• Katrine Buus
4. term, Sociology, Master (Master Programme)
At the end of life, it becomes much more apparent that others play a vital role in maintaining our identity, thus preserving our social existence as our biological one withers. As deaths are often outdrawn and institutionalized in contemporary society, studies have shown that the dying person may experience loss of access to former sites of identity construction, discrepancies between self and body as physical debility sets in, as well as major changes in roles and relationships, thus creating a loss of identity. However, because identity must be understood as a construction of meaning between people through interaction, ‘others’ hold great potential in alleviating and possibly helping the dying overcome some of these identity issues, thus creating a more meaningful existence for the dying and their relatives. Since the majority of Danes (3/4) will spend their last days in a hospital or a nursing facility these ‘others’ will include professional care workers, or death workers (Walter 2005). While previous research has theorized about death workers engaging in tactical socialization (Mesler 1995), conveying certain death scripts (Seale 1995) or death roles (Parker-Olivers 2000), and promoting personhood (Kabel & Roberts 2003) as ways of understanding death workers involvement with the identity of the dying, this master thesis proposes that death workers intentionally engage in identity work (Snow & Anderson 1987) as active and reflective identity agents (Schachter & Ventura 2008) to help maintain the identity of the dying individual. This has been examined in two steps: (1) how death workers utilize identity work to address identity issues of the dying, and (2) how identity work relates to the construction of meaningful work. An adaptive approach was chosen and a case study was conducted in collaboration with a Danish hospice and palliative team. Empirical research was done using a mixed-method design consisting of 9 in-depth interviews with members of different professions working at the hospice or within the team, observations at weekly interdisciplinary meetings and a parting ritual, and a selection of discrete methods. In the following the main conclusions are presented: (1) Identity work, as practiced within palliative care, aims to preserve meaningful aspects of the dying person’s identity, protect the identity from the progression of illness and death, and help pass on the identity in the transition from organic to inorganic existence. This is achieved by mediating access to identity resources, redefining the use and meaning of identity resources, and curating identity by accentuating meaningful aspects of the dying person’s identity (the person), while downplaying painful others (the patient). (2) In this process death workers in palliative care tend to mobilize personal aspects of their own identity in order to accentuate and acknowledge complementary aspects of the dying person through practical identification; leaving death workers vulnerable to reciprocal effects. This is managed by creating a professional identity around the meaningful use of identity work and legitimizing the use of personal, not private aspects of identity. However, the reciprocity in identity work can cause a discrepancy between necessary strategies used to create identity and meaning for the dying person, and values and approaches used to create identity and meaning in death work. To manage this discrepancy and create a balance between these two sides of identity work, death workers must master certain skills: manage multiple perspectives, position themselves as the audience, mobilize identities, and practice reflexive tolerance. While identity work among death workers may be characterized by active goals and strategies, it is important to note that it is also an accommodating practice. This is especially important as identity agents are usually in a position of great influence causing identity work to be practiced in an unequal relationship (Marshall & Schachter 2010). Accordingly, death workers are faced with moral and ethical issues regarding their influence on the identity of others, and in the context of palliative care, this is dealt with collectively through ongoing discussion and adjustment of practice, as well as sharing of experiences. This allows for the primacy of the dying person in the work, as well as dealing with vulnerabilities the death workers might experience when practicing identity work.
Publication date2016
Number of pages106
ID: 238622511