Grief – Psychological or Sociological?

by Debra Bassett

During a recent PhD upgrade interview at the University of Warwick I was asked to defend my assumption that the study of death, dying and grieving was sociologically based.  This took me aback as I had not been expecting to have to justify this aspect of my research.  “Of course it belongs in sociology departments” my inner voice was shouting – death happens within society, grief doesn’t just affect individuals, it affects wider groups, and is always influenced by the social context within which it happens. The events in Orlando on June 12th bring this sociological context into focus. Public displays of grief have recently become public displays of solidarity, as demonstrated by the worldwide response to the attacks in Orlando and the Paris attacks in 2015.

Social media has played an important part in these social demonstrations of mourning and solidarity:  The hashtag #JeSuisCharlie was used over 5 million times in just 3 days following the deadly attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, and Facebook introduced a French flag meme for their users to incorporate on their profile page following the Paris attacks. Few would argue that social change is at the heart of the discipline of sociology, and the trending on Twitter of the hashtag #TwoMenKissing, following the atrocity in Orlando, is a clear example of social media being used in an attempt to change negative attitudes – in this instance – toward the LGBT community.

Grief is often viewed as psychological stages to be worked through with the possibility of “getting over” the death of a loved one.  However, grief is far more complex than this, it is entwined and embedded within issues of gender, race, class and culture – within a social context.  It is not just social grief that is context specific, individual or private grief also happens within a social context that is being made visible by social media.  

Grieving is not a purely psychological phenomena to be studied and researched within psychology departments it belongs in sociology department too – I only wished I could have been more eloquent in my defence of my stance during my interview!

Debra Bassett is a PhD Candidate at the University of Warwick.  Her research interest lies in whether digital immortality being offered by social media platforms  – through the creation of digital messages – will affect how people grieve.

Categories: Digital Sociology, Rethinking The World

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