How can anthropological theories enhance understanding of how people dying of Covid-19 were treated during the height of the pandemic? Dr Marian Krawczyk and I are both anthropologists who teach and research about end of life. We felt there was value in highlighting some key theories which could aid public understanding. Our new 2023 article, published in Anthropology Now, is an accessible review of some classic anthropological theories such as pollution and taboo, social death, liminality, and reciprocity.
We wanted to show that there are common human attitudes and behaviours towards dying and death and that experiences of dying during the pandemic, while in many senses extraordinary, actually highlight many pre-existing challenges around the organisation of dying in the 21st Century. These include issues around the value given to dying as a distinct stage in the human life cycle, as well as the value attributed to caring for the dying.
At the very start of the pandemic, government advisors and journalists alike sought our expert views on the likely human response to the mass death which was forecast. This led us to believe that there could be broad appetite for social theories – and specifically anthropological theories – which could help make sense of what was going on. While anthropological theories relating to death are widely recognised, theories relating to dying are less well-known. Dr Krawczyk and I have previously argued that there is a rich history of both empirical and theoretical work within anthropology which examines dying across human societies, but that this is too often overlooked.
Classic anthropological theories by the likes of Mary Douglas, Arnold Van Gennep, David Sudnow and Marcel Mauss continue to be highly useful when trying to make sense of the empirical world of dying. More contemporary anthropological work by the likes of Jennifer Hockey, Julia Lawton, Anne-Meri The, and Ann Russ has drawn on and further developed these theories. Extensive ethnographic fieldwork has found remarkable cross-cultural similarities in the social taboos that exist around the dying and dead body, discerned fundamental markers and rites of passage signifying the transition from alive to dead, identified the way some people are treated as socially dead while their bodies are alive, and theorized the ways in which caregiving can be understood as a reciprocal gift to be passed down through the generations.
Several years into the pandemic, we remain convinced that anthropological theories can help make sense not only of the way in which dying with Covid was organised in hospitals during the first waves, but also the political decisions taken about which segments of the population to prioritise. In the UK this week (1 March 2023), the political decision not to test people going into care homes at the start of the pandemic has once again been in the spotlight following a newspaper expose. Huge numbers of people died in care homes around the world because of just such political decisions. As we discuss in our Anthropology Now article, this wasn’t simply a utilitarian decision. Rather the concept of ‘social death’, pioneered by David Sudnow and later extended by Stefan Timmermans, helps us to understand the intangible calculus that underpins political decisions and actions.
The newspaper expose is merely a forerunner to the political fallout which is likely to come when the UK Covid-19 Inquiry begins hearing evidence in June 2023. Grieving relatives, professional and lay carers suffering from PTSD, and other sections of society still grappling with the serious and lasting effects of the pandemic, are seeking political accountability and to learn the lessons of the past. Our view is that the world will continue to contain similar or novel infectious disease outbreaks and social theories will always be needed – both classic and new – that can help us understand what it means to die and care for the dying during such times.
Naomi Richards & Marian Krawczyk (2022) Classic Anthropological Theories to Help Understand Caregiving and Dying during the COVID-19 Pandemic, Anthropology Now, 14:1-2, 102-111, DOI: 10.1080/19428200.2022.2119753
Matthew Engelke (2019) The Anthropology of Death Revisited. Annual Review of Anthropology 48:1, 29-44, https://doi.org/10.1146/annurev-anthro-102218-011420
Marian Krawczyk & Naomi Richards (2021) A critical rejoinder to “Life’s End: Ethnographic Perspectives”, Death Studies, 45:5, 405-412, DOI: 10.1080/07481187.2019.1639903
Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of the Concepts of Pollution and Taboo(London: Routledge, 1966).
Arnold Van Gennep, The Rites of Passage (1909; repr., Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 1960).
David Sudnow, Passing On: The Social Organisation of Dying (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1967), 74.
Marcel Mauss, The Gift. The Form and Reason for Exchange in Archaic Societies (1954; repr., London: Routledge, 2020).
Jennifer Hockey, Experiences of Death: An Anthropological Account (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1991)
Julia Lawton, The Dying Process: Patients’ Experiences of Palliative Care (London: Routledge, 2001).
Anne-Mei The, In Death’s Waiting Room: Living and Dying with Dementia in a Multicultural Society (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2014).
Ann J. Russ, “Love’s Labor Paid For: Gift and Commodity at the Threshold of Death,” Cultural Anthropology 20, no. 1 (2005): 129. doi.org/10.1525/can.2005.20.1.128
Stefan Timmermans and David Sudnow, “Social Death as Self-Fulfilling Prophecy: David Sudnow’s ‘Passing On,’” The Sociological Quarterly 39, no. 3 (1998): 456. DOI: 10.1111/j.1533-8525.1998.tb00513.x