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Researching the Dead: Using Sociological Autopsy to Explore Lone Deaths

By: Edited by: Published: 2018 | Product: SAGE Research Methods Cases Part 1
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A recent project I was involved with sought to explore the phenomenon of dying alone. One strand of the project centered on individuals whose bodies had remained undiscovered for an extended period of time. Sociological autopsy was used, taking an ethnographic approach to the coroner’s file about each death before moving on to other data sources, such as interviews with people who knew them and newspaper reports. There are always ethical issues in research on death and dying, but extra considerations were evident early in the process from the inclusion of people who had already died. It was highly unlikely that any of the deceased individuals would ever have documented an opinion about participating in research, and they were unlikely to have anyone to speak for them. It was necessary to obtain approval from a Research Ethics Committee, and committee members required assurance that the research was worthwhile and that it would cause no harm. The research adopted a pragmatic approach in which deceased individuals were treated as if they might have living relatives who could be affected by the research. In practice, this meant protecting the identity of deceased participants, but this prompted further questions. In this case study, I set out the initial ethical questions raised by this research and the ways in which I sought to resolve them. I then discuss the secondary ethical concerns that were prompted by the approach adopted and the way in which I attempted to engage with such matters.

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