Canadian Journal of Sociology Online March - April 2000

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Clive Seale
Constructing Death. The Sociology of Dying and Bereavement.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 246 pp. $US 59.95 cloth (0521594308), $US 19.95 paper (0521595096)

Death occupies a curious position within sociology. As one of the persistent sources of threat to social order, or opportunities for social reordering, its study addresses some of the most important theoretical questions. On occasion research monographs have appeared that use this as a way of shedding some real light on more generic issues. Yet for the most part the field is like so many others, a specialty to which entrance is gained through recognition of the limitless opportunities for research often spurred by a personal encounter. Unfortunately, unlike most other fields, it does not find a ready audience among the populations that support the discipline; few Departments are brave enough to offer courses entitled the Sociology of Death, and the aspiring scholar who anticipated a job advertisement which explicitly identified this an area for recruitment would have an inordinately long wait.

Clive Seale has done a remarkable job in explaining why sociologists should pay much more attention to the work that is being done in death studies. This not done mainly through the presentation of detailed research results, though Seale has a strong record in this regard, but rather through an extended organisation and review of the literature. Unlike most such reviews which soon leave the reader feeling that the time invested would be better spent in reading the original sources, this one draws on a theoretical imagination which offers many fresh comments and insights. Indeed, it is something of a model of how to write about complex issues in a crisp, and straightforward fashion.

In describing the culture of modernity in "Science as a Vocation," Max Weber used Tolstoi to point out that the idea of progress has made death meaningless and thereby made modern or civilised life meaningless too. This was just one of several rather oblique observations, but this way of connecting modernity to death has tended to dominate the field, with many variations around the theme of meaninglessness through medicalisation and sequestration of death. By drawing on contemporary theory, especially that which focusses on the role of the body as a site of the relationship between nature and culture, Seale revisits these assessments and weaves a more comprehensive argument about the way in which social and cultural life are best grasped as a construction in the face of death. The full scope of that argument is more ambitious than the book's title and subtitle suggests.

Seale recognises that the project of construction requires a grasp of the material aspects of death in late modernity and the way in which they intersect with the broader social structure. Increasing longevity, disproportionately enjoyed by women, creates a disjuncture between biological death and disengagement from social roles; a different kind of disjuncture arises from the rise of terminal but extended diseases such as cancer and AIDS. Developing a comprehensive theory of death in the face of a large variety of its bio-social forms is not an easy task, and certainly not one that can be reasonably accomplished within such a short book.

The project also requires a good grasp of the comparative historical and anthropological literature. Seale shows more familiarity with the latter than the former and draws on it to raise some interesting questions, about the social definition of pain and its basis for medical invasions of the body, and the resistance in Japan to such invasions through organ transplants. That is one of many points of contestation generated by western conceptions of rationality through medicine. Seale's own work looks towards more modest counterpoints such as the hospice and euthanasia movements which are designed to assert the primacy of social bonding in confronting the inevitability of death. The whole book can be read as a series of around fifty such vignettes, each of which will eventually find a proper place in a more comprehensive analysis which actually addresses the way in which death is a mirror to life. That of course will bring the sociology of death out of its rather marginal status into the mainstream of the discipline. Seale has taken some important steps in this direction.

John Hillman
Department of Sociology
Trent University
March-April 2000
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