Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings

In a new project, Andrew Higgins (Urbana-Champaign), Jacob Levernier (Oregon), and I are studying obituaries as a perspective on values.  The basic idea is to sift through what people say about the dead to identify patterns in values.  As a first pass, I read through a month’s worth of obituaries from my local paper, the Eugene Register-Guard, and noted all of the agent-level descriptions and evaluations of the deceased.  In other words, I ignored what was said about hospice workers (not that their work is unimportant — quite the contrary) and single actions of the deceased, recording only the words used to describe him or her as a whole person.  One thing I immediately noticed was that there were systematic differences in how the men and the women were described.  Unsurprisingly, a huge proportion of the men had fought in World War II, and thus were described as soldiers.  The women — not so much.  This suggested that there might be other, more subtle, systematic differences.  Andrew took this initial batch of data and created semantic maps of the things said about the men and the women.  Here’s the one for men:

Male Descriptions


These maps can be a little hard to read, but I think this one is pretty straightforward.  The size of the words indicates the number of other words that co-occurred with them in a single obituary.  So, for instance, men who were described as Ducks fans were described as quite a few other things, but men who were described as chefs were described as only a couple of other things.  The thickness and brightness of the edge connecting a pair of terms indicates how many times those terms co-occurred.  The color of the terms is less important in this context.

From this map, we can see what people found most worth celebrating publicly about the men who died in Eugene last month and were mourned in the local paper.  We can see, as it were, the Eugene-male constellation of virtues.  By contrast, here’s the map for women:

Female Descriptions


This map is, as it were, a guide to the Eugene-female constellation of virtues.  It’s very similar to the male one, as you can see, but there are some differences.  The most noticeable is the one I already mentioned: no soldiers among these women.  The women seem almost as fanatical about the Ducks.  They’re more humorous, less athletic, and of course not patriarchs.

Finally, here’s a map everybody, regardless of gender:

Combined Eugene


The size of the terms and the thickness of the edges have the same meaning in this map.  The colors this time have a more interesting meaning.  Terms that share their color grouped together in much the same way that items in a factor analysis group together: they tend to co-occur with each other and not with other terms.  The pink and light-blue groups are probably too small to interpret, but the others seem to meaningful.  For instance, the green group is centered on humor and agreeableness.  The red group seems to be mostly a matter of political liberalism.  And the dark-blue group seems to be about commitment to the local community.

As we continue to work on this material, I’ll be posting more maps and discussing them.  Andrew and Jacob may also do some guest-blogging, if I can talk them into it….

12 thoughts on “Let us sit upon the ground and tell sad stories of the death of kings

    • Thanks, John! I think there are a number of interesting philosophical things to draw out of these maps. I’ll mention them now super-briefly, but I’m working on a series of papers with Andrew and Jacob and Dana on this stuff:

      1) It’s a contribution to the study of descriptive cultural relativism. If we could get maps of a huge representative sample of values from all around the world, that would tell us a bit about the extent to which values differ from (contemporary) culture to (contemporary) culture. Comparing with things like Pericles’ funeral oration and Plato’s Menexenus would tell us a bit about about differences across time.
      1a) Having done a little bit of this, I would argue that it constitutes good evidence for Nietzsche’s claims in Genealogy essay I about the slave revolt in morals.

      2) It’s also a contribution to the Ramsification of values. Ramsification needs platitudes. Obits are full of platitudes. In particular, it’s a contribution to the Ramsification of virtue. And should be interesting to virtue ethicists more general. Zagzebski, for instance, says in Virtues of the Mind, “One way to express the depth required for a trait to be a virtue or a vice is to think of it as a quality we would ascribe to a person if asked to describe her after her death.”

      3) In a related vein, it’s also a way of playing out Mill’s argument, in Utilitarianism, that since the best way to tell whether something is desirable is to see whether people desire it, the best way to tell whether something is that people value it.

      4) It’s a way of supporting arguments like Michael Stocker’s that modern moral theories have a problem with moral schizophrenia. The center of every map we’ve produced so far is family and friends. Why don’t meta-ethicists give more attention to close personal attachments like these?

      5) It’s also a way bolstering arguments for an ethics of care that emphasizes personal attachments and affiliations, since these seem — if our maps are in any way accurate — to be central evaluative concerns.

      6) It’s also a way of bolstering Robert Merrihew Adams’s claim that social roles and affiliations might constitute virtues (and my own claim that friendship is our best model for other virtues).

      7) It’s also a way of exploring gender differences that persist into the 21st century.

      Probably more… I’m still trying to think this all through. At the very least, it prompted me to ask my intro ethics students what five things they’d want to be said about them in their obituaries, which led to some pretty interesting discussion.

  1. This project could help to define happiness in general by establishing which traits, life events, goals, etc. contribute best to a good life or at least lives that we respect. Really interesting stuff!

  2. Pingback: How We Speak Of The Dead | The Penn Ave Post

  3. It would be interesting to see if word co-occurance correlates with the obituary author. Maybe some obit authors have a limited vocabulary. Or maybe word choice varies with age of author or age of deceased. Many correlations could be checked. I guess my point is not to assume that variation in obit words reflects virtues of the deceased. Maybe your map maker already accounts for this?

    • Thanks, Jeremy. Unfortunately, these obits don’t have bylines, so we can’t track patterns in authorship. Presumably, most obituaries are written by the spouse or children (or maybe the friends) of the deceased. Any given person is unlikely to be writing more than one obituary in a given month, so there isn’t going to be much data on within-author patterns.

Leave a Reply