New Anthropology Course in Death, Modernity and Public Policy

Anth 251.11
Anthropology and Contemporary Problems:  Death, Modernity, and Public Policy
George Washington University
Anthropology Department
Instructor: Frances Norwood fnorwood at gwu dot edu

Fall 2010 – Wednesday 5:10-7:00

Death is often viewed as a fixed biological event, but across cultures and through history the definitions, practices, and regulation of death are something much more fluid. How has the invention of the artificial ventilator impacted an entire organ transplant industry and redefined death as death of the brain? Why are some modern day cultures only recently legalizing euthanasia when practices around assisted dying have existed since at least the beginning of oral history? What are the implications of one woman’s cells for mapping the entire human genome, cloning sheep, or other projects of genetics today? How do concepts of modernity, markets, and policy combine to create new forms?

In this seminar course, we will explore in anthropological perspective modern-day policies and practices around death and dying from around the world. We will explore common cultural themes as well as historical particulars, including concepts of good death, suicide taboos, denial of death, sequestration of the elderly and chronically ill, social death, medicalization and new technologies at the margins of life.

Students who take this course will be asked to contribute to an on-line blog, to conduct original research and to present their findings in a non-traditional media-based format, including for example video, photography, website, PowerPoint or poster. Students will read literature from current events, such as the charges of euthanasia stemming from Hurricane Katrina or the long-standing legal debate around Terri Schiavo’s life and death. Students will also read literature from anthropology, sociology, public policy, philosophy and others, including Zygmunt Bauman’s Wasted Lives (2004) and Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks (2010).

On completion of this course, students will:

 Challenge popularly held assumptions about life and death. Namely, to understand death and dying not as a fixed biological fact, but as something that has many different interpretations across and within culture, history, medicine, and law.
 Become familiar with various cultural, historical, medical, legal and ethical perspectives of death and dying.
 Become familiar with some of the common themes that cut across these perspectives.
 Consider implications of these perspectives for health policy, service delivery and social practices at the beginning and end of life.

For more information about the course or a copy of the syllabus, contact Professor Frances Norwood at fnorwood at gwu dot edu.