Aarhus University Seal / Aarhus Universitets segl

Parallel Sessions

PS1: Death and Society. Negotiating Social Agencies and Relations

Johanna Sumiala: A “Cowgirl” or a Suicide Bomber – (De)constructing dead female bodies in the digital media

In manhunt after the Paris terror attacks in November 2015, the global news broke about young Muslim female Hasna Ait Boulachen. She was killed in Paris in the police raid, and was accused in the media of being “the first female suicide terrorist” in Europe. Another layer in Ait Boulachen’s story was revealed as some pictures of her past went viral in the digital media. In these pictures she was portrayed as a western style “cowgirl” and a “party girl” who was living a life not typically thought as pious and honorable for a Muslim girl. The public debate around Ait Boulachen’s death escalated around questions of authenticity and media ethics linked with her media representation in the global digital media.

In addition to the questions of authiecity and media ethics, Ait Boulachen’s death reveals several interesting aspects on the gendered construction of death in the digital media and shows how certain emotions and images that circulate in the digital media may contribute to (de)constructing certain collective imaginaries around dead female bodies in the present digital world. 

In this paper I will analyse this complex interplay between death, digital media and a gendered subject in the case of Ait Boulachen. In my theoretical and empirical discussion, I draw in particular on Sarah Ahmed’s (2014) work on the cultural politics of emotion and discuss her ideas against the (de)construction of dead female bodies (see also Kraidy 2016) in the digital media. In my empirical analysis I apply digital ethnography, which I have employed in selected digital media platforms. 

Anu A. Harju: The ideologically aligned self and (non)commemoration as social critique: a relational approach to commemorative practices of self-construction on social media

When much of our social life is entangled with the digital, the digital has also become a “privileged site for social and political engagement” (Berry, 2015); yet not all social and political critique is explicit. Commemoration of globally felt tragedies has evolved from personal displays of affinity to displays of collective alignment with acute ideological and political underpinnings (Sumiala, 2013; Sumiala & Korpiola, 2015), particularly evident in the contemporary Western context when loss of life in discourses of terrorism, mass migration and war portray differential valuation of life and death (Butler, 2004, 2009).

Thus, inherently political, (non)commemoration positions us: individual commemorative acts do not exist in isolation but are embedded in wider socio-cultural imagination (Appadurai, 1996; Taylor, 2002; Valaskivi & Sumiala, 2014) harbouring significations attached to the grievability of life (Butler, 2004, 2009). Commemoration as contested practice (re)constructs memory by assigning value to it; it also constructs the self as aligned with specific ideological imagination. These memories are embedded in material practices such as social media commemorative acts.

Viewing self-construction as a relational, collective and ongoing socio-cultural and discursive practice (Gergen, 1994, 2009, 2011) that draws on memories as narrative constructions (e.g. Jarvis, 2011), this paper examines the 2015 “Paris attacks” and “Beirut bombings” from a discursive perspective. Using Appraisal analysis (Martin & White, 2005; Martin, 2000, 2004) I examine who constitutes the culturally recognizable human (Butler, 2009) that elicits social media remembrance en masse, but also the unrecognizable, and thus, ungrievable, life? This paper addresses the relational constitution of commemoration, and asks what non-commemoration can tell us about the politics of remembering, and how practices of commemoration contribute to constructing the self as ideologically aligned individual.

Arnar Árnason: Internet, suicide, sacrifice: On individuals, society, intimate politics and the state of the contemporary Icelandic state

Suicide played a key role in establishing the modern sociological idea of society and the sciences of that society. In his work on the issue, Durkheim famously demonstrated that suicide, surely a private, intimate, individual act, has a particular social logic. The charged relation between the intimate and the public, individual and society, centred on suicide and which Durkheim wrote about, has been made all the more intense with the development of the internet and internet chat rooms. Focusing on material from Iceland I analyse here internet discussions on and around suicide and place these in the context of other material collected during long-term fieldwork in the country. I investigate in particular how the idea of sacrifice, often present in discussions about suicide in particular and death in general, problematises the relations and differences between individual and society. Drawing on scholarship in the anthropology and sociology of death, and the anthropology and sociology of emotion I seek to examine the extent and the limit of the command the state, in particular in its neo-liberal formation, over life, emotions and the body, and the extent to which the internet fosters an escape from that command. Employing Laurent Berlant’s work on the collapse of ‘the political and the personal into a world of public intimacy’ I investigate how internet suicide becomes implicated in the constitution of a new intimate politics.

