Breathing life into death: reconciling divergent understandings of death across ecology and the social sciences

What might a political ecology of death look like? This is difficult to say, because while death is a salient topic in both ecology and the social sciences, these bodies of scholarship understand and investigate death very differently. Ecological studies focus on the nutrient flows of dead things: the “conversion of organic matter from large and recognizable physical forms to small particles, soluble compounds and gases” (Findlay 2013). This approach reduces dead things to their constituent parts, and seeks to examine the functions of these parts within the environment. An exclusively functional view renders the processes of death and dying apolitical, creating an opening for intervention and critique from the social sciences. 


The social sciences often tackle death from a less material perspective, for example by studying

the affects of death, or questioning the politics that legitimize death (Lopez and Gillespie 2015;

Maddrell and Sidaway 2012; Tyner 2013, 2014, 2015). While thanatology, a field of study

devoted to death, does engage with the the material effects of death, these attempts rarely

extend beyond the economic, political, and cultural impacts of death upon human life.

Furthermore, this work relies heavily upon the social construction of death, and assumes a

universal understanding of death as an end of life. This points towards a need for social

scientists to engage with ecologically grounded understandings of death that transcend the end

of life, and better recognize the material effects of death and dead things


This session invites papers and/or presentations that explore what an integrated political

ecology of death might look like, if political and cultural understandings of death collided with

ecological perspectives on death. How can the theoretical aspects of political ecology better

account for the material effects of death and dead things? And, how can the empirical aspects

of political ecology better account for the affective qualities of death and dead things? How is

death part of a broader network of material and social transformations? Potential topics include

but are not limited to:

  • ­ Influences of the social construction of death on the ecological understanding of organisms.

  • ­ Translations of ecological understandings of death into cultural practices.

  • ­ Affects and effects of death and dead things on attempts to manage ecological systems.

  • ­ The ecological effects of human and non­human death on landscapes and climates and their translation into policy.

  • Material and ecological consequences of politics that enable or legitimize death (of humans or nonhumans).


Please submit a presentation proposal ­ including a title, and abstract of no more than 300

words ­ to the session organizers: John­Henry Pitas ( and Mariya

Shcheglovitova ( by no later than November 20th, 2016.







Findlay S. E.G., “Organic Matter Decomposition.” Fundamentals of ecosystem science, edited

by Weathers K.C et al., Academic Press, 2013, pp. 75­92.


Lopez, P., & Gillespie, K. A. (Eds.). (2015). Economies of Death: Economic logics of killable life

and grievable death (Vol. 199). Routledge.


Maddrell, A., & Sidaway, J. D. (Eds.). (2012). Deathscapes: Spaces for death, dying, mourning

and remembrance. Ashgate Publishing, Ltd.


Tyner, J. A. (2013). Population geography I: Surplus populations. Progress in Human

Geography, 37(5), 701­711.


Tyner, J. A. (2014). Population geography II Mortality, premature death, and the ordering of life.

Progress in Human Geography, 0309132514527037.


Tyner, J. A. (2015). Population geography III Precarity, dead peasants, and truncated life.

Progress in Human Geography, 0309132515569964.

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