Rethinking community across life and loss

By Kate Reed

The concept of community has been central to the development of Sociology. It has often occupied a troubled place within the discipline, but it remains a core focus in understanding the social ties that bind us together. Communities are considered to be both real and imagined, geographically fixed, or stretched across time and space (Ray and Reed 2005).  Hidden forms of community also exist, such as communities that emerge through shared experiences of trauma such as baby loss. This article seeks to analyse the beneficial role that social research can actually play in both uncovering hidden communities and creating new ones

For the past four years I have focused on researching the pioneering use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) in fetal and neonatal post-mortem. Funded by the ESRC, this project has sought to understand how parents and families who have experienced baby loss feel about, and experience, the (MRI) post-mortem process. It also aimed to explore the impact of this new technological application on professional practice and relationships between professionals from different fields. The research team consisted of myself as primary investigator along with clinicians and researchers Dr Elspeth Whitby (University of Sheffield) and Dr Julie Ellis (University of Huddersfield). We took an ethnographic approach to the research, exploring the role of MRI in the wider post-mortem landscape and broader context of grief and memorialisation. We pioneered the use of go-along ethnography in this context, conducting mobile observations and in-depth interviews with different professionals whose work informed post-mortem- from midwives through to coroners- in the hospital and beyond (Reed and Ellis 2019a). We also conducted interviews with bereaved parents and other family members, exploring their experience- from life through to loss- inviting them to bring memory items to interviews in order to facilitate discussion. 

The findings of the research highlighted a number of issues including the importance of various care practices enacted by professionals working in the hospital, along with the increasing value of MRI in the post-mortem process (Reed and Ellis 2019b). These findings were reflected in Remembering Baby a collaborative art exhibition open to members of the public which toured the UK in 2017-2018. 

Photography: © Hugh Turvey HonsFRPS FRSA (lead artist) 

In the first instance Remembering Baby raised awareness about hidden communities of loss, appearing to foster the development of bereavement support communities. For example, the exhibition often acted as a catalyst for parents communicating via social media to meet face-to-face to share experiences. There were also a number of exchanges taking place on Instagram between parents affected by baby loss. Remembering baby therefore appeared to facilitate connections between bereaved families and acted as a focus around which people could share and feel emotions collectively (Reed, Whitby and Ellis 2018). The exhibition toured across four different locations (London, Sheffield, Gateshead and Nottingham), enabling local charities to feel part of a larger UK-wide community of baby loss support. Wider members of the public who had not directly experienced this particular form of loss, also engaged deeply with exhibition, fostering a broader sense of support and community beyond those specifically affected.

The research project and exhibition also facilitated the creation of new professional communities within and across the NHS. For example, the exhibitions in different locations were often attended by professionals across occupational groups (from hospital chaplains to mortuary technicians) and from different NHS Trusts. This facilitated shared dialogue around the theme of baby loss. It also created a space for other regional baby loss charities to meet and share ideas and resources.  Finally, the research has also led to the creation of new academic communities and non- academic partnerships. For example, new interdisciplinary research networks have been established across sociology, medicine and the arts and humanities. Furthermore, novel ‘communities of care’ have emerged based on academic and non-academic partnerships. These have a collective goal of raising awareness about baby loss and improving parent experiences of bereavement support.

This project has played a role in the creation of different types of community, both regionally and nationally. The impact of this on bereaved parents, charities and health professionals is just one of the reasons why we were awarded the ESRC Outstanding Societal Impact prize in July 2019. The overall research experience has also made me reflect on how we both ‘think’ about and ‘do’ sociology. Studying the emergence or decline of community will always be a key feature of sociological theory and research. However, in this era of collaboration and impact we need to move beyond a sole focus on the study of communities ‘out there’, reflecting instead on our roles as sociologists in the creation of community through the process of knowledge exchange. Not only can this be personally rewarding, it may also lead to the development of novel ways of conceptualising community in the future. 

ESRC Celebrating Impact Prize, 2019. Event gallery can be viewed here


Reed, K. and Ellis, J. (2019a) Movement, materiality and the mortuary: Adopting go-along ethnography in research on fetal and neonatal postmortem Journal of Contemporary Ethnography 48(2): 209-235

Reed, K., and Ellis, J. (2019b). Uncovering Hidden Emotional Work: Professional Practice in Paediatric Post-Mortem. Sociologyhttps://doi.org/10.1177/0038038519868638

Reed, K., Whitby, E., and Ellis, J. (2018) Remembering Baby, Journal of Bereavement Care, 37(3): 88-91

Ray, L. and Reed, K., (2005) ‘Community, mobility and racism in a semi-rural area: Comparing minority experience in East Kent’ in Ethnic and Racial Studies, 28(2): 212-/234.

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