Piergiorgio Degli Esposti: Death on Facebook. Mourning and memory as a prosumer activity

The main hypothesis of this paper is that the activities of Facebook users in the processes of remembrance and mourning may be considered as part of the prosumer continuum (Ritzer, 2009). The evolution of technology and the digitization process have introduced new paradigms that cannot be ignored by social scientists. Within this framework the SNS (Social network Sites) has a function similar to that of the so called cathedrals of consumption in the material world. Mourning is a very primitive behavior, that can be considered in evolution, augmented, thanks to the prosumer activity feeding UGC,(User Generated Content) implying a mutual process of creation of meaning and memory in constant change.

Central to the debate in question we feel it is important to analyze the increased opportunities offered by digital technologies together with the augmented reality notion, to the point that to some extent they overcome the death taboo and lead to the paradox of digital eternal life, for as long as the digital footprints and conversations remain hosted in data centers. Moreover the change in communication codes transforms significantly how the mourning process is experienced, also because of the shared space between the digitally alive and the digital dead, opposite to the modern notion of the cemetery as a place of segregation (Baudrillard) generating a hyper symbolic exchange.            

Theoretical observation will be validated by the visual and textual analysis of a sample of memorialized profiles.

PS2: Technologies, Materialities and Narratives, On- and Offline

Tobias Raun: Connecting with the Dead. Vernacular Practices of Mourning and Relationship Making through the Sharing of Photographs of a Close Relative’s Grave Site on Facebook

My mother died of lung cancer a Tuesday morning at a hospice in Vejle. On my train ride home to Copenhagen the very same day I made a post on Facebook. My own experience of loss – and not least my immediate urge to post about it on Facebook –prompted my current research project, exploring a group of Danes’ use of Facebook to cope with the death of a close relative.

This paper zooms in on the practice of photographing the grave site and circulating it on Facebook. A practice which many of the Facebook users in this study and myself engage very actively in. What I investigate is the visual expression of these images, the incentives for sharing them, and the cultural meaning and significance that can be attached to them. My investigation takes its point of departure in the images posted juxtaposed with the Facebook users’ motives, thoughts, feelings, and experiences as they are communicated to me in semi-structured media-go-along interviews.

I argue that by visiting, photographing and uploading images of the grave site the mourners engage in a continued relationship-making. Sharing images of the grave site often focuses on the vegetation around the grave stone, that becomes a stand-in or an ersatz-body for the deceased love one in an attempt to keep them among the living, although in dispersed material form. These images serve as assurance and reminder to self and others of the continuous presence of the loved one, and enfold the deceased relative’s existence into an ongoing everyday mediated life.

Anders Gustavsson: Afterlife beliefs expressed on memorial websites in Sweden and Norway A comparative study with earlier times

How online practices are remediated forms of earlier known practices?

My research deals with memorial websites that became available in Norway and Sweden, with the bulk of material from Sweden. These websites were set up by people who had recently suffered an extreme grief in their immediate relationships concerning either people or pets. The focus of my analysis is on the contents of messages which stress a faith perspective. Since this is a study of popular beliefs, ordinary people are in the centre.

My research questions are:

  • What concepts of afterlife are expressed?
  • Is there connection between earthly and future life?
  • What does the afterlife status of the deceased look like?
  • Is any form of dialogue with the deceased considered to be possible?
  • Blessed and unblessed afterlife existence?
  • Belief in angels? Dead people or pets as angels?
  • Is any form of future reunion with the deceased believed to be possible?
  • Which differences and similarities can be found in belief narratives nowadays and in earlier times?
  • How can scholars get information about belief in afterlife in older times and nowadays? In the 1800s and 1900s this is documented through narratives in folklore archives and inscriptions on grave memorials, nowadays—by means of memorial websites on the Internet.


Lisbeth Frølunde: Auto-fictional narratives about death in the family

What are the interrelations of fiction-based and non-fiction based research? In this paper, I explore the interrelations through researching, retracing, and writing about my father’s suicide. In tandem, considering the methodological issues of using narratives – that they enable a reader to listen and relive empathically the life experiences of another, and to position a text outside the local and specific – and blur ethical lines.

My presentation includes a narrative mosaic; a mix of letters, imagined talks with my father, drawings and facts, figures, images found online. Two short narratives make up the mosaic: Not Papua, and Drawing the Little Belt Bridge. Up to his suicide, my father worked for the United Nations on a doomed power plant in Papua New Guinea, Indonesia. The UN incorporated Papua in 1969. Recently declassified documents online reveal the grubby politics of these Cold War events.

