Knowing death

This article was written by Khyati Tripathi, a Commonwealth split-site PhD scholar from the Department of Psychology, University of Delhi, India and pursing a year of her PhD in the Department of Psychosocial Studies at Birkbeck under the supervision of Professor Stephen Frosh. Khyati has been selected for Cumberland Lodge’s Emerging International Leaders Programme on Freedom of Religion or Belief.
coffinThrough my PhD project, I am trying to understand how varied social constructions of dead bodies lead to different conceptualizations of death in a culture with a special focus on mortuary techniques (embalmment per se). Death is more than just a biological fact; it is also a social phenomenon. A dead body is the carrier of the social meanings that a culture attaches to death. Each culture has a different lens to look at the bodies whether it be male bodies, female bodies or dead bodies. Through my research I want to know how these cultural lenses differ by drawing a cross-cultural comparison between Delhi (India) and London (UK).

As a curious researcher, I have always been intrigued by the untouched complexes of human existence and death is one of them. This interest is closely tied with my experience of losing a friend in an accident when I was 14 and since then I have been on an ongoing quest to ‘know death’. I have been working in the area of death and related themes for eight years now and this journey started with my first project in  the final year of my undergraduate degree, which focused on the impact of physical health on death anxiety, where I worked with terminally ill (cancer patients), chronically ill and healthy individuals. A second research project that soon followed studied death personification i.e. how would people perceive death as a human or a person? A third analyzed the death rituals of  three religions- Hinduism, Islam and Christianity and a fourth was an ethnographic study to explore experiences of Hindu death priests of north India.

I have had many different experiences working on these projects. I remember sitting in the waiting area of the hospital where I had to meet cancer patients for my first project and not wanting to go inside thinking ‘I cannot do this’. I had presumed that none of the patients would want to talk to me about death and I would out rightly be rejected and dismissed. Gathering strength, I went inside the ward where I could see at least 15 beds. I took a right and approached the corner most one. There sat a 73-year-old man reading a newspaper. I greeted him and explained to him the purpose and objectives of my study. He replied saying, “of course, ask me whatever you want” while signing the informed consent. My interaction with him lasted almost six hours. My first ever participant made me realize that as a researcher you need to have no notions and assumptions about your field. There were quite a few  patients who wanted to talk about death with me because they did not want to talk about it with their family members. I can’t say that I was never rejected, I was – a lot and I accepted all rejections with respect. I knew that I was working in a sensitive research area and needed to be receptive.

I am asked a lot if working in this area makes me ‘depressed’. I would say no, it doesn’t but it does make me ask questions about our existence as humans. It gets overwhelming a lot of times and I distance myself when I feel saturated. My parents have been my pillars of strength. They supported me in each and every endeavor of mine and have given me the emotional care, support and motivation that I needed to continue.

I believe that life is a mystery that unfolds gradually but death is a bigger mystery because it is uncertain and this uncertainty and unpredictability about death make people anxious. Through my research, I want to study different aspects of death (ritual-based, culture-based, etc.) and contribute to the field of ‘Death Education’ in India and elsewhere.

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Reframing human-predator relations

This post was contributed by Dr Simon Pooley from Birkbeck’s Department of Geography, Environment and Development Studies. His paper ‘An interdisciplinary review of current and future approaches to improving human–predator relations‘ (Pooley et al. 2017) was published in the journal Conservation Biology on 13 February 2017.

wolvesFaced with shrinking habitats and increasing competition for natural resources, large charismatic predators are under severe threat in many developing countries. In contrast, in developing countries where protection is effective, predators like crocodilians and wolves are increasing. In both cases, the impacts on predators and humans bring the challenges of coexisting with wildlife sharply into focus. This year we have already had controversy over wolf culls in Scandinavia, wolves killed in Tuscany, mountain lions and black bears have been slated for culls in Colorado, USA, and there have been crocodile attacks in Australia, Indonesia Malaysia, South Africa and Zambia (among other incidents).

Currently, the dominant approach to managing human-predator relations focuses on negative impacts and frames the issue as ‘human-wildlife conflict’. This misses the complexity of the relationships in question, omits key influencing factors, and has limited effectiveness in delivering mitigation of conflicts where they occur.

With this in mind I convened a team of experienced, open-minded experts from the natural and social sciences and the humanities, to discuss the problem of human-predator relations. We were hosted by Professor David Macdonald at WildCRU headquarters in rural Oxfordshire. Following a stimulating day of interdisciplinary dialogue, we forged the resulting profusion of ideas, perspectives and experiences into a position paper (Pooley et al. 2016).

In our paper, we review the limitations of current approaches to mitigating conflicts over predators, observing that scientifically sound recommendations have often foundered for unforeseen reasons. These include locals feeling left out of the process, the high costs in terms of time and labour of effective livestock protection methods, resistance to what locals see as infringements on their freedom of behaviour, and disagreements over what causes predator attacks (e.g. supernatural explanations versus scientific ones).

We identify fruitful perspectives on how to reframe, research and successfully intervene in conflict scenarios. Importantly, conservationists need to rethink ‘conflict’ as a framework for dealing with problematic human-predator encounters. Framing an encounter as a ‘conflict’ can polarise and redefine it. For example, when conservationists intervene to resolve conflicts the problem (and the animal) becomes identified with them. It also leads them to ignore successful examples of coexistence. Other themes include the need to understand the historical, social and political context of such encounters, and to properly engage with their (often neglected) cultural dimensions.

It is challenging to unravel the multiple dimensions of conflicts over predator management. Local experiences with and representations of predators coincide with representations circulated in the global media, which inspire and inform international conservation NGOs and their local implementation efforts. Both dimensions impact on local management practices (and resistance to these). The response to the killing of Cecil the Lion in Zimbabwe was a good example of the disjunctions that exist between local and international attitudes to charismatic predators. To some Africans it seemed Americans care more for lions than local Africans.

Another challenge is to think more rigorously about human-predator coexistence and co-adaptation. New ways of thinking about human-animal relationships being developed by social science and humanities researchers can inform this process. Humans and animals should be studied in relation to one another: it is vital to transcend disciplinary divides over who studies what and how. Stimulating approaches here include studies of human-animal geographies, and multispecies ethnography. Further useful ideas include the notion of cosmopolitan nature (it is local and global), and reflexivity about how species’ charisma influences conservation decision-making. Political ecology and peace studies can contribute to improving conflict mitigation efforts. Environmental histories of human-predator relations, and human-human conflicts over conservation, provide essential context for framing interventions.

Another challenge concerns how to reconcile scientific and cultural ways of thinking about animals. Anthropology and psychology have much to teach us about studying the perceptions, beliefs, attitudes and behaviour of humans around dangerous animals. Our understanding of attitudes towards animals is developing fast, but the factors that guide attitudes and ultimately behaviour are less well understood. Moreover, we need to consider human positions in relation to the conservation management practices we put in place.

We seek robust, effective management of destructive and damaging conflicts. However, it is seldom possible to deliver the ‘win-wins’ increasingly demanded by funders. Indeed, aiming for win-wins focusses projects on dispute resolution and technical approaches to preventing or mitigating harmful impacts. It ignores deep, ongoing underlying drivers of conflict, and differences in power and vulnerability among the key role-players.

To adequately tackle this complexity requires a more inclusive approach, open to new ideas, perspectives and approaches for understanding the drivers of what we have unhelpfully characterised as human-wildlife conflicts. It is a challenge to co-produce knowledge about such problematic relationships, without generating a paralyzing relativism. We need to achieve agreement on what constitutes good evidence, and collaborate on developing processes and methods to mitigate conflicts. We should monitor and evaluate and share the outcomes of our efforts.

In sum, conservationists need to transcend the paradigm of conflict in human-predator relations. Conservation is one (to us vital) perspective among others on such relations, and it is necessary to draw on a wider range of concepts, frameworks and approaches to understand the full range of interests and factors influencing these relationships over time and in particular contexts (local and international).

