Viewpoint: Sociology of mortality – existential or pragmatic?

Viewpoint: Sociology of mortality – existential or pragmatic?

Tony Walter

As the American sociologist Peter Berger (1969) once wrote, every human society comprises people ‘banded together in the face of death’. But why do we need to band together? Do all humans have a fundamental terror of death, which consciously or unconsciously drives their hopes and fears, their values and behaviour and thus shapes society and culture? Or, does the fact that all humans are mortal simply raise practicalities that have to be dealt with collectively? For example, the funeral industry is needed to dispose of thousands of bodies each year; life insurance and retirement ease death’s economic disruption; a legal framework is needed to enable inheritance; and social institutions such as family and education are necessary to ensure that knowledge is passed on from one generation to the next. In other words, social institutions function in part to collectively manage mortality.

A number of social scientists think that mortality and awareness of mortality drive society and culture. But they disagree over whether the underlying drive is existential terror or simply the need to solve a set of practical problems. Let’s look at the two positions.

Existential terror shapes culture
In their important book The Social Construction of Reality (1967), Peter Berger and Thomas Luckmann create their own social reality. Though biology dictates some things such as the need to eat and to procreate, how and where we eat or procreate, and with whom, has to be constructed collectively. This social reality provides order and meaning, yet humans must believe reality to be no mere construction, but simply how things are. Social reality is therefore precarious, vulnerable to anything that might reveal it to be but a construction, and thereby reduce social life to the chaos and normlessness that Durkheim called anomie.

This would in turn reduce the individual to a state of what Anthony Giddens (1991) terms ontological insecurity. So what is most likely to unpick the ‘solidity’ of social reality? For Berger, it’s death and the fear of death, Giddens moves a step further, arguing that – in a modern society premised on rational control – anything to do with death and dying has to be ‘sequestrated’, marginalised from mainstream social life. Should death threaten to re-enter everyday life, terror re-surfaces.

For Berger, each human group constructs a ‘symbolic universe’, religious or secular, to provide a canopy under which its members can shelter in the face of existential terror and social chaos. When awareness of death becomes unavoidable, shelter is often provided through coming together in ritual. So, after Princess Diana’s death, thousands of mothers gathered up their children, bought flowers and got on the train to London where they assembled in front of Kensington Palace, implicitly affirming that though one very public family had been torn apart by a death, our family, thank God, is still intact. After 9/11, the President publically affirmed American values; thousands of Americans raised the national flag on their front lawns; the nation mobilised for war. After recent terrorist attacks around Europe, spontaneous assembly to quietly but powerfully affirm collective solidarity and national values has become the norm.

Any symbolic universe – whether religion, family or nation – comforts, and at the same time can be threatened by one’s own or another’s death. So symbolic reaffirmation is crucial. A family is threatened by the death of a parent, national security is threatened by terrorism, belief in an afterlife can be challenged by death’s brute physicality. Coming together to symbolically affirm the group and its values provides the ritual repair that can provide comfort and meaning against the challenge of death.

A few years after Berger and Luckmann, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wrote a Pulitzer Prize-winning book The Denial of Death 1973). Becker drew on existentialism and on Freud’s idea that both individual behaviour and civilisation are defences against repressed sexuality – which Becker transformed into the idea that civilisation is a defence mechanism against awareness of and fear of being mortal. Death is so terrifying that it has to be denied – personally and culturally – through ‘hero systems’ in which the individual believes life to have purpose and meaning. As a critique of culture, the book gained something of a counter-cultural cult following, especially in the USA, before resurfacing in the late 1980s in Terror Management Theory (TMT).

TMT was developed by a group of social psychologists at the University of Arizona. They set themselves the task of testing experimentally Becker’s thesis that ‘the awareness of death engenders potentially debilitating terror that is managed by the development and maintenance of cultural worldviews’. In TMT experiments, participants are divided into an experimental group who are subliminally reminded of their mortality, and a control group who are not. The researchers find, for example, that prejudice and hostility toward outsiders increases in those participants who are reminded of their mortality. This is consistent with the hypothesis that death awareness prompts humans to bolster their own culture and worldview over against others. Over 500 TMT experiments have now been conducted in several countries.

Though TMT is published mainly in psychology journals and many sociologists have never heard of it, it is better known outside academia than are many social science theories. TMT is notable in several ways. First, it is unusual in subjecting a neo-Freudian theory to empirical testing. Secondly, in linking the individual unconscious to social psychology and to culture and politics it has truly multi-disciplinary ambitions and, its proponents would argue, achievements. Thirdly, because we all die, human mortality – unlike gender, ethnicity or social class – cannot readily generate the between-group comparisons which are the basis of much social analysis. TMT cleverly gets around this through its experimental method, artificially dividing those presumed to be repressing their awareness of mortality from those whose awareness has been artificially raised.

