Talking about talking about death: an ethnographically informed study of Death Cafés in the UK using neo-tribal theory

Žibaitė, Solveiga (2022) Talking about talking about death: an ethnographically informed study of Death Cafés in the UK using neo-tribal theory. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

Full text available as:
[thumbnail of 2022ZibaitePhD.pdf] PDF
Download (7MB)


This thesis explores the meanings, values and practices associated with organising and participating in Death Café events in the United Kingdom. Death Café is a not-for-profit international social franchise founded in 2011 in London, UK. Death Café events are informal, pop-up gatherings where people, usually strangers, come together to engage in an unguided conversation about death and dying.

There is a lack of academic inquiry into how Death Café participant interactions unfold within the events, with many studies aiming instead to evaluate the impact of instrumental applications of the Death Café model in various educational and institutional contexts. This thesis addresses this gap by providing rich ethnographic insights into the group dynamics within Death Café meetings in the UK. It draws on data generated during participant observation in 20 Death Café events, 14 Death Café conversation recordings, and 49 interviews with Death Café organisers and attendees over a 16-month period of fieldwork. As such, this is also currently the most extensive empirically grounded study of the Death Café franchise.

The insights from this research revealed that participants primarily perceive Death Café as a convivial, sociable and invigorating activity that allows them to experience a sense of collectivity with strangers and reinforce their shared sentiment that it is important to talk about death. This thesis explores how achieving this largely positive experience is collectively negotiated in Death Café events. The key empirical topics considered are the spatial organisation of Death Cafés (Chapter 4); conversational strategies for achieving an enjoyable and valued conversation (Chapter 5); participants’ emotional and cognitive efforts to relate to strangers (Chapter 6); and understandings and broader cultural meanings of intimacy emerging between said strangers (Chapter 7). Fundamentally, this study revealed that collectively agreeing with strangers that it is good to talk about death (talking about talking about death) contributes more to the enjoyment and perceived success of Death Café than talking about death directly.

The data is examined within a theoretical framework of neo-tribal theory (Maffesoli, 1996[1988]) with a view of advancing its interdisciplinary relevance to the analysis of group social encounters. This thesis also contributes to the interdisciplinary field of death studies by suggesting that neo-tribal theory is a valuable theoretical enhancement to Michael Hviid Jacobsen’s (2016) concept of ‘spectacular death’. Overall, I define Death Café(s) as novel space(s) for temporary collectivity where people can share a sense of fellowship with like-minded others concerning their interest in discussing matters of death and dying.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Additional Information: Supported by funding from the University of Glasgow, College of Social Sciences Scholarship.
Subjects: H Social Sciences > H Social Sciences (General)
Colleges/Schools: College of Social Sciences > School of Social & Environmental Sustainability
Precurrent Departments > School of Interdisciplinary Studies
Supervisor's Name: Richards, Dr. Naomi and Gibb, Dr. Robert
Date of Award: 2022
Depositing User: Theses Team
Unique ID: glathesis:2022-83270
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 22 Nov 2022 11:12
Last Modified: 08 Aug 2023 13:01
Thesis DOI: 10.5525/gla.thesis.83270

Actions (login required)

View Item View Item


Downloads per month over past year