Discourses on Death and Dying (well): Media Representations of Medical End-of-Life Decision-Making
Death is often considered the ultimate biological essentialism; the moment at which “human control over human existence finds an outer limit” (Giddens, 1991: 162). Such a perception of death seems to result in a privileging of realist and materialist approaches on death and dying, leaving little space for constructivist and idealist approaches. This PhD project precisely applies a constructivist approach to the study of death and dying. More specifically, Laclau and Mouffe’s discourse theory is deployed to explain that, while death undoubtedly exists and occurs independently from human will, thought and interpretation, it cannot constitute itself as an object of thought outside discourse. Concretely, this PhD focuses on one sphere of the social where death and dying are pervasive and ubiquitous, i.e. the field of medical end-of-life decision-making. The reasons to do so are threefold: 1/ due to the medicalisation of death and dying in late modernity, a significant part of the contemporary experiences of dying is captured; 2/ as the permissibility of medical intervention at the end of life is subject to fierce societal discussions, end-of-life decision practices can be regarded as moments of social upheaval where discursive struggles on the meaning of death and dying peak; and 3/ discussions about the permissibility of medical intervention in dying not only build on discourses on death and dying, they are also linked to a pair of secondary discourses, i.e. the meaning systems on medicine and the body. Empirically, this thesis studies the way written media portrayals on end-of-life decision-making in 10 North Belgian media products build on primary discourses of death and dying (well) and secondary discourses of medicine and the body. Using discourse-theoretical analysis, this thesis is particularly interested in the way the basic signifiers around which the discourses on death and dying (well), medicine and the body are constructed – including autonomy and dignity – are articulated. Assuming that mass media function as circulators of discourses which are never entirely fixed, but always embedded within interpretative spaces, the research focuses in its second phase on the receptions of these discourses by the general public, professional care groups and relatives of deceased people. In this way, this thesis aims to offer insight into two intertwined systems of knowledge and meaning - i.e. mass media and their audiences - on end-of-life decision-making and their underlying discourses.