Shifting States Anthropology Conference, 11-15 December 2017

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Shifting States – Tripoli, 2011, Luis Cruz Azaceta (

Last week, our team member Karolina Kuberska attended the annual Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK and Commonwealth (ASA) conference. This year, the ASA joined forces with its equivalent organisations in Australia (AAS) and New Zealand (ASAANZ) and held the event at the University of Adelaide, Australia.

The theme of the conference focused on recent anthropological theorising on the state. Over 400 participants discussed various ways in which the state is engaged in people’s everyday lives and engages with peoples as stakeholders. Topics of panels ranged from eating to health, from resistance to victimhood, from sustainability to mining rights, among others. Karolina presented a paper in a panel ran by Dr Susan Hemer (University of Adelaide) and Dr Anthony Heathcote (Monash University, Melbourne) entitled “Death and grief: changing states of being and continuing relationships” that considered the end of life, and the changing states of being that entails.

Karolina presented a paper entitled “Parenthood following miscarriage: the kinship consequences of death before birth” that examined the significance of the lack of legally required miscarriage certificates for the sense of parenthood among people who lost pregnancies prior to week 24 of gestation in England. The paper focused on the discrepancy between legal requirements of registering pregnancy loss (only stillbirth requires legal certificate that includes names of parents) and messages sent by pregnancy loss support organisations and hospitals that consider all losses as potentially significant. You can read the abstract below.

The presentation was well received and Karolina was asked many interesting follow-up questions.

Adelaide is a beautiful city, and there are koalas living in the nearby Cleland Wildlife park. (Follow the links to see videos of a koala eating eucalyptus, or a kangaroo jumping.)

You can read the abstract below:

The sense of parenthood following a miscarriage is questioned by death and nourished by grief. The ambivalence of this kind of parenthood has been addressed by various researchers who examined the difficulties of displaying parenthood to others (Murphy & Thomas 2013), conflicting understandings of the loss (Komaromy et al. 2007; Malacrida 1999), or the paradoxical nature of materiality and immateriality of memories (Layne 2003), among others. Miscarriages, unlike stillbirths, do not require the issuing of legal certificates in England, which calls into question the formal parental status of those who have lost a pregnancy. Simultaneously, care and support following pregnancy loss is structured around recognising the feelings of bereaved parents. This paper aims to explore the ambiguities of parenthood following a miscarriage in England, paying particular attention to the impact of the lack of legal recognition on the sense of parenthood. An analysis of interviews with people who experienced miscarriage and those who cared for them, as well as an analysis of resources directed at these groups (leaflets, books, support guidelines, etc.) help to illuminate the challenges of navigating the precarious sense of parenthood that is deeply anchored in the grief caused by the absence of a child and the unfulfillable dreams that may result from a pregnancy loss. By exploring the implications of lack of legal requirements for miscarriage certificates, this paper uses understandings of kinship as legal and social categories to examine the paradox of parenthood rooted in pregnancy loss.

Human Tissue Authority Annual Conference, London, 27 June 2017

Danielle and Sheelagh were grateful to Caroline Browne, Head of Regulation, at our partner organisation the Human Tissue Authority, for the invitation to attend their annual conference in London. The morning sessions included reports from the various members of the HTA Board on a range of issues, policy, practice and research with which the HTA engages: the scope of the HTA’s work is impressively broad and deep. Indeed, research conducted about public perception of the HTA’s purpose reveals that most members of the public are unaware of the Authority’s broad remit. The work of the HTA during 2016/17 is discussed in the annual review publication for 2016/17: ‘Protecting public confidence; ensuring professional standards’.

