Celebrating the First Decade of the End of Life Studies Group Blog

Published on: Author: David Clark Leave a comment

Tempus fugit. It is now 10 years exactly since the first post appeared on this blog, setting out a new agenda for social science research at the University of Glasgow.  The decade milestone brings a good moment for a little reflection, and also for a look forward. 

In March 2014, I’d just had confirmation of success in my application for a Wellcome Trust Investigator Award. I hardly knew at the time that the grant would have such long-lasting effects. The first blog post was a ‘soft launch’ for the Award, and also for the creation of the Glasgow End of Life Studies Group, both of which got fully into gear the following year. 

I am delighted to observe that, whilst the Award ended in 2020, when Dr Naomi Richards took over from me as Group Director, the programme of work is continuing to develop and thrive. It’s also a particular pleasure to observe how it is doing so very much in the original and founding spirit. That is, conducting interdisciplinary social science research on end of life issues and providing critical reflection, combined with recommendations relevant to policy and practice. 

Reviewing the posts that have appeared over the last decade, almost 300 in all, it’s exciting to see what this particular approach can yield.  The blog lays down a fascinating archive of shared intellectual endeavour and wider engagement. I’m struck by two simple ways to explore it.

First, there is chronology. Accessed in order of publication, the posts provide a fascinating record of how a research group evolves over time. We see how team members join, coalesce and collaborate. Some put down deep roots, others contribute and move on. We observe novel clusters of interest emerging, together with new methodologies designed to address them. Some have longevity, whilst others prove ephemeral. There are visitors from many institutions and jurisdictions who come to collaborate, to work on related projects, or simply to meet the folks who make up the Glasgow End of Life Studies Group. Postgraduate students pepper the timeline as they arrive, study, graduate and progress. It’s a fascinating story in its own right.

Second, are the broad themes of work that make up the end of life research landscape of the last decade and how the Group has contributed to them. These are shaped by grant successes in some instances, but also by individual enthusiasms and bursts of unfunded scholarship. The timeline of projects and interests also reflects wider changes in the field of enquiry. New subject areas appear, along with varied external partners. Innovative research and dissemination methods evolve and new audiences are found for the work.

From time to time on the blog we see ‘big news’ announcements, such as major grants awarded by the Wellcome Trust and the Economic and Social Research Council. There are also reports about new projects and studentships supported by the Global Challenges Research Fund, the Carnegie Trust, the Crichton Foundation and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. We see many publishing successes, neatly summarised in blog posts, sometimes with associated videos. They include high impact journal articles, monographs, atlases, even a biography of Cicely Saunders and a personal COVID memoir. Alongside these there are contributions to policy, briefing documents and infographics, as well as accounts of parliamentary motions and debates, born from the work of the Group. 

More exploratory blog posts introduce readers to new conceptual breakthroughs relevant to the field of end of life studies – such as mycelial thinking, the brain-gut axis, and the microbiome. Close attention is paid to the ongoing value of key sociological and anthropological theories. The ‘equity turn’ in palliative care is interrogated, a taxonomy of end of life interventions is developed. A critical eye is cast on the putative relationship between public health and palliative care. New collaborations with creative writing specialists produce a DeathWrites Network engaging authors from across Scotland, with the support of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. The Group is among the first to introduce a post-colonial lens to the development and delivery of palliative care. It’s a long list of achievements. 

This judicious use of a range of theoretical, methodological and conceptual frameworks yields significant results.

Documentary films are made, death cafes are hosted, and a carefully curated photographic exhibition on ‘Dying in the Margins’ goes on tour to great effect. Invited plenaries are given at major international conferences, but not at the expense of village hall meetings, talks at book festivals and film screening Q&A sessions. There are appearances on local and national TV and radio. A report on palliative care indicators is produced for a committee of MSPs, and the Group Director assists in drafting a new Scottish Government policy for palliative and end of life care. In short, the work of Group members finds multiple audiences and applications.

Collaborations across continents run through the core of the approach. The third iteration of a world map of palliative care development involves all independent jurisdictions recognised by the United Nations. Initiated from the group, End of Life Doula studies flourish in the UK, Canada and Australia and then develop into an international research network. Work gets underway on the formation, transfer and evaluation of the Kerala model of community-based palliative care across settings and geographies.  A study of the propensity of patients to die in Scottish hospitals is replicated in Denmark and New Zealand/Aotearoa. Data on the relationship of palliative care to legalised assisted dying is collected in Flanders, Oregon and Quebec. A capacity-building study brings together early career researchers in the UK and Japan to explore aspects of end of life care in the context of ‘super ageing’.

The educational offering of the Group also builds over time. It begins with undergraduate teaching and a seminar programme based around the themes of the Investigator Award. It builds into a partnership with FutureLearn that starts as a three week MOOC and evolves into a full MSc/PGDip/PGCert programme, taught entirely online and which will have its first graduates this Summer (July 2024). It specialises into a ‘micro-credential’ in partnership with the Royal College of Physicians of Edinburgh in a CPD course on End of Life Challenges and Palliative Care.

The End of Life Studies Group reminds us constantly that how and where we die constitute issues of enduring societal interest and concern. The Group also throws light on the shifting constructions and cultures of dying, death and bereavement in many contexts. More recently it has engaged with existential issues relating to climate change and the physical and emotional sense of loss related to the death of species, ecosystems, and landscapes.

It was my privilege to guide the Glasgow End of Life Studies into being. It is even more rewarding to see it flourish and develop under the leadership of others. Three hundred blog posts and 6,000 followers over 10 years are just a couple of its multiple achievements. The Group’s imaginaries continue to evolve and to provoke new research questions and practices. The decade ahead may be even more exciting!

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