Category Archives: Life Course Blog

Putting Linked Lives at the Center of Ethnography

Sequenza 011

88-year old Carlo, with his son in the family vineyard: a photo from the movie, already in circulation within the community. Courtesy of my local informants.


Two months before I leave for fieldwork and immerse myself in the daily realities of a small hamlet in Dolomiti di Brenta, northeast Italy, I can only speculate what conceptualizations of old age have emerged and are emerging as a result of wider forces shaping interpersonal connections in the village. What does aging mean for people in this small commune in rural Italy, where the demographic age-pyramid has been turned upside down, where the economic transitions of the last decades have driven younger generations to either move to other regions or abroad, or become financially dependent on their aging parents?


Getting at these questions requires a method that places not just old age, but the interlinked lives at its center. The goal of the life-course method is to discover the logic behind the ascription of roles and statuses afforded to an individual at different stages of his or her life course. Another objective is to understand how local conceptualizations of a life phase come to exist as people struggle to live the lives that they desire.


One of the central concepts in the sociology of the life-course method is the idea that the unfolding of people’s lives should be understood in connection with the lives of people around them, most importantly their families, with these inter-connections forming an individual’s daily realities and shaping the trajectories of his/her life (e.g. Riley 1979, Elder et al. 2003, Heinz and Marshall 2003, and many many others). For life course as an anthropological method this entails looking at culture, the local meanings attached to age and the categories created for the people who are at the end of their lives. This also means looking at kinship (understood both as modes of relatedness and as patterns and structures) as one of the factors shaping the trajectory of one’s life.

Cesare 1

The morning panorama of Bassano del Grappa, the cultural and economic center of the region. The two towers that emerge from the landscape of the city are those of Il Tempio Ossario, an exhibition site dedicated to the heroes of the First World War. Historical tourism is an important element of the city’s economy, with many local people also engaged in projects commemorating the region’s partisan movements of the Second World War. How does this fascination with the heroic past translate into the intergenerational relations in the region? Photograph courtesy of Cesare Gerolimetto.

A classic example of such an approach (derived independently of the life-course literature but sharing the same principles) is Scheper-Hughes’s “Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics” ([1981] 2001). In this work, Scheper-Hughes shows how the culturally-promoted celibacy and distance between sexes, the strategies of survival that families adopted – i.e. the younger son brought up in the understanding that he would remain with the parents while the older siblings were raised to get other jobs – and the economic transformations that made women emigrate produced a high number of mentally-disturbed elderly bachelors and, subsequently, various categories of normality and distortion which were to serve as bases for the categorization of these aging men.


Last year, one of the elderly people living in the village, 88 year-old Carlo, became a subject of interest for two young local activists who made a movie in which Carlo is reimagined as the embodiment of the region’s traditional Italian virtues and anti-consumerist values. More recently, as Carlo’s health deteriorated, with his family, friends and neighbors fearing at one stage that he would not survive the night, the activists uploaded the movie onto the village association’s Facebook page. Sharing the movie was a community’s act of solidarity with Carlo and his family but also represented a moment in which a particular category of the socially-desired elder was evoked and circulated.


During my fieldwork, I will watch this movie with Carlo and his commune. Using his and other’s reflections to uncover the multiple meanings of age in this way is one of the privileges of doing anthropology.


Works cited:

Elder, Glen H., Monica Kirckpatrick Johnson and Robert Crosnoe
2003 The Emergence and Development of Life Course Theory, in: J. T. Mortimer. and M. J. Shanahan (eds.). Handbook of the Life Course. New York: Kluwer Academic, Plenum Publishers

Heady, Patrick and Kohli, Martin (eds.)
2010 Family, Kinship and State in Contemporary Europe, Vol.3: Perspectives on Theory and Policy. Frankfurt, New York: Campus Verlag

Heinz, Walter R. and Victor W. Marshall (eds.)
2003 Social Dynamics of the Life Course: Transitions, Institutions and Interrelations. New York: Aldine de Gruyter

Riley, Mathilda W. (ed.)
1979 Aging from Birth to Death. Boulder, CO: Westview

Scheper-Hughes, Nancy
2001 [1981] Saints, Scholars and Schizophrenics. Mental Illness in Rural Ireland. Berkley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press


Barbara Pieta is a PhD-candidate at the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Halle(Saale). She investigates local constructions of age, kinship and care in Italian depopulated villages, having previously volunteered in one of the nursing homes in the region. In her research, she combines ethnographic methods with Participatory Video research techniques, as well as with the computerized Kinship Network Questionnaire (KNQ), designed by the Kinship and Security (KASS) project team (Heady and Kohli 2010). Her project is funded by the Max Planck International Research Network on Aging.


Read the ACYIG member companion to this post on “Life Course as Method”

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Aged Culture

This is the first post in the Life Course CRN blog exchange series developed in conjunction with the Anthropology of Children and Youth Interest Group of AAA. A complete list of published exchanges in the series is available here. Follow this link to the corresponding post on “Producing Difference” by AAGE member Jason Danely.


“Childhood is a variable of social analysis. It can never be entirely divorced from other variables such as class, gender, or ethnicity.” (Prout and James 1997:9).