A slightly different stance was taken by Harvard psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton (1979), who had researched survivors of war and atrocity. He argued that humans create culture not out of a need to deny death, but out of awareness of their mortality. Humans know that, for their culture to endure, there must be continuity beyond the life of the individual. Individuals both rely on the culture produced by their predecessors and, in greater or lesser measure, shape the culture they will hand on to descendants. On the basis of this, Lifton developed the idea of symbolic immortality. People create immortality for themselves biologically through their children and grandchildren; theologically through belief in an afterlife which in turns sustains the authority of religions and priests; creatively through art, literature or scientific discovery; and through nature, which will outlive humankind. Symbolic immortality provides one, though surely not the only, explanation for some aspects of culture and certain institutions such as the family and religion.

Practical issues shape social institutions
A much more modest sociology of mortality makes no assumptions that humans are anxious about or terrified of their own or others’ death. It simply notes that death poses practical problems that every society has to solve. One of the most obvious is that, because people die, there must be some mechanism for passing knowledge and power from one generation to the next – hence the need to socialise children in family and school, the need for inheritance laws and for ways to hand over power should a group leader die. And because of the social disruption that is caused by a person dying in the full swing of life, many societies have put in place mechanisms such as life insurance and compulsory retirement that minimise such disruption. Until a hundred and fifty years ago, infancy was the most common age at which to die, so in many societies infants were not considered members of the community until they had survived the first dangerous months.

In advanced industrial societies, by contrast, it is the elderly not children who are most likely to die, so their status and socio-economic activity are reduced – not least through the institution of retirement. Death not only poses practical problems that require institutional management, it also – in Victor Marshall’s (1980) words – ‘allows for new individuals to contribute fresh perspectives and thereby contribute to social and cultural change’, A society without death would be a stagnant society.

Arguably, human vulnerability and finitude underlie the ‘risk society’ that some sociologists have analysed. If belief in technological control over the natural world is a hallmark of modernity, one physical reality that can be personally problematic are our own all too mortal bodies. Drastically reducing premature mortality is one of modernity’s biggest achievements. Over generations this has meant that members of modern societies, or at least of its upper and middle classes, can expect life to be comfortable, healthy and long-lived. But this increases their concern about risks to life and health to which earlier generations may have been resigned. Why else are nuclear power, global warming and cancer of such collective concern if not because, unlike pre-modern societies in which death and disaster were perceived as acts of God, late modern people consider such risks to be potentially controllable? We cannot prevent humans from eventually dying, but we can collectively act to reduce the risk of a nuclear power explosion, global frying, or cancer. As Talcott Parsons argued back in the 1960s, this is not a denial of death; it is simply the application of knowledge and technology to minimise the Grim Reaper’s premature arrival. Mortality has been deconstructed into a hundred and one risks, each of which can (surely) be managed.

Future research
So, in trying to explain how awareness of death prompts humans to band together, should sociology look to existential or pragmatic explanations? One strength of the existential approach is its multi-disciplinarity. It bases sociology and anthropology in existential philosophy and the psychological unconscious, adding up to a rich intellectual endeavour. This, in some people’s eyes, is also its weakness because it imports into empirical sociology various assumptions, for example about the role of the unconscious or the terror of death that not all scholars share. The pragmatic approach is perhaps harder to challenge, precisely because it is less intellectually ambitious. It hasn’t yet been developed much beyond the American functionalism that gave rise to it.

Both existential and pragmatic approaches were developed in the 1960s and 1970s – reflected in my citing several books published between 1963 and 1973. The existential approach has influenced many outside academia, not least in the hospice and death café movements. But neither has significantly impacted the social sciences, with the possible exception of Giddens’ analysis of death’s sequestration from modern society. TMT, a vibrant research area in itself, has not really impacted mainstream psychology. The renaissance of social science interest in the material world – in the body, in material culture, in the agency of things – should, in theory, open a space for social scientific interest in the body’s final dissolution.

But how might this be done in a way that, following TMT’s lead, generates research agendas with the potential to generate new knowledge about society as a whole rather than just about death, dying and bereavement? One way could be to compare high and low mortality societies. We could research the far-reaching consequences of longevity in modernity, which I have argued, includes the massive expansion in both higher education and women’s employment. Or we could try to identify the policy implications of a return to mass early death in the event of environmental catastrophe. Such challenges wait for a new generation of sociologists to acknowledge that humans are mortal.

Becker, Ernest (1973) The Denial of Death, New York: Simon & Schuster.
Berger, P., & Luckmann, T. (1967). The Social Construction of Reality. London: Allen Lane Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and Self-Identity. Cambridge: Polity.
Berger, P. (1969). The Social Reality of Religion. London: Faber.Becker, E. (1973). The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press.
Solomon, S., Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2015). The Worm at the Core. London: Allen Lane.
Lifton, R. J. (1979). The Broken Connection: on death and the continuity of life. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Marshall, V. W. (1980). A Sociological Perspective on Ageing and Dying. in V. W. Marshall (Ed.), Later Life – the social psychology of ageing Beverly Hills: Sage.


Tony Walter is a sociologist and Honorary Professor at the University of Bath’s Centre for Death & Society. His most recent books are What Death Means Now: thinking critically about dying and grieving and (with Jana Králová) Social Death: questioning the life-death boundary.