EASA2016: Anthropological legacies and human futures

Imagining an old future: anthropological perspectives on age and ageing
Location U6-29
Date and Start Time 22 July, 2016 at 09:00
Sessions 2


  • Tiina Suopajärvi (University of Helsinki) email
  • Cordula Endter (German Centre for Gerontology) email
  • Kamilla Nørtoft (Royal Academy of fine arts, School of architecture) email

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Short Abstract

In this panel we (re)consider the anthropological ways of studying age and ageing. We ask, what can we know through our existing methodologies, theories and practices, and what remains hidden? What kinds of new crossings should we reach for in order to better understand the complexity of age/ing?

Long Abstract

Ageing is one of the biggest social challenges of our time. In western societies old age is often considered as social and economic problem that needs to be resolved, on the other hand, by the decision-makers, but increasingly also by the elderly themselves. Desirable ageing is mainly pictured as active, healthy and independent. However, in reality ageing adults live their everyday lives in different kinds of communities, multiple socio-material relations and diverse bodies.

Anthropologists are in a crucial position in understanding and disclosing the complexity of age and ageing. However, this may require reconsideration of the methodological, theoretical and empirical knowledge-making within the discipline. What can we know through the existing anthropological practices, and what kinds of knowledge and forms of expression remain hidden? How can new disciplinary and methodological crossings expand our understanding of the heterogeneity of ageing? And further, how can we ensure that the voices of the ageing citizens become heard in their communities and societies? In other words, can, and should, anthropologists become engaged more directly in the policy on ageing? And does this call for, for example, more collaborative and participatory ways of asking questions, or generating and transmitting knowledge?

We invite scholars both from anthropology and other disciplines, as well as people outside academic world to consider the new challenges of ageing. We are looking for lively discussions on theoretical conceptualisations but also on practical, applied perceptions, experiences and practices on what it means to become old in the 21st century.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.


The cultural narrative on ageing and its affect on methodology

Author: Jolien Makkinga (Meertens Institute)  email

Short Abstract

Aging is situated in a sociocultural context. This paper explores how the cultural narrative on aging and decline affects the implementation of methodology and brings limitations to conducting research and studying everyday practices related to aging.

Long Abstract

From an anthropological perspective aging is taking place in the context of broader sociocultural narratives. In the Netherlands the broader sociocultural narratives on aging often contains either a decline or age defying ideology (Laceulle & Baars 2014). Especially the narrative of aging and decline predominates when it comes to research on linguistics practices and older people. The perspective prevails that language skills inevitable decline with age (De Bot & Makoni 2005). Moreover, despite the increasing number of multilingual speakers there is limited attention for multilingual older people.

The research of the author is focusing on how bilingual residents of a nursing home in Maastricht, the Netherlands, experience senses of belonging through language practices. During the process of obtaining ethical approval and consent of the nursing home the researcher was confronted with strong perspectives on aging that are related to the cultural narrative on aging and decline. This paper will discuss how the cultural narrative of aging and decline affect the methodology of this research. This paper aims to provide insight in the limitations that the cultural narrative on aging brings to conducting research, methodology, and the everyday practices of aging that remain hidden. The paper will discuss the methodology that is used for this research (ethnography, participant observation, informal interviews, life stories and audio recording) and the affect that the cultural narrative on aging and decline has on the implementation of these methods.

From photo elicitation to dialogical fieldwork in public engagement: experimental dissemination of retirement stories

Author: Kamilla Nørtoft (Royal Academy of fine arts, School of architecture)  email

Short Abstract

The research and dissemination project “Retirement stories” started as a photo elicitation project that developed into dialogue and collaboration on various dissemination formats. This paper explores the knowledge resulting from the dialogical and experimental work with older research participants.

Long Abstract

"Retirement stories" is a research and dissemination project about the transition from work life to retirement in Copenhagen, Denmark. The participants have taken photos and/or recorded sounds that illustrate what they find important to share regarding their experiences with this transition. They also agree that the material will be used in various dissemination formats and experiments for a wide audience as the project goes along. During the autumn 2015 and winter 2016 the dissemination formats have been a neighborhood walk with posters telling one woman's life story connected to the neighborhood, an exhibition with photos and stories in a library, an event with the posters and the exhibition collected in one place and presentations to an audience with contributions from some participants, a podcast made by ethnology students and an article written in collaboration between researcher, event coordinator and one participant. Since the dissemination formats develop with the research project there is an ongoing dialogue and contact with the participants. Thus, what started as a photo elicitation project has developed into dialogue based ethnographic fieldwork in the field of public engagement and popular dissemination of anthropological aging research. Participating in the project requires that the participants have interest in reflecting on their own experiences with the transition from work life to retirement. The ongoing dialogue and the nature of the experiments gives new insights into to the process that follows of participation in the project for the individual participants as reflection continues in various ways.

