a secondary symptom of Parkinson’s Disease where 89% of people with Parkinson’s experience a “soft, monotone, breathy and hoarse voice and imprecise articulation” that makes them hard to hear and understand (Ramig 2008, 1).  In Dr. Lorraine Ramig’s paper, “The Science and Practice of ‘Speaking LOUD’” she quotes a patient who says, “If I have no voice, I have no life” (2008, 1).  Ramig reports that people suffering from this symptom are less likely to engage in conversation or to exhibit confidence in social settings.  They slowly lose their ability to participate in social activities because conversation becomes more difficult over time with the progression of the disease.

A person suffering from postural instability, one of the four primary symptoms of Parkinson’s can also experience a loss of ability to participate in social activities.  A patient who has postural instability will experience diminished balance and coordination which increases their risk of falling.  This symptom also causes a person to have periods of arrested movement where they find themselves “stuck” and find it difficult to start moving again.  Postural instability makes it difficult to participate in social activities that require physical movement.  Even something as simple as walking becomes more difficult over time where patients will participate less in social activities because of their risk of falling.

Cognitive changes are another symptom of Parkinson’s Disease that can negatively affect a person’s ability to participate in social activities.  According to Dr. Laura Marsh in her paper, “Not Just a Movement Disorder: Cognitive changes in PD”, “alterations in memory, attention and thinking…are often part of PD [Parkinson’s Disease]” and can become severe enough to be labeled “Dementia” (2008,1).  One type of cognitive change experienced is “Executive Dysfunction”.  Executive Dysfunction affects mental processes such as problem solving, planning, task completion and multi-tasking.  People experiencing this symptom will have increasing difficulty these cognitive processes which can affect their ability to participate in social organizations or clubs.  They essentially have a hard time “keeping up” with the mental pace of others and will often withdraw from these interactions altogether.


The loss of the ability to participate in the social activities described above can result in a loss of relationships or identity.  If one experiences a loss in their ability to communicate because of their soft and/or poorly articulated speech, their relationships with other people become affected.  Remember, the patient in Dr. Ramig’s study who said, “if I have no voice, I have no life”.  If a reduction in motor skills renders a person unable to participate in a favorite sport or activity they can risk losing some aspects of their identity as well as any relationships maintained through that activity.  And people living with Parkinson’s Disease also experience cognitive changes that not only negatively affect their participation in social organizations and clubs but can result in a loss of identity because overall they’re not able to participate in life as their non-Parkinson’s-selves would.


What I hope has been demonstrated here is that the progressive symptoms of degenerative diseases, in this case, Parkinson’s Disease, can represent a kind of social death.  These symptoms result in a “series of losses – loss of identity and loss of the ability to participate in social activities and relationships that eventually culminates in a perceived disconnection from social life” (Norwood 1996, 7).  This social death theory is another look into the possible causes for clinical depression in patients with chronic degenerative diseases, that goes beyond the initial shock and later stages of chemical deficiencies.  Social Death theory may be a helpful tool for patients in order to understand their depression themselves.  As Norwood presents in her book, Clive Seale (1998) explains that one strategy for maintaining social bonds, to curb the loss of social activity, relationships and identity, is through therapeutic discourse (1996, 8).  For this reason, Social death Theory could be an advantageous medium through which patients and doctors alike gain insight to clinical depression in patients with chronic degenerative diseases.      


Marsh, Laura MD. 2008. Not Just a Movement Disorder: Cognitive Changes in PD. https://www.pdf.org/pdf/fs_cognitive_changes_08.pdf (accessed October 24, 2010).

Norwood, Frances. 2009. The Maintenance of Life: Preventing Social Death trough Euthanasia Talk and End-of-Life Care – Lessons from the Netherlands. Durham, North Carolina: Carolina Academic Press.

Ramig, Lorraine MD. 2008. The Science and Practice of ‘Speaking LOUD’. http://www.pdf.org/pdf.fs_speaking_loud_08.pdf (accessed October 24, 2010).

All factual and statistical information about Parkinson’s Disease came from three organizations’ websites:  National Parkinson’s Foundation, National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke and Parkinson’s Disease Foundation.

