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 Research Spotlight: Ivan Emke

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Research Spotlight 
Name : Ivan Emke
Occupation : Sociologist/Anthropologist
Before Grenfell :
B.A. (Ohio State); M.A. (Windsor); Ph.D. (Carleton) 
My research on Funeral Services is currently being supported by a three-year Standard Research Grant from SSHRC ($22,165). The research has also been funded by the Smallwood Foundation, a SSHRC Institutional Grant from Memorial University, and a Principal's Research Grant from Sir Wilfred Grenfell College. 
Sharing Our Future was funded by the Office of Learning Technology. We received $200,000 for the two-year project. This supported the hiring of part-time Community Communications Facilitators in rural communities, and the coordination of the project. I am on the Steering Committee of Sharing Our Future.
I am one of about 18 researchers who are a part of the New Rural Economy's research on Social Cohesion in Rural Canada. The Social Cohesion project was funded by a SSHRC Strategic Grant on Social Cohesion in Canada. The project group received $594,000 for a three-year project (most of that went to supporting field research in 20 rural communities, two conferences per year, the operation of a headquarters and the training of students).
 Country Haven  Community
 Ivan Emke chatting with Mr. Terry Green of Country Haven Funeral Home   Ramea, NL
Two Research Threads: Communication & Funeral Services
I received a PhD in Sociology from Carleton University, focussing on Cultural Studies, Media Studies, the Sociology of Health and Illness and Political Economy. Before coming to Grenfell, I did two years of post-doctoral work, which was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). My work focussed on AIDS Treatment Activism, a new social movement which not only challenged the way that pharmaceuticals are licensed and regulated, but also offered a model for other patient advocacy groups.

I once plotted my research interests on a flow chart to see the continuities, breaks and brilliant trajectories that later became "dead ends." I’ll spare you the flow chart! These days I still have plenty of threads of research interest, but they generally divide into two main swarms of activity:

I. The first comes from my long-standing interest in communications technologies and their interaction with culture (my first two degrees were in Communication, with minors in Anthropology and Public Relations). Since moving to Newfoundland, I have been interested in the tradition of using communication in community settings to promote development activities, a practice which received a great boost from the former Extension Service of Memorial University. (For a paper related to this, click here). This interest is not only at the level of theory, but also in practical questions such as: How can we improve communications in rural communities? Which technologies work best in which communities? How do we measure the success of communication initiatives? How does communication relate to the cohesion of communities? Can communication play a role in assisting communities to survive?

This area of activity has been supported through my association with two groups. First, the New Rural Economy group, headquartered at Concordia University in Montreal. Currently, we are in the third year of a Strategic Grant from SSHRC which is focussed on "Social Cohesion in Rural Canada." My activities with this group have included the design and execution of a survey of weekly rural newspapers in Canada (in 2000-2001) and the coordination of household surveys in two Newfoundland sites (Twillingate and Winterton) in summer 2001. The NRE is now in the process of applying for a grant as a part of SSHRC’s Initiatives on the New Economy. In March 2002, we were informed that our Letter of Intent had been accepted and funded, and we will complete our application by early summer of 2002.

The second association important to this area of my research is with the Community Education Network, based in Stephenville. I have been working with one specific project, called Sharing Our Future. We received funding from the Office of Learning Technology to place Community Communications Facilitators (a term and job classification we invented) in eight communities in southwestern Newfoundland. This has allowed us to directly experiment with technologies such as web casting, special events radio and community-based cable television, using students in local high schools as primary participants. Young people tend to be less frightened of technology; their energy and enthusiasm for participatory communication projects is infectious. Now we’re determining how to evaluate and measure the effects of our communication events. If you want to see what participatory communication looks like, check out some of the programs.

II. The second general area of research activity, quite different from the first, is focussed on the rituals used to mark our passing, and the service industry built up to support these events and practices. Yes, I’m talking about funeral customs and the rise of Funeral Service professionals. This area of interest probably grew out of my anthropological training, but it was also tempered by work done during my Post-Doctoral research. In the context of AIDS treatment activism, death was often a subtext, even if it was usually seen as the "enemy," and I became interested in the ways people could commemorate a death so it illustrated the meaning of a life.

This past winter, during a brief presentation at a Funeral Services school where I was doing some research, one of the students asked me "what’s so interesting about funeral directors anyway?" That set me off. In my estimation, funeral professionals are in a rather unique occupation with a fascinating history, an occupation suffering from its own share of stigma within our modern society (despite the fact that very few among us would be willing to take on their tasks), and one in a position to influence important ritual events. My research in this area has included an evaluation of the changing funeral rituals in Newfoundland, the rise of professionalization, the training and regulation of funeral service professionals, clergy-funeral director relationships and changes in the funeral services "industry." For example, in recent years funeral directors have become the protectors of funeral traditions, struggling against the secularizing trends of the baby boomers who are less bound by tradition. 

This area of research has been supported by several funding bodies, including the Smallwood Foundation, the Principal’s Research Fund of Grenfell College and SSHRC. I am currently in the second year of a three-year Standard Research Grant from SSHRC focussed on Funeral Service Education programs.

Contact Information:
Ivan Emke
Social/Cultural Studies
Grenfell Campus Memorial University
Corner Brook, NL
A2H 6P9
Tel: 709-637-6200
Ext: 6322

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Memorial University

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