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Study examines how we talk about dying

Story supplied by LU Press Office

A journey or a battle? A crossroads or a fight? A stolen life or a gift?

How people talk about dying in terms of metaphors, or verbal imagery, is being analysed by researchers at Lancaster University.

The £218,000 project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, brings together expertise from linguists, computer scientists and a health psychologist from the University's International Observatory on End of Life Care.

The 'Metaphor in End of Life Care' project focuses specifically on metaphors - words and phrases which describe one thing in terms of another.

Illness, emotions, relationships and death are among the experiences for which people use metaphors to express, reflect and shape views, feelings, attitudes and needs.

The team are scrutinising 1.5 million words used by patients, family carers and health care professionals in a bid to improve communications for those nearing the end of their lives, in consultation with the Lancaster Research Partners' Forum - a group of local people with experience of research and of end of life care in the UK.

The project's Principal Investigator and Head of Linguistics and English Language Professor Elena Semino explains: "Metaphors are often used to talk about experiences that are sensitive and emotional, or that might be taboo, and the choice of metaphor will reflect how we 'see' or feel about those experiences.

"For example, if we talk about being ill with cancer in terms of a journey with milestones and crossroads, we may experience things differently than if we talk about it in terms of a battle - fighting an enemy, winning, or losing. The competitive, heroic element of battle metaphors can be motivating for some people but demoralising for others.

"Different metaphors may be more or less appropriate for different people or for the same person at different times."

The seven-strong project team are studying metaphors in a 1.5 million word corpus, a textual database, consisting of personal interviews and contributions to online forums. They will analyse and interpret each metaphor used, the context in which it is used, the implications for the individual's experience, and differences within and across the three groups.

Combining qualitative and quantitative research methods, the project will exploit an innovative semantic annotation tool, embedded in a web-based system called 'Wmatrix', developed by project team member Dr Paul Rayson, a Senior Lecturer at Lancaster University's School of Computing and Communications.

"This will enable us to identify metaphorical expressions more systematically than is currently possible with other corpus-based methods for the study of metaphor in large data sets," said Dr Rayson.

Health psychologist and expert in end of life studies Professor Sheila Payne, another project team member, is keen that the study should be used to inform policy-making and the training of health professionals.

"By analysing the language people use, we should be able to come up with conclusions that improve communication between the three groups involved in end of life care," she explained. "A better understanding of people's uses of metaphor can help to identify possible sources of misunderstanding."

The work is attracting significant interest from academics and health professionals in Europe and China who want to replicate the project in their countries.

An end-of-project event will take place in May 2014 at The Work Foundation in London when government officials involved in cancer and end of life care strategy, senior NHS officials and policymakers will be invited to hear and respond to the project findings.

There will also be places for senior academics involved in health research and for health practitioners involved in end of life care.

There will also be a web-based seminar at Lancaster University's International Observatory on End of Life Care in April 2014.

For more information, see the project website.

Mon 30 September 2013