Cultural Boundaries in Turkish Death Announcements (1970-2006)
Department of Sociology Koc University Istanbul, Turkey
Bourdieu, in his Distinction, argues that societies seek to go beyond the limitations of the individuals of which they are composed, and adds that conventions ranging from portraits and statues to tombstones, from memorial ceremonies to national holidays serve to counteract the bodily limitations imposed by death. In this symbolic constellation, eternal life is one of the most sought-after social privileges? (Bourdieu, 1984, p. 72). Although they are popularly considered great equalizers, death and the rituals around it accentuate social and cultural differences, such as class, gender, ethnicity, and religiosity. In the social search for immortality, death announcements constitute an important aspect of the efforts to establish cultural distinctions, symbolic boundaries and choices around symbols of status, consumption and taste. The present study focuses on a representative sample (N=2554) of death announcements in a major Turkish daily newspaper (Hürriyet), from 1970 to 2006, and analyzes their content in terms of social difference, impression management and corresponding efforts to accumulate status and cultural capital. Turkish death announcements characterize a large decentralized collection of private decisions for self-representation, since the publication process involves no editorial involvement as to the ?significance? of a particular announcement. In this sense, death announcements resonate with the efforts of privileged groups to convey a self image and signify efforts to draw cultural boundaries across gender, class, and religion/ethnicity. Findings indicate the following: 1) Announcements for women and non-Muslims reveal distinct patterns of cultural messages compared to Muslims and men. Signs of cultural capital are largely monopolized by Turkish and Muslim men. 2) Changes in the language of the announcements reflect important historical turning points in consumption patterns. The 1980s and 1990s, which witnessed the rise of consumption-oriented urban middle classes in Turkey, are marked with announcements dominated with the goal of offering symbolic gestures and building status alliances rather than simply spreading the news of death. 3) Messages of philanthropy, such as requests to refrain from sending flowers and instead making donations to charities, signify an aspect of cultural boundary construction. 4) Changing patterns of consumption correspond to the tendency to define death in postmodern terms.