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Dissertation Defense
Jun 19, 2019

On June 12th, 2019 I successfully defended my dissertation “Talk of Death: American Discourse in Three Spheres.” It took the form of three independent empirical studies united under a common theme and you can read the overall abstract below. Inspired readers can find my defense slides here.

This dissertation is a study of how modern America talks about death. I examine these discussions in roughly three spheres (popular, professional, and personal) by analyzing the release and reception of the best-selling book on death and dying in the past fifty years, over seventy years of professional journal articles, and in-depth interviews with practicing healthcare chaplains. The concern with death as a social problem draws on broad theoretical and historical concerns, from the sociology of religion and secularization, to cultural sociology and the theory of professional systems. In addition, I employ and extend recent techniques for computational text analysis, from structural topic modeling to word vector representation, to better understand the role of language as a rich and meaningful source of sociological data. Ultimately, I demonstrate how the social structural changes in modern religiosity affect the availability and efficacy of cultural meanings as people look to their society for ways to understand humanity’s long-standing existential struggles.

Newly christened with co-chairs Dr. Dowd and Dr. Lechner

In his discussion of narrative history, Andrew Abbott provides the following cautionary note:

“We know that the further we go up or down a genealogical tree, the wider the tree gets. This doesn’t mean that the whole human race of twenty generations ago was directed towards producing some one individual, any more than it means that one individual twenty generations ago produced all those progeny of today. Rather, each full generation produces the next full generation. Reproduction is a woven net, not a tree. As with people, so with events. To search for all the causal ancestors, or causal descendants, of a given event is merely rhetorical convenience” (Abbott 1988: 280-281).

All this to say that the people and events that led me here are many. To entertain the rhetorical convenience described above, I would like to highlight a few important people. First, I am grateful to my committee members Timothy J. Dowd, Frank J. Lechner, Ellen L. Idler, and Gary M. Laderman for their gracious support and thoughtful feedback. Many thanks to Tammie Quest, Molly Perkins, and George Grant for help navigating the IRB process and all the folks at ECDS for years of support and stimulation. I want to thank Mr. Buchman for teaching my first sociology course in high school and Steve Hitlin for being a fun and patient mentor who showed me there was hope after philosophy. Stephen Vaisey, Chris Bail, and Brice Acree each offered inspiration (and R scripts) to renew my intellectual excitement in times of trial. To my brother Joe and friends in Adel, Durham, EAV, New Jersey, and here at Emory. To Dad, Debbie, Mom, and Tracy for making sure I always had a home to return to, and to Anne for helping me build one in Atlanta. Thank you. Lastly, to my grandfather Gary. Thanks for everything.

This summer I start a new position at the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory as their inaugural Digital Scholarship Fellow.

Abbott, Andrew. 1988. The System of Professions: An Essay on the Division of Expert Labor. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Copyright © 2019 John A. Bernau

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