Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Princess Diana's Meanings for Women: Results of a Focus Group Study

Academic journal article Journal of Sociology

Princess Diana's Meanings for Women: Results of a Focus Group Study

Article excerpt

Princess Diana and civic ritual

The days following the unexpected and violent death of Diana, Princess of Wales, in August 1997 produced a level of debate, sentiment, concern and interest in a public `personality' that was, by many accounts, almost without precedent. In the period between her death and her funeral, Diana was probably the most talked about person on earth--at least in Anglophone nations. According to objective press clipping indicators, coverage in print `exceeded that generated by any other event, anywhere in the world, at any time in history' (Jack 1997: 15). In the subsequent months, books, videos and other memorabilia were consumed in vast quantities. For example, singer Elton John's tribute, `Candle in the Wind '97', sold 31.8 million copies worldwide in just 37 days, becoming in the process the biggest selling recording in history (Herd 1997).

One way to interpret this extraordinary episode from a sociological perspective is through a Durkheimian conception of civic ritual. Such a position holds that major public events and political crises perform an integrative function and partake of the sacred rather than the secular. They involve intense emotions and connect individuals to the collectivity through the manipulation and invocation of symbols and via participation in ritual activities. These can vary in scale from state-sponsored ceremonies to the dispersed micro-rituals of television viewing, newspaper reading and informal conversation. Queen Elizabeth's coronation (Shils and Young 1956) and President Kennedy's assassination and funeral (Verba 1965) have been held up as paradigm exemplars of civic ritual, providing strong prima facie support for the application of such a model in the case of Diana. Like the Queen she was royal, and like Kennedy she was unexpectedly dead. Another parallel with these previous episodes is that her death and funeral became a media event. Speculative commentaries on public responses to Diana's death are also consistent with orthodox Durkheimian theory. Media experts spoke of `a world in mourning', of `seven long days of tragedy when Britain, and the world, lost and found its heart', and of a `great, yawning, black hole of grief that has opened around all of us after the death of Diana' (Hamilton 1997: 3; Olsson 1997: 8). For Durkheimians, intense emotions like these are an important indicator of ritual, rather than routine, social process.

For the past quarter century, such orthodox Durkheimian understandings have been vigorously attacked as naive and simplistic. In more recent Durkheimian writing attention has been drawn to the frequently divisive and contested nature of ritual activity, to the role of political and media entrepreneurship, to issues of measurement in speaking of integrative effects, and to the divergent orientations of individuals towards core symbol systems. Our project centres on this last theme. Writing on the coronation of Queen Elizabeth, Steven Lukes (1975) speculated that apathy and antagonism may have been at least as prevalent as feelings of solidarity and community. In the case of Diana it seems that the popular press largely failed to recognise this possibility of variable cathectic and semiological orientations. Among the mass media and her biographers, Diana was relentlessly depicted as a deeply meaningful sacred symbol--particularly for women. Hearsay and intuition played equal roles in accounting for this purportedly universal positive response. Journalists speculated in plausible ways about the impact of her personality. Charm, good looks, charisma and glamour were claimed to be at the heart of her status as `the people's princess' (Deedes 1997; Murphy 1997; New Idea 1997: 12; Potter 1997; Simmonds 1997). Others focused attention on her social roles and the ways that these intersected with a changing world. Such discussions depicted a saint-like Diana devoted to charity work and contact with marginal and minority citizens (Elliott 1997; Holden 1997: 15-19; Morton 1994). …

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