Over the last 20 years conservation biology has evolved into conservation science, recognising that we live in a human-dominated world (Kareiva & Marvier 2012). Perhaps the field needs to evolve once again, to reflect the need for collaboration across the natural and social sciences and humanities, together with those managing and living alongside predators.

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The Medical History of Speech Disorders

microphone-1716069_1920Dr Marjore Lorch from Birkbeck’s Department of Applied Linguistics and Communication talks to us about her recent investigation into the first recorded case of spasmodic dysphonia (SD) – a condition in which  involuntary spasms in the tiny muscles of the larynx cause the voice to break up, or sound strained, tight, strangled, breathy, or whispery. The below interview is adapted from an interview given to the National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association and published in their newsletter Our Voice, 2016, 26 (1) 14-15.

What did this piece of research entail?

Together with Dr Renata Whurr, I investigated the very first case of spasmodic dysphonia that is regularly cited in the current research literature. We found that the picture presented by this patient, translated from German in the 1870s, was not what it seemed. The clinical description was not consistent with our current view and it is likely that the patient didn’t actually have SD. Subsequently, we discovered that research by a British clinician, writing at the same time, contained observations very similar to our current characterization.

How did you get involved in historical research?

I was fortunate to have teachers throughout my training who stressed that the way to understand neurogenic disorders, observed clinically, was to go back and read earlier descriptions to understand how syndromes were characterized by the perspective of the observers which changed over time.

Can you explain how historical research impacts current and future research?

I believe that applied medical history can contribute important insights into current clinical issues. This method puts a spotlight on understanding the way assumptions, concerns and questions change over time and how that influences the types of answers that are pursued. This kind of approach may be particularly useful in making progress on points that have been debated over the years by analyzing the types of symptoms that have been considered central to different formulations in the past. For example, whether clinicians considered SD to be psychogenic or neurogenic has changed over time. To develop a more nuanced and detailed picture to drive forward future avenues of research, it is valuable to go back and review historical observations. It can be a source of inspiration to revisit previous hypotheses and characterizations. The benefit is that it may produce a reassessment of things that were held as unquestioned assumptions.

What drew you to spasmodic dysphonia research?

I began my involvement with spasmodic dysphonia research in the early 1990s through my work with Dr Renata Whurr who was head of Speech and Language Therapy at the National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery at Queen Square London. Over the years we have collaborated on a variety of aspects regarding SD. Initially, this was focused on treatment. However, I later became interested in the linguistics aspects of the problem. We investigated how the vocal cord movement disorder interacted with the articulatory properties of different languages. One important finding drew attention to the fact that speakers with SD will have different vocal symptoms depending on what language they speak. For example, the diagnostic features of SD for English will not adequately describe the characteristics of French SD speakers. Put more simply, if you have SD, your symptoms will be slightly different depending on the language you speak.

What has surprised you the most about researching the history of spasmodic dysphonia?

When my colleague, Dr Whurr, and I went back to the original case of SD reported in the 1870s that is still cited today, we were amazed to find that the individual didn’t have a voice disorder that we would recognize as SD. This research revealed the common practice of perpetuating a reference to historical literature without necessarily going back to the source. The selection of emblematic cases is also influenced by the assumptions held by the researcher. Our work highlighted how a particular view of the past may be colored by present day biases. In this instance, a strong belief in Freudian psychology in the mid-20th century may have played a part in choosing a historical case that was formulated as “hysterical”. It also highlighted how more significant and worthwhile observations may not be promoted, because of social rather than scientific reasons. By reading the 19th century literature, we recovered important observations about SD that had been lost to posterity.

How do you think this research will help people with SD?

Our research has highlighted the contribution of the 19th-century clinician, Morell Mackenzie, who described the particular sound of a person’s voice, which will lead directly to the diagnosis of SD. This is of vital importance as there is often a long delay in diagnosing SD. It is important to recognize that changes in voice may be the only symptom of this neurogenic disorder.