Methodologically, I draw on the dialogic approach (Bakhtin, 1981; Beech, 2008; Boje, 2001; Emerson, 2012; Keunen, 2000). Bakhtin views our multiple voices, styles, chronotopes and discourses as inter-animated. Anthropological research on dying, such as Irving’s walks with a man about his suicide attempts, retold using ethnographic, collaborative photo methods (Irving, 2013). My inspiration includes novelists who blend fact with fiction and integrate their parents’ legacies, such as Delphine de Vigan and Siri Hustvedt. In the discussion I address methodological and ethical issues on the relation between fiction and fact, especially when involving contested lines of privacy, biography, politics, and history in a digital era.    

Luke van Ryn: The funeral director as intermediary: managing online media in the contemporary funeral

A number of start-up companies are introducing a range of digital products and services to contemporary funerals, such as webcasting, online memorial profiles and digital memorial screens. However, these technologies do not enter the market easily. In addition to the funeral industry’s historical conservatism, these various media ‘add-ons’ have to be sold to sensitive individuals: those either pre-planning for their own demise, or dealing with the recent loss of a loved one. Subsequently, the funeral director becomes central to the uptake and deployment of these new technologies.

Drawing on a series of key informant interviews conducted with members of in the Australian funeral industry, we explore how the funeral director operates as an intermediary of digital services in this space, negotiating between bereaved clients and start-up companies. We critically examine the popular framing of the funeral industry as a ‘conservative’ business, contextualising these recent technological engagements through a broad consideration of the industry’s historical relationship with technological innovation. We then consider the impact of this intermediary role on the planning and delivery of the funeral service itself, outlining how funeral parlours engage with their customers and present these services and how online services such as webcasting are positioned in relation to changing practices and use of commercial social media platforms for grieving and memorialisation. This study provides an empirically grounded account of current developments in the funeral industry as well as a broader narrative about how funeral industry professionals have engaged with technology over the industry’s history.

PS3: Communal Grief on Social Media. Narratives, Linguistics, Affects and Socialities

Carsten Stage & Tina Thode Hougaard: From crowdfunding to crowdgrieving: Developing an affective-linguistic approach to the study of communal grief on Facebook

Fighting for Magnus (Miv) is a Danish Facebook group with approximately 18.000 members connected by the specific purpose of crowdfunding huge amount of money for a specific cancer treatment for Magnus, an 8-year-old boy diagnosed with an aggressive cancer brain tumor. In January 2015 the group was founded by the relatives of Magnus in the hope of raising 800.000 DKK for a medical treatment in Spain. The group grew explosively, and after only five days, more than 1million DKK were donated.

The Danish national broadcaster Danmarks Radio made a documentary about the family’s fighting for Magnus’ survival and the Facebook group supporting this fight. While watching the documentary Kampen for Magnus (broadcasted the 31th of May 2015, almost 2 months after the death of Magnus) more than 500 members of the Facebook group wrote about their feelings and thoughts on Facebook. Different ways of handling immediate and impulsive affects can be seen on the wall of the Facebook group, but some distinct features recur. Almost every comment contains a heart or a crying emoji (smiley), 30 % of the comments shows nothing else but emojis. Persistent words are crying, tears, tough, warrior and fantastic; and while watching the documentary a lot of the participants used the interjections (like “puha” (translation: whew)).

In the paper we will analyze this hypertextual material and the group’s transformation from an affective public of crowdfunding to an affective public of ‘crowdgrieving’. In doing this, we discuss how to study communal processes of affectedness in linguistic material – a type of material, which has often been denounced in theories of the affective turn (Massumi, 2002, Brennan, 2004). We will transgress the often rather narrow understanding of language in these affect theories (Wetherell, 2012) and seek to develop an affective-linguistic approach, which includes user comment rhythms, top word visualization, emoji and interjection analysis (Henriques, 2010). The goal of this is to examine new methodological ways of approaching social media as participatory archives of affect (Kuntsman, 2012, Cvetkovich, 2003, Papacharissi, 2015, Gerlitz and Helmond, 2013).

David Myles: Mourning on Facebook in a “socio-technically acceptable way”

This presentation explores the social and technical norms that frame online mourning practices. As argued by Goodrum (2008, p. 438), the rules surrounding grief expression remain unclear today, especially in online mourning contexts such as Facebook where a clear etiquette for social interactions as yet to be established (DeGroot, 2009, p. 64). As an informal social setting (Papacharissi, 2009), Facebook gives place to a continuous search for normative codes of conduct, leaving room among users to negotiate the appropriate ways this social networking site might be used to perform mourning activities online. Hence, how are mourning practices transposed and performed online in a socio-technically acceptable way? Using a sociological framework of uses (in French, sociologie des usages, Jauréguiberry et Proulx, 2011), this presentation relies on the observation and on the content analysis of a commemorative Facebook group that were conducted in 2012. Four principal forms of use of the Facebook group application were observed among mourners: 1) the ‘wish card’ refers to a phatic use of the Facebook group application which allows group members to exchange wishes in various timelines; 2) the ‘personal diary’ is characterized by the use of the Facebook group application as a way to communicate with the deceased to share emotions and private life updates; 3) the ‘place of prayer’ is illustrated by the ways members occasionally address requests to the deceased; 4) the ‘mnémothèque’ (Thomas, 1988) refers to the remembrance process in which group members collectively select, share and, consult commemorative content regarding the deceased.

Dorthe Refslund Christensen & Kjetil Sandvik: ”I have named my guinea pig after Mopper”…

On November 21st 2016, Ann Patricia Christiansen passed away at the age of 78 after months of protracted illness. In Denmark, Ann Patricia was known as ’Mopper’, being the oldest generation in the Linse Kessler family in the tv reality show ”Familien på Bryggen” (in English: ”The Family on the Wharf”). A show that has had 10 seasons on TV3 and is soon to initiate it’s 11. Season.

In the show, Mopper was known and cherished for her subtle, humurous remarks on her family (Linse, her 48 year old daughter known for her body, refurbished through a large number of cosmetic surgeries (she has the biggest boobs in Scandinavia, for one thing); Mopper’s granddaughter Stephanie, known as ’Gekko’ and her boyfriend, Cengiz and their one year old daughter Alba); her approach to her family and life and the world in general.

On November 21st, Linse posted the sad message of Mopper’s death on her Facebook wall, and on the day and the days to follow, more than 9000 of her more than 400.000 followers shared the news and more than 42.000 people payed their condolences under this posting.

So, how did these fans pay their condolences? What did they write? Which kinds of personal experiences and intimacies did they share? Which cultural ressources (songs, poetry, hymns, film lines etc) did they quote?

In this paper, we’ll present some preliminary findings in an analysis of the spontaneous grief community of fans on Linse’s Facebook wall. These condolences is an example of  how the death of a celebrity cues spontaneous online communities, that both involves the sharing of grief for a cherished media friend, but moreover, the sharing of intimate emotions and thoughts on life and death between strangers. It is our point of departure that these spontaneous grief communities constitute sociocultural platforms of resilience strategies for coping with – not as much the death of a TV persona but, more importantly, for coping with life itself.

Ylva Hård af Segerstad: Emerging Norms: Negotiating the Expression of Grief in Online Peer Grief Support Communities

Previous studies of a peer grief support community for grieving parents on Facebook have shown that the bereaved parents regard the closed community as a safe haven, vital in their process of adapting to their loss (Hård af Segerstad & Kasperowski, 2014; 2015).

In results from surveys, interviews with members and administrators as well as content from the interaction in the Facebook group, we find the bereaved parents repeatedly stressing that “[in the closed group] you feel safe… you can share anything… in here you are not judged”.

Within the community, the grieving parents feel safe in expressing parental care and continuing bonds with their deceased children in ways that would not be acceptable outside of the community (cf. Klass et al. 1996; Christensen & Sandvik 2015). However, even though the parents express that they can share “anything”, norms for the expressions of grief are from time to time explicitly negotiated even within the community.

An illustration of this is an episode of intense debate that took place in the community in the fall of 2015, following the posting of a photo of a dead child on its deathbed. In the closed group, photos of deceased children are certainly not uncommon but whether this should be allowed was suddenly heatedly debated during several days. It exemplifies the negotiation of norms within a community which comprises diametrically different standpoints among its members: being allowed to share photos of dead children is for some what makes the community into a safe haven, while others see the same practice as making it impossible to use the community as a secure resource.

Studying bereaved parents’ expression of grief in dynamic communities online will nuance our understanding of present-day grief work and contribute to an enhanced theoretical understanding of parental grief.