Cannibalism in Context

A recent news story described the surprising discovery that the Tyrannosaurus Rex, fiercest of the dinosaurs, may have been a cannibal.  This news, shocking many, supports our view of the ferocious dominance of this prehistoric creature.  On an entirely different front, current news stories of the recently-freed Chilean miners, trapped underground for months, also referenced cannibalism.  The miners denied all such rumors and described how cannibalism was only referred to as a joke.  The popularity and vehemence of cannibalism in these different news stories demonstrates the strong feelings associated with eating one’s own kind: across time, culture, and species, cannibalism is condemned.

Why is there such a fascination and horror specifically associated with this topic?  While cannibalism has been said to exist in many societies, it is often looked upon negatively –  something done to enemies or by enemies.  Is this negative view of cannibalism one of the rare human universals?

The answers to these questions are difficult to definitively discover and are deeply imbedded in culture.  They begin, however, with pollution.  In Purity and Danger (1966), Mary Douglas discusses the danger of pollution associated with thresholds (115).  She describes the human body, full of thresholds, as a symbol of society.  When phenomena cross the boundaries of the body, danger occurs, as all margins and marginal things (such as urine, spit, blood, etc.) are dangerous.  Douglas describes four kinds of social pollution: “Danger pressing on external boundaries; the second, danger from transgressing the internal lines of the system; the third, danger in the margins of the lines.  The fourth is danger from internal contradiction” (124).  Death itself presents a problem of pollution—eating one’s own dead creates a vast array of danger due to marginality.  The boundaries of the body crossed and create danger and pollution for both the eater and the eaten.  If the body, as Douglas says, is a reflection of society, cannibalism is the consumption of society.

Such strong taboos and underlying fears of boundary-crossing marginality might seem to imply universality.  It is true that many societies are disgusted by the idea of cannibalism.  It is also true that in societies where cannibalism is practiced, it is often a type of revenge or insult on an enemy.  This, however, is not always the case.  Among the Wari’ of Brazil, mortuary cannibalism was considered the proper disposal of a loved one for many years.  After death, the recently deceased’s affines would consume the roasted remains of the majority of the body amidst a public outpouring of grief (Conklin 1995).  The affines cry during the process and express reluctance, but are urged on by the dead’s consanguine kin.  This is viewed not as a measure of danger or hatred, but of protection and love.  The Wari’ gave multiple reasons for their practice.  Their view that the spirit could not move on while attached to the body motivated them to free their loved one.  In doing so, the spirit would make its first step towards becoming an Ancestor.  The Ancestors’ roles are important in Wari’ subsistence; eventually ancestors become a specific type of pig that gets sent to the village of the living as a main source of food. (Conklin 1995: 90).  This act of mortuary cannibalism was seen as a sign of respect; instead of putting their beloved relative in the cold, wet, and lonely earth, they took them into themselves (85).

While this practice of cannibalism seems to violate Douglas’s ideas of pollution, it still has much to do with the transgression of boundaries.  The boundaries of the afterlife appear more in opposition to the Wari’ than the boundaries of the physical body.  By crossing the boundary of the smaller, the body, they remove the danger of the larger, the afterlife.  Douglas also discusses rituals expressing anxiety towards the body’s orifices.  While not directly associated with orifices, the mortuary cannibalism of the Wari’ can be seen as raising the same issues.  Anxiety is created around the body – the affines do not wish to eat it, but know that they must to accomplish a social function.  Douglas describes these type of ceremonies as representative of “care to protect the political and cultural unity of a minority group” (Douglas 1966: 125).  Though the Wari’ no longer practice this tradition – it was ended due to contact with missionaries and forcible government procedures in the 1960’s – some older citizens of the group who described the practice lamented its disappearance and expressed a desire that it might happen to them after their death (Conklin 1995: 75, 80).  For the Wari’ cannibalism is certainly a practice that helped a minority group maintain cultural cohesion and one whose loss is deeply felt.  Conklin describes the various functions behind the ritual:

“In contrast to views of anthropophagy as the ultimately antisocial act, the act of eating the dead affirmed and reproduced the bases of Wari’ society. Endocannibalism was mythically linked to the origins of culture and the festival exchanges that transform potentially antagonistic relations into cooperative alliances between neighboring villages, and between humans and the nonhuman forces of death and animal fertility (95).”

Thus, Douglas’s theories on the crossing of boundaries are still applicable in this context, but not in the negative manner that may be expected.


Works Cited:

Conklin, Beth.

1995. “Thus Are Our Bodies, Thus Was Our Custom”: Mortuary Cannibalism in an Amazonian
Society. American Ethnologist, Vol. 22, No. 1 (Feb., 1995), pp. 75-101.

Douglas, Mary.

1966. Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo.  London, UK: Routledge.


Death of an Icon

In “Dead Famous and Dead Sexy: Popular culture, forensics, and the rise of the corpse”, Jacque Lynn Fontyn examines the super-saturation of images of death within Western societies. According to Foltyn, “the dead body has been transformed into an infotainment commodity” (155). This is especially applicable when considering the surge of attention ascribed to the celebrity corpse.

In her article, Foltyn considers a number of celerity deaths (such as Princess Diana, James Brown, Anna Nicole Smith) that have become notorious in recent popular culture. I cannot help but think that if the article were written one year later, the death that would have been a crucial piece of the celebrity death puzzle would have been that of Michael Jackson.

On June 25, 2009, Michael Jackson, international superstar, died, drawing international scrutiny, becoming “the death heard around the world. Like the other celebrities considered by Foltyn, Jackson’s death has been “vivisected”. In fact, I believe that Jackson’s death has been one of the greatest vivisections of all time. “While celebrities die all the time of natural causes or by accident, it is not everyday that their deaths become subjects of forensic inquiry. ‘Vivisected’ for public amusement while alive, when dead, their bodies may be dissected to uncover secrets, which are presented to a public baying for information about celebrity lives and deaths” (Foltyn, 156). During Jackson’s life, he went from child superstar, to solo superstar, and eventually becoming the third highest selling artist in history. Following his international stardom, Jackson’s public persona faced a reversal of sorts. He was a largely watched, ridiculed, and for lack of a better word, disrespected figure. While Jackson’s celebrity was immense in life, it has been equally famous, if not more so, in death.

Following Michael Jackson’s death, media directed its attention in a variety of ways. It became worldwide headline news in reputable sources such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, London Time, Le Monde, and a host of other sites. In addition, news of Jackson’s death was boundless in more contemporary methods of communication such as Facebook, Twitter, and other sources, causing online crashes. The news replaced previous headlines of disputed presidential elections in Iran, and interestingly, the news of the fellow celebrity- Farrah Fawcett- death.

As stated previously, Michael Jackson’s death is wholly applicable to the fascination with celebrity death that has become so characteristic of contemporary times. Foltyn argued that this fascination is liable for transforming dead celebrities into digitally preserved acts that haunt us. Their figures are protected and performed in death. Michael Jackson’s death has added him to the canon of celebrities who are equally in important to the public in life, as in death. The rise of the infotainment era has created an environment where information of celebrity death is of personal importance to a great deal of the public, a situation of “intimate strangers”.



“Our own physical body possesses a wisdom

which we, who inhabit the body, lack.”

Henry Miller

WARNING: Contains Graphic Images

In her book The Body as Material Culture, Joanna R. Sofaer (2006) examines the ways in which human remains become an enduring transcript of a certain culture’s practices in the archaeological context.  By stating that human remains are “the past personified” (2006: 1), Sofaer forms a framework through which archaeologists can begin to analyze human remains in a deeper context than the pure examination of age, sex and manner of death.  She argues that the observation of modifications can lead us to a better understanding of past cultural frameworks.  While she focuses on the body as it exists within the archaeological context, this framework can be used to examine more recent bodies.