The afternoon panels featuring a cross-section of guest speakers were focussed around the theme ‘Conversations about death and dying.’ The range of professionals speaking to the topic cleverly indicated the involvement of the HTA and the commitment of both Board and staff to not only sensitive and ethical treatment of human tissue across the life span, but also the Authority’s contribution to the creation of appropriate care pathways for terminally ill people and to support for the bereaved. Many of the presenters spoke about issues that resonate with the DBB project. A lively presentation by Dr Susy Lishman, President of the Royal College of Pathologists, emphasised the importance of clear and open communications between pathologists and the general public in order to achieve a better understanding about the role of post-mortems, for example. From a different perspective, Dr John Troyer, Director of the Centre for Death and Dying at the University of Bath, described a number of projects dealing with death ‘the thing we are always rediscovering’. A provocative question – ‘what do you want done with your dead body?’ – underlined our society’s general reluctance to talk about death.


The final panel, featuring Sheelagh McGuinness on behalf of our own research team, explored conversations about death and dying from both first-hand perspectives and from the standpoint of those who support the bereaved. A moving clip from the film of the play Homeward Bound by Brian Daniels illustrated how medical professionals might be better trained to have ‘brave and important conversations’ with people who are terminally ill. Inspired by Lesley Goodburn’s experience of supporting her partner through his final illness, the play powerfully conveys the necessity of honesty in patient-medical staff relationships as well as the need for sensitivity towards the feelings of friends and family. Another of our partner organizations, SANDS, was represented on this panel by CEO Clea Harper who again emphasised the importance of robust training for medical professionals. She noted that only 46% of health care professionals are trained in how to talk to bereaved parents, and that training is usually under 1 hour in length. As our own research is beginning to suggest, such brief training only begins to address the complexities of baby loss and the needs of the bereaved.

The final panel, with Sheelagh McGuinness on behalf of the DBB research team, far left

Wrapping up the day, the HTA’s Chief Executive Allan Marriott-Smith outlined the three dimensions of discussion and debate that had characterised the conference – the societal, the professional and the personal. Together these spheres create the public and private contexts in which conversations about death, dying and grief should occur: contexts in which honesty, clarity and hope should, ideally, all play a part.

You can watch footage from the conference using the playlist below.


Researching and Applying Metaphor Seminar, 16th – 19th May

From 16th – 19th May 2017, three of the team (Jeannette Littlemore, Sarah Turner and Meera Burgess) were at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense, Denmark attending the 6th Specialised RaAM (Researching and Applying Metaphor) Seminar.

The goal of this seminar was to begin to bring metaphor research in line with new insights from the field of cognitive science. In brief, metaphor can be seen as something we ‘do’ – it is not an isolated process in the mind, but something we can enact as we make sense of the world around us. We thought this was particularly relevant to our project as a lot of our preliminary analyses have highlighted the role of ritual and memory-making in the grieving process following pregnancy loss.

We delivered a talk on our first findings, looking in particular at the pilot study we have completed on how baby loss is talked about, both by the bereaved and by those who support them. This study used data gathered from a number of sources: meetings with stakeholder groups and project partners, hospital information leaflets, interviews with medical practitioners, and the parliamentary debate in October 2016 on the occasion of Baby Loss Awareness Week (you can read the whole transcript of the debate here). In particular, we wanted to introduce some of the main themes that have come out of this preliminary analysis, which we’ll be taking up in our future research:

  • How do people talk about the loss of their pregnancy? What is it that is ‘lost’? We found in our data that there were many references to the loss of future life; it isn’t just a baby that is lost, but the whole life that they would have had with their child.
  • How do people describe their feelings surrounding the loss? We picked out two particularly strong themes here. One was the loss of agency, with people who have experienced pregnancy loss explaining how they felt that they had lost control of their lives. The other related to the difficulties in talking about what they have experienced, both due to the enduring ‘taboo’ around pregnancy loss in society, and because it is simply too painful to articulate.
  • What is the role of material memories such as memory boxes, mementos and memorials? How do these things help the bereaved? What do the bereaved do to mark their loss?

The seminar was a very interesting and thought-provoking event, which has given us plenty to consider as we prepare to collect and analyse our data.