While preparing a discussion of Holland on identity, figured worlds, agency, practice, I read a wonderful account of a doctor’s experience in pronouncing a patient dead:
One recent night I was asked to declare the death of a woman I had never met.
“Ms. L. passed,” the nurse said. “Could you pronounce her?” …
Declaring death is not technically hard but it is weird and sad and requires reams of paperwork. It is usually done by an intern, but my intern was busy so I said I would do it.
The first time I declared a patient dead was nearly six years earlier. I had been a doctor for a few months when I was summoned overnight with a page that told me that my patient’s heart had stopped. When I got to his room I was out of breath and his nurse smiled at me and told me that there really wasn’t urgency; he wasn’t going anywhere. It was only when I walked into the room and saw my patient still and utterly silent, his tired family sitting around the bed, that I realized no one had ever told me precisely how to declare death. I wished I could come back later, but it didn’t seem right to leave him there, so I thumbed through my pocket-sized intern survival guide. The manual was alphabetized, and the discussion about declaring death came somewhere before a section on diabetes management. (“Pronouncing the patient dead.” Lamas, Daniela, New York Times, October 30, 2014)
This pronouncing is, of course, a major speech act. It is also a subsequence in what Glaser and Strauss described as a “non-scheduled status passage” (1965). The total organization of dying in the modern world (whenever that is) is clearly something that could trigger, in a cultural anthropologist, the emotions that lead Bourdieu and Passeron to write about “symbolic violence … as … imposition of a cultural arbitrary by an arbitrary power” (1977 : 5).
This pronouncing must be, for the doctor commanded to do it, an experience that transforms as she moves from the periphery (say, in medical school), to first time in full position, to experienced old-timer. It is an everyday practice that must have implication for the self or identity (or whatever) of the individual who does the pronouncing under the gaze of all sorts of professionals and others with all sorts of rights and privileges on the body who is being moved from life to death by processes many of which have little of the “natural.” This would of course apply to anthropologists moving from apprenticeship in graduate school to the writing of papers on doctors pronouncing someone dead, to preparing graduate discussions about all this.
Now, for Holland I guess, the central issue is Dr. Daniela Lamas’ authoring of her life in dialogue with all the people “Daniela” (as Holland would write) may encounter as she pronounces a patient dead, or as she imagines it, later, at home, or while writing a piece for the New York Times, or reading what still other people (51 as of November 6th, 2014) said in the responses published by the Times.
Holland frames the issue as involving as (possibly straw) argument between the “culturalists” and the “constructivists.” My concern of course, is in the argument between the Weberians (and the culture and personality version of Boasian cultural anthropology) and the Durkheimians (including Lévi-Strauss and Garfinkel). For those interested in my concern, check my two latest posts (“On the collective production of ‘conscience collective’,” “On the production of ‘conscience individuelle'”).
But that leaves the question of what anthropologists can say about Daniela, as a particular person, at any particular moment of her life, as she meets other particular persons. Personally (!?!), I, and will continue to, eschew saying anything about her. One the one hand, I do not know her, and could not possible know her even if I interviewed her, or followed her around for days. This is partly a methodological issue, and partly a theoretical one. On the other hand, I fear that my saying anything about her, as a person, might lead some in my audiences to assume that what I said about her could be used as an explanation for her fate, or justification for meting consequences that would transform her fate. This is partly a theoretical/methodological issue, and also a moral one in fields approaching “application” with policy implications, particularly in a culture (collective conscience, etc., in my terms) that imagines the world as being made up of individuals with inalienable rights… I thus feel (?!?) multiply uncomfortable when Holland writes about Karla, Susan, Natalie, Gyanumaya, Debra, and all the other many women (and a few men) who appear again and again in the book.
And yet of course, since Boas started teaching at Columbia (or G. H. Mead at Chicago), his students in American universities have wondered about Karla, Susan, etc… My personal goal will remain to throw a more determined focus on the historical (arbitrary, etc.) conditions within which Karla, Susan, etc., find themselves, while still noticing that Karla and all others are not determined in their particular responses to particular conditions at particular times: irreducible improvisation on given themes that, often, make new conditions for future Karlas.
Barney Glaser, and Anselm Strauss 1965 “Temporal aspects of dying as a non-scheduled status passage.” American Journal of Sociology 71: 48-59.
Bourdieu, Pierre, and Jean-Claude Passeron 1977  Reproduction in education, society and culture. Tr. By R. Nice. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.
Holland, D., Lachicotte Jr., W., D. Skinner and C. Cain 1998 Identity and agency in cultural worlds. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.