Going back to the title quote, we need to view our bodies as a type of encyclopedia of lived and shared experience.  To un-pack this, let’s consider our own bodies:

  1. What year were you born?
  2. When did you start walking?
  3. Did you play any sports as a kid? In high school? College?
  4. Have you broken or fractured any bones? Bruised? Concussion?
  5. What is your job? How long have you been in that field?
  6. What type of shoes do you wear?
  7. Have you given birth? Or, if male, do you have any children you take care of?

And the list can go on and on. Now ask yourself, what experiences does your body convey?    There are a number of questions that we can raise in regards to the various ways we live and navigate through life, and they are all reflective of our personal experiences.  It is in this sense that our bodies become living artifacts (body-history; instead of oral history) that directly reflect culture on the level of the individual.

While this type of perspective can be utilized on living bodies, perhaps one of the most relevant ways in which this approach has been utilized is through the examination of human remains and the cadaver.  Zoe Crossland (2009: 71) reinforces this perspective by stating “The dead body became a site for understanding and knowing the living, enabling the reformulation of the relationship of visible to invisible.”  Where the living body has a great deal of information it can relay to those who ask the right questions to the living individual; the dead body (and especially those who have been murdered) has no readily spoken or understood language, and another layer of cultural analysis and inscription is necessary in order to unravel the hidden meanings.  Take for instance the corpses currently being recovered from the drug cartels in Mexico.


The bodies are artifacts of violence at the most uninhibited level, and they are the direct evidence of a set of group values which enables the perpetrators to behave in such a manner without fear of retaliation or punishment.  These individuals committed these crimes under a set of circumstances and with a specific set of tools which represent material and ideologies of their cultural group.

At the surface, a Forensic anthropologist may examine the types of tools used in the murders, the ways in which the bodies were dismembered, how the bodies were disposed of, the identity of the victims and the length of time that has elapsed.  However, even deeper analysis may enable an anthropologist to examine the cultural structures that caused the victims to become the subject of murder, how the murderer came to a position in which the crime was deemed “Acceptable” in their viewpoint, and how these two interact within the surviving community.  In the case of the drug cartels there have been some speculations that the act of beheading victims comes straight from terrorist tactics being employed by members of Al Qaida, says Tim Johnson via http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2010/04/01/91481/beheadings-become-signature-of.html.

Johnson quotes:

“These guys are copying the methods of al Qaida (terrorists),” said Jorge Chabat, a criminal justice expert at the Center for Research and Teaching of Economics in Mexico City. He said the Mexican drug lords saw Internet video of beheadings of hostages captured by Muslim extremists in Iraq and Pakistan, and adopted the tactic themselves, down to the posting of video on the internet. Experts suggest that the drug gangs have several motives. First, they seek to use beheadings to cow the citizenry from squealing on them and to pressure local authorities to collaborate. Second, the gangs try to out-macho each other with greater acts of macabre violence, frightening rivals in a murderous spiral.”

The beheadings are just one of many examples we may begin to examine regarding the ways in which culture embeds itself onto the body both in life and death, and it is important to note that just as culture changes, so too do the ways in which modifications to the body do.  New and increasingly creative methods of murder are showcased on the news and internet, and they are starting to give way to live-streaming videos of suicide, torture and murder.

To further our own knowledge we need to ask ourselves in what ways our culture embeds itself in our minds and on our flesh.

Ask Yourself: What story does your body tell?

Crossland, Zoe

2009. Of Clues and Signs: The Dead Body and Its Evidential Traces in American Anthropologist. Vol. 111 Issue 1, pp. 69-80.

Sofaer, Joanna R.

2006. The Body As Material Culture: A Theoretical Osteoarchaeology. UK: Cambridge Press.

Death without weeping: an anthropologist’s account

In her research carried out in the shantytown of “Bom Jesus” in Northeastern Brazil, anthropologist Nancy Scheper-Hughes (1993) discovered a startling situation: very high rates of infant mortality combined with an apparent indifference on the part of mothers toward the deaths of their infants. Further study revealed that the high expectancy of child death shaped thoughts and practices of motherhood. In this way, being a ‘good mother’ in Bom Jesus meant delaying attachment to some infants because of the belief that certain infants ‘wanted’ to die and so ought to be helped in their journey heavenward through neglect. When these so-called ‘angel babies’ died of starvation or dehydration brought on by neglect, mothers did not mourn their infants.