Further information:

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Just Enough for the City!

Dr William Ackah is a lecturer in Community and Voluntary Sector Studies at Birkbeck. He is a co-convenor of the Transatlantic Roundtable on Religion and Race and a Fulbright All Disciplines award holder based at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary for the academic year 2016-17.

Growing up as young man in East London the words and music of Stevie Wonder had a profound influence on me. I would play the powerful and evocative songs emanating from albums like Songs in the Key of Life, Fulfilling his First Finale and Talking Book for hours and hours. I would think about what kind of society could exist where “love was in need of love today”? Or who indeed was Mr Know it all? One song that affected me then and still does today is the chilling but epic tale of youth migration from rural to urban America;  Living Just Enough for the City. Even as I write this piece the harsh sounds and those cutting words ‘back in the cell’ still send chills down my spine. Stevie’s profound lyrics come to mind as I sit here in my room in Pittsburgh one of the key stopping points on the great migration of African Americans from the South to the North in the twentieth century. Pittsburgh historically has had a great reputation as a centre for Jazz and was the home of the one of the great American playwrights August Wilson. Most of his impressive body of work – some of which I have had the pleasure to see in London – are set in the Hill District in Pittsburgh. It was all these reasons and more that have drawn me to the city.

Hill District, Pittsburgh is undergoing regeneration

Hill District, Pittsburgh

I have the privilege of being in Pittsburgh this academic year as a Fulbright Scholar, based at the Metro Urban Institute of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. I am here to conduct research on the impact of regeneration and gentrification on African American church congregations in two neighbourhoods: Larimer and the Hill District. I will be exploring the role that the Black Church plays when neighbourhoods experience economic and social change as a result of urban redevelopment. I have seen in London over the past twenty years areas of the city with large Black and Minority Ethnic populations which were considered undesirable and  plagued by crime, poor schools and lack of amenities, get investment and rapidly become very desirable places to live. With desirability comes rising house prices that then make those areas unaffordable for those same Black and Minority Ethnic populations that had lived through and endured the difficult times in those neighbourhoods.

A sign about regeneration in Larimer district, Pittsburgh

A sign about regeneration in Larimer district, Pittsburgh

What is happening in parts of London is not unique; these same processes of urban redevelopment have and are impacting African American communities in a number of US cities including Pittsburgh. What should be the role of the Church when these things are happening? The Black Church historically has been the key social institution in the African American community and is still a major institutional force throughout Africa and the African Diaspora.  In the US context it was the incubator of credit unions and schools, it birthed the doctors, lawyers, intellects, workers and leaders that enabled Black communities to endure the horrors and indignities of racism and to win important rights and freedoms. The church was also an incubator for black creativity and although its relationship to some creative forms has been tense at times, the spiritual energy of the Church has birthed some of the most amazing musical and artistic forms the world has known. In the post-civil-rights era, however, the importance of the Black Church to the wider community has increasingly been called into question. As poor urban areas have suffered from the blight of drugs, under-employment mass incarceration and police brutality it has been said of the Church that it has become so heavenly minded that it is of no earthly good! That it has not been pro-active in protecting it’s communities from these injustices. Is this however really a fair assessment? It can be argued that the Black Church has never been a monolithic entity and that over the years it has had many strands of engagement with urban communities ranging from social and political activism to non-engagement.

The past however is the past. What can the Church do in the 21st century?  Can it be an incubator for social housing, enabling poorer residents to stay in their communities? Can it be a champion for youth development, rupturing the school to prison pipeline? Can the church be an example for sustainable urban living, promoting positive ways for diverse communities to flourish together in changing contexts?

I do not think it is the role of the Church to do everything in a neighbourhood, as it virtually did in the past but as a key social institution it can create and nurture spaces that enable marginalized and excluded communities not just to live but be able to flourish in the city. I hope to discover some evidence of this during my Fulbright year in Pittsburgh.

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