PS4: Building, Maintaining and Negotiating Online Spaces for Death Related Practices

Paula Kiel: Online practices of the collective afterlife: websites for post-mortem digital interaction

As so many other aspects of our lives, digital media has also had an impact on practices and perceptions related to death and its presence in everyday life. Within the growing research on these evolving death-related online practices (See for instance: Doka, 2012; Gotved, 2014), lesser attention is paid to the practice of users planning their own post-mortem online interactions and presence. This paper offers to fill that gap.

The focus of this study is on websites for post-mortem digital interaction. These websites are designed explicitly to encourage and enable users to imagine the world after their death and configure their online presence and activity in it. For instance, by sending emails years after death, or deleting specific folders from an email account post-mortem.

A functional typology of 32 websites is presented based on: (1) variety of forms of presence (range of functions) and (2) degree of presence (modes of representation and time-scopes). Three main types of functions are discussed: (1) online and offline administrative closure, (2) emotional closure and (3) on-going online presence. Then, Pauwels’s (2012) multimodal framework for analysis of websites as cultural expression is adapted for the analysis of 6 websites (2 of each prototype).

Informed with the approach of Social Shaping of Technology, in order to understand the emergence of these practices and the negotiations of meanings involved in it, in-depth interviews with 6 founders and designers of such websites were conducted. These interviews enable to understand the cultural, social and individual contexts in which these innovations emerge. 

Jo Bell: Online social media practices in the aftermath of a suicide: Methodological opportunities and challenges

This paper centres on our ongoing work into online suicide memorialisation. Our research so far has provided insights into how online suicide memorials transform the experiences of the bereaved and open up new ways of grieving and managing trauma. An interesting and unexpected finding was that Facebook was the most commonly used resource (Bailey et al 2014; Bell et al, 2015). Other important questions were raised. In the next phase of the research we will examine social media practices in the aftermath of a suicide in more detail Specifically: What memorialisation practices are users engaging in online and why; who goes online in response to the suicide, when do these practices emerge, and how do they evolve over time; how are bereavement practices shaped by the digital networks they are occurring within and what happens when networks take on a life of their own?

This presentation will focus on our methodological approaches to uncovering and understanding emergent contemporary memorialization practices related to suicide that are enacted via social media: how online and offline practices are interwoven and how they are remediated forms of earlier known practices. We also welcome discussion on our wider ideas on the development of an innovative framework (theoretical and methodological) for the study of social media practices in the aftermath of suicide that can also generalise to other forms of traumatic death.

Stine Gotved: Secluded yet social: co-constructed online memorials

The western culture around death and grief is changing. The sharing practices in social networking media challenge the modern sequestration of the non-spetacular death, as we share our emotions connected to loss. This de-sequestration might be a return to a community-embedded and premodern way of griewing (as suggested by Walter et al, 2012), but can as well be configured as a new phase of modernity, highly dependent on networked technologies for social connectedness. Either way, the central point is the cultural move from individual mourning practices towards more social and shared mourning practices. I will present the preliminary results of an explorative approach into a new memorial universe, both secluded and based on sharing. The secludedness is due to an infrastructure like a classic virtual cemetery, with the memorials kept apart from social networking media. At the same time, a recent re-design (June 2016) opens up the memorials for sharing and co-construction by the actual social network of the deceased. The re-designed memorial is meant to support more social mourning practices without the flipsides of social networking media (over-sharing and loss of data controle). The study will take place from late 2016 to mid 2017 and is planned to include quantitative data about the tangible co-construction as well as qualitative interview data about the turn to a more social mourning practice. As the research is to be conducted in the sensitive field of loss and sorrow, a discussion of research ethics will be included in the presentation.

Sharon Greenfield: Young People and Digital Bereavement

Young people from 18-22 have their own specific perceptions, capabilities, identity expressions, and cultures in the online arena. As such, how they use digital media and online forums to grieve and bereave is specific to their experience. Instagram is an online platform that enables identity expression though digital imagery. For those going through bereavement, it can be a platform to share their identity expressions and journey. This paper will show some empirical examples on how Instagram is used for young people going through bereavement, connect them to current cultural practices, and share emerging practices.

Young people from 18-22 have their own specific perceptions, capabilities, identity expressions, and cultures in the online arena. As such, how they use digital media and online forums to grieve and bereave is specific to their experience. Instagram is an online platform that enables identity expression though digital imagery. For those going through bereavement, it can be a platform to share their identity expressions and journey. This paper will show some empirical examples on how Instagram is used for young people going through bereavement, connect them to current cultural practices, and share emerging practices.