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Anthropological Perspectives on Dying and End-of-life Care


Admission requirements:

This course is an (extracurricular) Honours Class: an elective course within the Honours College programme. Third year students who don’t participate in the Honours College, have the opportunity to apply for a Bachelor Honours Class. Students will be selected based on i.a. their motivation and average grade.

Key words:

Skills: Interview, academic writing, critical reflection, debating.

Topics: Dying, end-of-life care, cultural and religious perspectives, palliative care, hospice care, brain death, organ donation, hospice care, anticipation of death, politics of dying.

Disciplines: Medical Anthropology, ethics, social medicine.


How do social and cultural perspectives on a “good death” differ around the world? In what different ways do caregivers and patients prepare for dying? How do we assess bio-ethical and religious debates on issues of brain death, organ donation, palliative and euthanasia? How are new biomedical possibilities around end-of-life care and dying discussed, applied or rejected in different cultural contexts?

In this course we will apply perspectives from cultural anthropology and social medicine to study these and other questions surrounding end-of-life care and dying. We will examine how modern technologies, such as life-sustaining systems and organ donation, affect notions of a good death and the moral personhood of the dying, and how they do so in relation to culture and religion. We will look at a range of values and social relations that shape debates on dying in globally and locally, including issues of illness disclosure, patient autonomy, and hospice and family care.

The course invites students to develop their own thoughts on highly socially relevant themes and to critically assess taken for granted notions of death. It encourages students to engage in cutting-edge ethical debates. It offers students the opportunity to develop qualitative social scientific methodological skills through an interview exercise on the sensitive topic of end-of-life care.

This is a reading-heavy course. Students will be required to read the assigned texts and write response notes prior to each session. The majority of sessions will have a seminar structure in which the readings will be collectively discussed in relation to the questions and comments raised in the response notes. Active participation in the discussions is encouraged. Tentatively, the course will include a film screening, guest lecture and excursion. During the final session students will discuss their interview reports. The final assessment is a paper on a course-related topic that engages a selection of course readings.

Course objectives:

Upon successful completion of this course, students will:

  • Understand core medical anthropological discussions on dying and end-of-life care;

  • Increase interview skills and qualitatively analyse an interview in relation to existing academic literature;

  • Challenge taken for granted positions on end-of-life care by assessing their socio-cultural dimensions;

  • Develop critical thinking and writing skills that allow you to engage in social scientific discussions;

  • Advance discussion skills by active participation in debates during.

Programme and timetable:

Wednesdays 13.15-15.00 hrs

Tentative programme topics (NB. Still subject to change!):

Session 1: 9 okt.- Introduction lecture on Culture, Biomedicine and the End of Life, the medicalization of death;
Session 2: 16 okt.- Seminar Session 1: Ethics of dying, what is a “good death”?;
Session 3: 30 okt.- Seminar Session 2: Brain death and organ donation;
Session 4: 6 nov.- Seminar Session 3: Palliative care and religious perspectives;
Session 5: 13 nov.- Seminar Session 4: Hospice care (+ in class film screening);
Session 6: 20 nov.- Seminar Session 5: Physician-assisted dying;
Session 7: 27 nov.- Guest lecture (TBA);
Session 8: 4 dec.- Excursion (TBA);
Session 9: 11 dec. - Final: Seminar Session 6: Politics of life and death.


Facultity of Social Sciences, Pieter de La Court Building (FSW).
9, 16 October room 1A01
30 October room 1A03
6 November room 1A09
13 November room SA29
20 November room 1A12
27 November, 4 December, 11 December room 1A24

Reading list:

Examples (subject to change, final list will be announced via blackboard):

  • Aviv, Rachel “What does it mean to die?”The New Yorker 5-2-2018;

  • Broom, Alex 2015. Dying: A Social Perspective. London: Routledge (selected chapters);

  • Flaherty, Devin 2018 “Between Living Well and Dying Well: Existential Ambivalences and Keeping Promises Alive.” Death Studies 42(5): 314-321;

  • Kaufman, Sharon 2005. … And a Time to Die: How American Hospitals Shape the End of Life. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. (selected chapters);

  • Lemos Dekker, Natashe 2018. “Moral Frames for Lives Worth Living: Managing the End of Life with Dementia.” Death Studies 42(5): 322-328;

  • Norwood, Frances. 2007. “Nothing More to Do: Euthanasia, General Practice, and End-of-Life Discourse in the Netherlands.” Medical Anthropology 26(2): 139-74;

  • Oueslati, Roukayya. 2017. “Dying with a Clear Mind: Pain and Symptom Control in Palliative Care for Dutch Moroccan Patients in the Netherlands.” In Women and Social Change in North Africa: What Counts as Revolutionary? Doris Gray and Nadia Sonneveld (eds.), 237-260. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press;

  • Prince, Ruth. 2018. “Death, Detachment and Moral Dilemmas of Care in a Kenyan Hospital.” In: A Companion to the Anthropology of Death, edited by Antonius Robben, 445-460. Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell;

  • Stonington, Scott. 2011. “Facing Death, Gazing Inward: End-of-Life and the Transformation of Clinical Subjectivity in Thailand.” Culture, Medicine and Psychiatry 35: 113-33.

Course load and teaching method:

This course is worth 5 EC, which means the total course load equals 140 hours.

  • Lectures: 1 introductory lecture 3 hours, 1 guest lecture 3 hours;

  • Seminars: 6 seminars of 3 hours;

  • Excursion: 1 excursion of 3 hours;

  • Literature reading & practical work: 8 hours p/week (7 weeks needing preparation) = 56 hours;

  • Assignments & final essay: interview exercise + report (17 hours) & final paper (40 hours).

Assessment methods:

The assessment methods will look as follows (The assessment methods will be further explained in the first session of the Class):

  • 10% participation assessed continually through active participation in seminar and structured activities;

  • 25% (5% each) a minimum of 5 response notes of 200-600 words (questions, comments, impressions related to the session’s readings). Response notes should be submitted through blackboard at least 12 hours before the start of the session. Submitting more than 5 response notes is allowed (lowest score(s) will be dropped);

  • 25% interview report (1500 – 2000 words) deadline 6 December 2019;

  • 40% final paper (3000-4000 words) deadline 6 januari 2020.

Students can only pass this course after successful completion of all partial exams.


Blackboard will be used in this course. Students can register for the Blackboard page one weeks prior to the start of the course.

Registration process:

Enrolling in this course is possible from Monday the 19th of August up to and including Thursday the 5th of September until 23:59 hrs. The registration link and further information will be posted on the student website of the Honours Academy.

Please note: students are not required to register through uSis for the Bachelor Honours Classes. Your registration will be done centrally after successful completion of the Bachelor Honours Class.


Dr. Annemarie Samuels: