Postgraduate Course: The Anthropology of Death (PGSP11047)
|School||School of Social and Political Science
||College||College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences
|Credit level (Normal year taken)||SCQF Level 11 (Postgraduate)
||Availability||Available to all students
|Summary||Is death a universal of the human condition or a culturally bound habit of thought? Focusing on a variety of ethnographic contexts, the basic aim of this course is to explore some of the ways in which death has been (re)presented in order to be resisted or embraced. As this exploration revolves around the 'discourse' of anthropology, manifested in the changing theoretical attitudes towards the ethnography of mortuary rites, it also attempts to highlight a deeper affinity between the 'reality' of death and the anthropological quest for comparative knowledge.
a. Academic Description
Is death a universal of the human condition or a culturally bound habit of thought? Focusing on a variety of ethnographic contexts, the basic aim of this course is to explore some of the ways in which death has been (re)presented in order to be resisted or embraced. As this exploration revolves around the 'discourse' of anthropology, manifested in the changing theoretical attitudes towards the ethnography of mortuary rites, it also attempts to highlight a deeper affinity between the 'reality' of death and the anthropological quest for comparative knowledge.
b. Outline Content
1. Introduction: Universals and 'Cultural' Diversity
We shall briefly review the various ways in which anthropologists have tried to deal with mortuary rites and mourning in order to suggest that the anthropology of death can be loosely divided into three theoretical 'traditions'.
2. Death and the Self
We shall explore the tradition that treats death as a 'logical scandal' and places the emphasis on the thinking self.
3. Death and Society
We shall discuss the tradition that treats death as an affront to (or an opportunity for) 'Society'.
4. Death and the Cosmos
We shall concentrate on the theoretical tradition that tries to go beyond the self/society dichotomy by placing the emphasis on the Cosmos in order to treat death and life as gifts and counter-gifts in a system of exchange.
5. Dying Persons, Grieving Selves
We shall return to the significance of the self but we shall explore the kind of ethnographic work that emphasizes feeling and emotions rather than thinking.
6. (In)dividual Bodies, (In)dividual Deaths
We shall re-examine the importance of 'Society' by discussing ethnographies which foreground the notion of personhood and associate different kinds of death with different kinds of persons.
7. From Mor(t)ality to Immor(t)ality
We shall return to the significance of the Cosmos in order to discuss a very particular understanding of the notion of 'exchange'.
8. Modern Lives, 'Post-modern' Deaths
We shall use this exchange to compare 'the West' with 'the Rest'.
9. Virtuous Lives, Virtual Deaths
We shall focus on the implications of death in 'the West' by treating it as a very particular kind of spectacle - a spectacle that simulates death.
10. Conclusion: Is death a 'fiction'?
We shall review the course and ask whether death, however it might be approached, may be nothing more than a 'fiction'.
c. Student Learning Experience
The course consists of one two-hour session a week, supported by small-group teaching (seminars) in separate one-hour sessions. There is one seminar every two weeks. The two-hour sessions involve a mixture of lectures (including some 'guest-lectures'), discussions, debates and videos. In the seminar, learning is organized around a list of presentations that aim to give students the opportunity to discover their own 'guiding threads' through the relevant literature and enable them to develop their own interests.
Entry Requirements (not applicable to Visiting Students)
||Other requirements|| None
Information for Visiting Students
|High Demand Course?
Course Delivery Information
|Not being delivered|
On completion of this course, the student will be able to:
- Students will gain a sophisticated understanding of the issues and debates that animate the anthropology of death.
- They will be able to appreciate the fashion in which much of what we call 'culture' or 'society' is embodied in our response to death.
- They will be capable of engaging critically with a number of important death ethnographies and utilize them to reflect on the problems arising from the anthropological quest for cross-cultural comparison.
- They will recognize and be able to appraise the differences and similarities between the various theoretical approaches to the comparative study of death.
|Aries, P. 1983 The Hour of Our Death. Middlesex: Penguin|
Bloch, M. and J. Parry 1982 'Introduction'. In M. Bloch and J. Parry (eds), Death and the
regeneration of life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Baudrillard J. 1993 Symbolic Exchange and Death. London: Sage Publications
Bauman, Z. 1993 'The sweet scent of decomposition'. In C. Rojek and B. Turner (eds), Forget
Baudrillard?. London and New York: Routledge
Conklin, B. 1995 '"Thus Are Our Bodies Thus was Our Custom": Mortuary Cannibalism in an
Amazonian Society'. American Ethnologist 22(1): 75-101
Course, M. 2007 'Death, Biography, and the Mapuche Person'. Ethnos 72(1): 77-101
Danforth, L. 2004 'Metaphors of mediation in Greek funeral laments'. In A.G.M. Robben (ed.), Death,
Mourning, and Burial: a cross-cultural Reader. Oxford: Blackwell Publishing
Foltyn, J. 2008 'Dead famous and dead sexy: popular culture, forensics, and the rise of the corpse'.
Mortality 13(2): 153-173
Hertz, R. 1960 'A contribution to the collective representation of death'. In Death and the Right
Hand. London: Cohen and West
Huntington, R. and P. Metcalf 1991 Celebrations of Death (2nd Edition). New York: Cambridge
University Press (Preliminaries, Chapters 4 and 5)
Kaufman, S.R. and L.M. Morgan 2005 'The Anthropology of Beginnings and Ends of life'. Annual
Review of Anthropology 34: 317-41
Plant, B. 2009 'The Banality of Death'. Philosophy 84: 571-596
Seremetakis, C.N. 1991 The last word: women, death, and divination in inner Mani. Chicago:
University of Chicago Press
Strathern, A. 1982 'Witchcraft, greed, cannibalism and death'. In M. Bloch and J. Parry (eds), Death
and the regeneration of life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press
Taussig, M. 2001 'Dying Is an Art, like Everything Else'. Critical Inquiry 28(1): 305-16
Tsintjilonis, D. 2007 'The Death-Bearing senses in Tana Toraja'. Ethnos 72(2): 173-194
Walter, T. 2004 'Plastination for display: a new way to dispose of the dead'. J. Roy. Anthrop. Inst.
(N.S.) 10: 603-627
Willerslev, R. 2009 'The optimal sacrifice: A study of voluntary death among the Siberian Chukchi'
American Ethnologist 36(4): 693-704
|Graduate Attributes and Skills
|Course organiser||Dr Dimitri Tsintjilonis
Tel: (0131 6)50 3934
|Course secretary||Miss Becky Guthrie
Tel: (0131 6)51 1659