Scheper-Hughes attributed this, in part, to the political and economic context in which the women of Bom Jesus carried out their lives, with extreme poverty being an important factor. Additionally, socially and culturally, this kind of maternal care and reaction to infant death was accepted and encouraged and grounded in religious beliefs. Scheper-Hughes’ findings may be difficult to fathom for those of us raised in the US, a society in which the death of a child is believed to be perhaps the most devastating loss for an adult. Yet Scheper-Hughes’ study also provides a framework for a brief analysis of how our own culture grapples with certain issues around infant death.

Technology and fetal life in the US

In contrast to the delayed attachment to infants found by Scheper-Hughes among the impoverished mothers of Bom Jesus, which she termed a “slowness to anthropomorphize” (1993:412), it could be argued that in US society, maternal attachment to infants often begins much earlier, while the baby is still in the womb. Any woman who has gone through pregnancy in recent times can attest to being inundated with information about her fetus early in pregnancy; mothers often track their babies’ growth and development through popular books such as “What to Expect When You’re Expecting” as well as a multitude of pregnancy websites. Furthermore, standard prenatal care includes monthly visits to medical professionals early in pregnancy and technology is often used to enable the mother to view her baby in utero and listen to the heartbeat.

At the same time, advanced technologies for testing fetuses for abnormalities has become a widespread and routine part of prenatal care for American women. Parents whose tests reveal abnormalities or defects are faced with choices on whether to continue the pregnancy or abort the fetus. Despite the fact that selective abortion does occur in some of these cases, an air of secrecy and social stigma pervades the topic. A survey of prominent health websites (including CDC, NIH, and March of Dimes) is evidence of this; many sites discuss prenatal tests in depth but none mention selective abortion as an option for parents faced with a poor diagnosis. Yet selective abortion in cases of poor prenatal diagnosis is relatively commonplace, as evidenced by a review of Internet-based support groups for parents who have made or are dealing with such decisions (see, for instance A Heartbreaking Choice, Termination for Medical Reasons Group, and Poor Prenatal Diagnosis). Thus, like in Bom Jesus, it can be argued that motherhood in our own culture may also involve making decisions about child survival.

Selective abortion choices

However, important differences arise when we investigate the social, economic, and cultural conditions in which decisions about selective abortion are made. Unlike in the shantytown of Bom Jesus, in the US we have means to support the lives of infants born with many kinds of disability and thus the economic dimensions of selective abortion seem to play a reduced role in the decision-making process. Further, while in Bom Jesus delayed attachment and indifference to infant death was culturally accepted and mediated through a number of social practices, in our own society the silence around selective abortion would indicate that the practice is not widely accepted and is the subject of social stigma and taboo. Cultural ideas around the ‘rightness’ or ‘wrongness’ of selective abortion are thus hidden from public discussion. Further research is needed with parents and the broader society to elucidate the cultural elements that shape selective abortion practices. These might look at understandings around disability and deficiency, issues of ‘rights’ to life, and morality. Finally, while Scheper-Hughes concludes that mothers of Bom Jesus genuinely do not mourn their dead infants, it is clear through reviewing Internet support groups that many parents who choose to abort fetuses due to poor prenatal tests experience a great deal of pain and grief over the decision and loss of their child.

Uncovering the taboo

The rapid technological advances that enable US mothers to develop attachments early in pregnancy to their fetuses also often place them in positions in which they must make difficult decisions about the lives of unborn children. Although in some cultural contexts, maternal decisions around infant death and reactions to infant death have become acceptable and the subject of social thoughts and practices, it would appear that in the US the relatively common practice of selective abortion due to poor prenatal diagnosis is a taboo topic. This reality implies that studies need to be carried out to better understand the cultural, social and economic dimensions of selective abortion in the US.

Work referenced

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy. 1993. Death Without Weeping: The Violence of Everyday Life in Brazil. Berkeley: University of California Press.