Standing at the doorstep: Affective encounters in research on death and dying

Natashe Lemos Dekker
2019, Affective Dimensions of Fieldwork and Ethnography, edited by Thomas Stodulka, Ferdiansyah Thajib and Samia Dinkelaker. New York: Springer. 201-211.


Sensitive moments in ethnographic fieldwork, such as family conferences where continuing or discontinuing treatment is discussed, or when sitting by a dying person’s bedside with family members, call into question the positionality of the researcher and research ethics. I frame the discussion in this chapter through the metaphor of the doorstep, which came to symbolize the process of negotiating proximity and distance, involvement and detachment. I consider how we, as ethnographers, can prepare for, navigate, and reflect upon fieldwork encounters that require a particularly sensitive approach. I reflect on how I navigated ethnographic fieldwork on the end of life with dementia by elaborating on my own attunement to interlocutors and situations, discussing also some of my own discomforts. Illustrating more general implications of doing research in a delicate context such as the end of life, I emphasize the importance of building relations of trust, which allows for the creation of more depth and openness in conversations. Participant observation at the end of life can evoke the sense of intruding in people’s most intimate moments, but can also strengthen the relationship precisely because this moment is shared. Highlighting the difficulty of having to inquire about future losses, I make clear how, similar to family members and professional caregivers, I engaged in anticipating the end of life of residents.

Edited Volume

This publication is part of an edited volume on Affective dimensions of fieldwork and ethnography, edited by Thomas Stodulka, Ferdiansyah Thajib and Samia Dinkelaker.