Betwixt and between: doing ethnographic research or designing technology for older users

Author: Cordula Endter (German Centre for Gerontology)  email

Short Abstract

Doing ethnography in applied contexts can be a fruitful endeavor for all participants but it also demands reflection about the different roles the ethnographer has to take on. The paper discusses different strategies of dealing with this betwixt and between position in the context of design for elderly.

Long Abstract

In my field study I have investigated the design process of a cognitive training platform for older users with mild-cognitive impairments. The project is situated in the broader context of assistive technologies which are subsumed under the term Ambient Assisted Living (AAL). These smart technologies are designed to support elderlies in their everyday activities with smart sensors that can detect falls, control their medication or request for help in case of need. In the public discourse assistive technologies are introduced as promising means to deal with demographic changes mainly in western European countries. But which ideas about age and aging are inscribed into the technical objects and how do they transform everyday activities of older users when applied in their homes? By actively taking part in the project I could observe the co-construction of technology by software engineers, psychologists but also test-users and myself. Furthermore, I've received a thick understanding in terms of Clifford Geertz what it means for the project staff to design technology for elderly on the one hand and on the other what it means for the elderlies to take part in the study and represent older test-users. Beyond that, taking part in the design process challenged my understanding of ethnography. Therefore, I want to discuss the different roles of the participants and reflect on my own role(s) in the design process and than discuss the potential of collaboration between ethnography and applied studies in the context of design for elderly.

Seniors as co-designers: combining participatory action research with ethnography

Author: Tiina Suopajärvi (University of Helsinki)  email

Short Abstract

I will discuss the methodological benefits and the challenges we faced in our collaborative workshops where seniors acted as co-designers in the process of designing public services. How well did ethnography and participatory action research work together; what did we learn; and what did we miss.

Long Abstract

In order to follow the ideology of participatory action research (PAR), I organized collaborative design workshops where the problems to be solved were identified together. In the workshops, senior city dwellers of northern Finnish city Oulu, city officials and university researchers/designers identified the main problems between seniors and the city to be the lack of cross-generational community and the lack of two-way communication. The idea to resolve this problem was, for instance, to organize computer courses at schools where pupils could teach computer skills to seniors, and to combine this with workshops where the aged could teach adolescents housekeeping and handicraft skills. Another idea was to create links between offline media, like newspapers or city magazines, and online media, like city's internet pages, when the city aims to inform its senior citizens. This would include possibilities for two-way communication, too.

In this paper, I will focus on the meanings and effects of the methodologies that I used in organising and analysing our workshops. As an anthropologist, I am used to leaning on ethnography, but how well does it go together with the principles of PAR? In which situations should we give up ethnographic perspective, or at least mould it substantially? And if we do this, what kinds of new epistemological or ethical questions should we consider? Reflexive ethnography may of course also benefit the PAR process, but in which ways? And finally, and most importantly, what can we learn with this methodological arrangement about ageing in the city of Oulu?

Cultural anthropological methods of studying age and ageing in research practice: experience, results and potential

Author: Anamaria Depner (University of Heidelberg)  email

Short Abstract

Following the ethnological tradition of thick description, this presentation reports on the borders crossed, new ground broken and research ethics involved in the practice of ethnological work with and about the elderly, as well as associated material objects.

Long Abstract

Current gerontological research into age and ageing in German-speaking countries is characterised by its highly practical approach. At the same time, this discipline, which is gaining in socio-political importance, is increasingly opening up to theoretical approaches used in various fields.

The presentation will show how ethnology can contribute in this respect, with its definition of culture, its methodological repertoire and its theoretical approaches, not least those taken from Material Culture Studies. To do so, insights are given into two interdisciplinary projects in which ethnologists are now also playing a role: a pure research project (Care and Things: Objects and their Significance in Past and Present Nursing Practice) and a project based on development and practice (I-Care: Individual Activation of People with Dementia). At the same time, the ethnological scientific access to the elderly will be presented as a potential means of gaining knowledge. Analysis and reflection of the joint work bring to light questions such as:

- What can cooperation between ethnology and gerontology achieve with regard to theorising, pure research and implementing practical projects?

- Why and to what extent is an approach via Material Culture Studies informative when observing elderly people, their life worlds and their environments?

- What opportunities do we have to influence innovation, such as technological inventions, on the free market, and how should we apply that influence?

- What position should we adopt when faced with the occasional dilemma that funders and their socio-political intentions sometimes pose in terms of research ethics?

Old Age as 'other status': the deconstruction of a paradigm

Authors: Ilaria Elisea Scerrato (University of Rome La Sapienza)  email
Franco Pecorari  email

Short Abstract

The paper proposes an integration between the anthropological and the phenomenological -psychophysiological approach for a critical methodology of ageing, issue often medicalized in the contemporary world. We would like to bring attention to the elder not as sick person, but as a person, with his agency.

Long Abstract

The paper proposes a critical analysis of the cultural and social constructions of ageing that pervades the public discourse around the growing phenomenon of elderly population in Italy. The elders are marginalized, are constructed as social 'others' through a process of medicalization and categorized as subject 'at risk'. They are seen as non-productive and consumptive community resources. These socially constructed stereotypes have a real impact on social identity of the elders and on the policy on ageing endorsing such as the construction of infrastructures like 'nursing homes' or geriatric wards in hospitals, that contribute to the marginalization of elders. The paper will propose a consideration on the Italian institutional discourse on old age, which proposes the care of the elder as a patient, who needs only medical care. This creates the collective unconscious of the great shadow of aging.

The critical anthropological approach and the psychophysiological integrated understanding of the ageing process can be useful tools aiming at a better understanding of this complex issue of the Western world. Furthermore, it can be useful in a practical context in the training of professionals working with the elderly (nurses, psychologists, social workers). This promotes an understanding of ageing not as a pathological condition, but as a human condition. The focus is on the agency of the elders, their creativity, their emotions which the social workers have to meet in a context of interaction and dialogical relationship.

Cosmopolitanisation of aged care in Australia: is 'mainstreaming' of aged care service delivery the way forward?

Author: Irena Veljanova (Western Sydney University)  email

Short Abstract

With specific focus on Australian aged care sector, this paper considers whether quality of life at later stage as a cosmopolitan value can be optimised by ‘mainstreaming’ of aged care services.

Long Abstract

While they share the same civic ethic, multiculturalism and cosmopolitanism conceptually differ in respect to their approach to cultural difference, the matter of fundamental moral entity, the vested power in distinct collectives and conceptual relevance vis-a-vis the global and the national space. With stark focus upon the individual as a fundamental moral entity, cosmopolitanism assumes shared moral substance of all humans as imagined within the parameters the human rights corpus. Given that the quality of life at later stage is a matter of human rights the notion of quality of life becomes a cosmopolitan value. Central to quality of life at later stage is appropriate provision of aged care. In Australia, cultural appropriateness in aged care service delivery maintains relevance given the multicultural character of the rapidly ageing national population. Despite their pivotal role, the latest changes to the aged care funding rules with emphasis on competition raise concerns over the survival of the predominantly small, grass-roots Ethno-Specific NGOs as culturally appropriate aged care providers. This is not considered as problematic by the government as cultural appropriateness will not be abandoned rather, services will be mainstreamed, and the mainstream services of generic kind will be adapted to account for all diversity including ethno-cultural diversity. With specific focus on a Macedonian-specific NGO with aged care provider status, this paper will explore [1] the consequences of mainstreaming of service provision upon CALD aged care clients and [2] whether quality of life at later stage as a cosmopolitan value can be optimised by 'mainstreaming' of aged care services.

New challenges of ageing: exploring configurations of ageing and care in the context of migration

Author: Monika Palmberger (University of Vienna)  email

Short Abstract

This paper ethnographically explores new configurations of ageing and care in the context of migration. It analyzes lived effects of the tension between exclusion from institutionalized care and inclusion or the feelings of social embeddedness in community centres among ageing migrants in Vienna.

