PhD Thesis by Peter Clement Lund: Grief as Disorder

In this dissertation, Peter Clement Lund, asks the fundamental question: Why is grief today experienced as something so painful and unmanageable that parts of it has to be diagnosed and treated?

Last modified: 04.01.2022

Grief as Disorder - On the transformation of grief from existential emotion to pathological entity

PhD Thesis bhy Peter Clement Lund


This PhD-dissertation explores the current culture of grief with a particular focus on the forthcoming diagnostic classification of Prolonged Grief Disorder, while also telling the story of why the initial work concerned with implementing the diagnosis in Denmark broke down. By situating the dissertation within a sociological understanding of death and society as inherently connected, the dissertation attempts to work out what has led us to a point in time where grief now exists as something that may be considered pathological and what this tells us about contemporary society.

Drawing on mainly sociological but also philosophical, psychological, and historical insights the thesis argues that both society and culture are literally and figuratively built on the dead. Society may thus be understood as a form of response to the problem of death and grief. The field work done during the making of this dissertation has been difficult and eclectic, leading to an uneven style in the articles within the dissertation. By posing a question informed by critical realism, the dissertation attempts to gather the threads of this work and look at what has made possible both the diagnosis of Prolonged Grief Disorder itself, and the troubles with implementing it.

Working with this from a sociological perspective means that the emphasis is on seeing grief in connection to the social – thereby offering a different perspective than the seemingly more common psychological understanding in contemporary society. Approaching grief from this perspective makes possible the discussion of how society is both formed by and simultaneously forms our understandings of grief. The dissertation is based on a combination of theoretical discussion and an eclectic qualitative approach. I call this approach gonzo sociology. Because making sense of how to survey and explore the field of grief research in Denmark and the highly politicised work with implementing the diagnosis, demanded an alternative approach, I went about it in this manner – thereby putting myself, as a researcher, into what I was researching. Gonzo sociology is a form of ethnographic study foregoing more commonplace understandings of objectivity or a privileged vantage-point wherefrom one might survey the field. The combination of this bricolage of empirical ‘data’ and my theoretical discussions has resulted in the dissertation before you and the three articles contained within that attempts to shed light on the current culture of grief in Denmark.

  • Article 1 Deconstructing grief: A sociological analysis of Prolonged Grief Disorder has been published in Social Theory and Health. In it, by developing Zygmunt Bauman’s concept of our relationship to death as being deconstructed, I argue that our relationship to grief is now similarly being deconstructed. Prolonged Grief Disorder it thus the first step in cutting grief into smaller and treatable ailments. This is done because our society, which is constituted on grief and death, continuously tries to provide answers to them. In our current socially accelerated society, these answers become increasingly difficult to supply, making grief a bigger problem on a societal level, while also making the individual experience of grief increasingly difficult.
  • Article 2 Recreational grief as resonance – sociological notes on grief in popular culture has been published in Mortality. The article deals with the current popularisation of grief. Grief is seemingly now everywhere – in books, tv shows, movies, music, and so forth. The article attempts to look at this as a specific form of experience of vicarious emotions and poses the question of whether our current interest in grief might be indicative of a certain ‘need’ in contemporary society. By looking at this form of recreational grief through the perspective of Hartmut Rosa’s concept of resonance, the article proposes that our need for recreational grief may be connected to a larger feeling of alienation in society, which in turn leads individuals to seek out other possibilities for resonant experiences.
  • Article 3 Prolonged Grief Disorder – An implementation gone awry and a researcher going gonzo has been accepted and is in press in International Journal of Qualitative Methods. This article has a twofold purpose, which is connected to its approach: Firstly to discuss my process of realisation through my fieldwork and the ‘discovery’ of gonzo sociology as an approach and what it is, and secondly to uncover the problems with the implementation of Prolonged Grief Disorder in Denmark. The article deals with the troubles with doing research into something that isn’t really there and the difficulties with researching a field ripe with secrecy, gossip, disagreements, and so forth. It also tries to show how this process of implementation of a diagnosis reveals how diagnoses are often not the result of scientific progress alone, but much more about disagreements, money, personal interests, and so forth.

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