Long Abstract

Due to increased mobility and migration, many people today do not spend old age in their country of origin, a fact that is in many cases politically marginalized. This is also the case for labour migrants, who came to Austria as so called 'guest workers'. Today they constitute a significant part of Vienna's older population, but are widely omitted in (policy-oriented) studies on Austria's older population, e.g. concerning ageing and care.

This paper ethnographically explores new configurations of ageing and care in the context of migration. It analyzes multiple understandings of transnational ageing experiences of Turkish labor migrants and their spouses by focusing on their social embeddedness in Vienna's Turkish community centers (including mosques). These centers provide an important place of caring via strengthening the old and introducing new, (trans)national social ties. Moreover, they are places where ideas of transnational living arrangements are shared and evaluated and the absence of culturally sensitive care in Vienna is critically assessed.

Focusing on these multiple dimensions of care, discrimination, and abandonment, the paper analyzes the lived effects of the tension between exclusion (particularly concerning institutionalized care in Austria) and inclusion or the feelings of social embeddedness experienced in the named community centers. By paying close attention to the specific but multiple experiences of ageing and relations of care among ageing labour migrants in Vienna, this paper aims to enrich anthropological understanding of ageing, migration and transnationalism and the junctures of said fields.

Social innovation for active and healthy ageing: what do we want from science and how we engage?

Authors: Ieva Stoncikaite (U of Lleida)  email
Cristina Astier  email

Short Abstract

We provide evidence-based recommendations and good practices on how to increase the involvement of older people and civil society organizations in research. To do so, the SIforAGE brings together policy-makers, researches, politicians, and companies with the aim of bridging the existing gap between them.

Long Abstract

Since ageing permeates our everyday existence, it cannot be overlooked and seen as a personal issue, but has to be dealt with in broader terms taking into account a great variety of interconnecting forces and different disciplines. Even though there have been significant shifts towards the meanings of the process of growing old, we continue to observe many negative prejudices, in which ageing is seen as a social and economic problem, thus limiting older people to enter the so called 'active and healthy ageing' (AHA) phase. Although the ageing individuals are now portrayed as active and independent citizens who engage in social actions and healthy lifestyles, in reality the majority of them are underrepresented and even stigmatized. In this paper, we present the results of the work-package 3 under the framework of the SIforAGE Project (Social Innovation for Active and Healthy Ageing), entitled "What do we want from science and how we engage". By looking at the good practices examples, focus groups, and deliberative workshops that involve older persons, decision makers, and researchers through intergenerational interventions, this study has examined the participation of older people in public life and scientific research and detected the barriers as well as the opportunities that enable to reach the needs of the ageing population. The evidence-based recommendations on innovative methods are directed to scientists, civil society, public policy makers, companies, and experts at European and International levels with an aim to engage the older population in active and healthy ageing research.

Extreme navel-gazing: when anthropology becomes autoethnography

Author: Siew-Peng Lee (Brunel University)  email

Short Abstract

This anthropologist imagines how different her PhD data might have been had she been the older respondent giving the answers. By reflecting on theoretical and methodological issues, she exposes limitations of traditional ethnography. Autoethnography suggests that an action perspective is imperative.

Long Abstract

Classical anthropological studies often involve researchers inserting themselves into an 'Other' situation through participant observation. By definition, those of the 'wrong' gender, age, class, language ability, etc. are excluded from participating/observing.

This paper, based on old fieldwork data amongst older migrant Chinese living in sheltered housing in England, presents some reflections on how being an older researcher helped in entering and remaining in the field.

Theoretically I realized that - 15 years later - the same research data could be interpreted quite differently simply because my personal status had changed from 30-something spinster to being a wife and mother.

Methodologically I imagine how different my data might have been if I were the older respondent giving the answers as a co-resident (hence autoethnography). What sorts of answers would I give a much younger researcher? How does this address the issue of 'studying up' (Nader 1969) when respondents think researchers are quite beneath their association, in this case because of age? By turning the research lens around, we can expose a few limitations of traditional ethnography.

It becomes imperative - and urgent - that our research should inform policy. We are no more studying 'them', but 'us'.

Most scholars of ageing find it difficult to 'return to the field'. Most of my key respondents have died. On the upside, it becomes inevitable that we eventually begin to study ourselves: there is no retiring for ageing scholars of ageing.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.