Prout and James’ account of what they called a new sociology of childhood has become a central paradigm for the growing interdisciplinary field of childhood studies. Given the popularity of the model, it is curious that (as far as I know) people have not pointed out the flaw in their approach. Childhood, a stage of life, is not analytically similar to class, gender, or ethnicity.

Rather, the correct comparison to overarching categories such as class, gender, or ethnicity would be another overarching category: age. But like Prout and James (or perhaps because of them), modern cultural and linguistic anthropology tends to erase age in favor of the study of specific life stages: childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age. The American Anthropological Association has interest groups for the study of childhood and youth as well as the elderly but not for the study of age and the life course as a whole. Similarly, within anthropology there are series and journals on either childhood or old age but again not on the life course. When people use the words “age” or “aging” they tend to be talking about the elderly as opposed to thinking about age like gender—as something relevant to everyone.

Moving to larger analyses of age and the life course would change the study not only of childhood but also anthropology. For example, consider something central to both fields: agency. Another main theme of childhood studies is that children actively shape both society and themselves. But most of the many recent studies that analyze children’s agency fall into the same trap as early analyses of women’s agency—they assume that children are the same types of agents as adults (e.g., Markström and Halldén 2009; Porter 1996). Such an approach 1) assumes universal definitions of agency as either resistance or independent action, which gender scholars have already shown to be faulty (Mahmood 2005; Wardlow 2006); 2) overlooks the possibility that over the life course people move through different types of subject positions.

In a small village in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) where I work, children have agency not in spite of the fact that they are children but precisely because of it. In other words, children have a different type of agency than adults (Berman In Preparation). For example, among adults in the RMI it is inappropriate to carry ready-to-eat food in public without sharing it. This norm significantly constrains adults as it makes it difficult to share food with relatives. A woman cannot give fish to her mother on the other side of town if she has to share it with everyone she sees along the way. But children are not responsible for the food that they carry and thus are under no obligation to share it with others. Consequently, one small boy can carry a full plate of food past numerous adults. This boy is able to do something that his mother cannot because people do not see him as a moral person responsible for his behavior. He has what I call “non-person agency.”

Rather than simply noting that like adults children also have agency, childhood scholars need to analyze what is unique about children’s agency. If we do so, I suspect that we will realize that, just as in the RMI, agency is aged. Agency changes across the life course. Such an analysis not only affects the study of children’s agency but also challenges ideas about cultural reproduction and social change within anthropology as a whole. By now everybody knows that culture is constantly changing. We tend to assume, however, that such change is historical. These differences between child and adult agency in the Marshall Islands, however, reveal not historical change but rather social change across the life course. Unlike historical change, moreover, life course change is a necessary feature of cultural continuity.

In other words, just as culture is gendered, culture is also aged. I suspect that my conclusions about agency could be applied to other issues such as race, gender, subjectivities, and religion. The only way to investigate the aged nature of culture is to closely examine the social construction, negotiation, and significance of age.

Works Cited

Berman, Elise
In Preparation Producing Age: Children, Deception, and Avoiding Giving in the Marshall islands.

Mahmood, Saba
2005   Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Markström, Ann-Marieet al.
2009   Children’s Strategies for Agency in Preschool. Children & Society 23:112-122.

Porter, Karen
1996   The Agency of Children, Work, and Social Change in the South Pare Mountains, Tanzania. Anthropology of Work Review 17(1-2):8-19.

Prout, Alanet al.
1997   A New Paradigm for the Sociology of Childhood? Provenance, Promise and Problems. In Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood. A. James and A. Prout, eds. London: RoutledgeFalmer.

Wardlow, Holly
2006   Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.


Elise Berman is Assistant Professor of Anthropology at University of North Carolina Charlotte. Her current research, based on sixteen months of fieldwork in the RMI, is an analysis of immaturity and the production of age differences, sharing, and communicative power.


A complete list of published exchanges in the series is available here. Follow this link to the corresponding post on “Producing Difference” by AAGE member Jason Danely.

The legacies of age: Some thoughts on categories, change and continuity

This is the first set of posts in the Life Course CRN blog exchange series developed in conjunction with the Anthropology of Children and Youth Interest Group of AAA.  A complete list of published exchanges in the series is available here. Follow this link to the corresponding post on “Producing Difference” by ACYIG member Elise Berman.

Logan Quentin Danely (1918-1998) as a youth

Logan Quentin Danely (1918-1998) as a youth


On February 8, 1998, my grandfather, the only one I ever knew, died at the age of 79. My grandfather was one of the kindest, most generous people I ever knew. He was the man who made little puzzles in his workshop and handed them out to strangers, the man who donated gallons of his own blood to the Red Cross, the man who took me in his car to deliver meals-on-wheels. He was also the man who in his last years cared for his wife, even after she had forgotten who he was.

Many of us who do research on aging have had such people in our lives. Our work is a way of honoring that connection, giving it the narrative weight of a legacy. Who I am is in many ways the result of my retelling the lives of others: legacies, like my grandfather’s that live on in my self-narrative. For me then, this is a starting point for thinking about the endurance of age as a category of difference—the hierarchies and cultural constructions like generational divisions or kinship positions that make the force of life’s legacies legible.
A legacy is both an inheritance and an offering: a form of memorial. During fieldwork in Japan, I found that older adults who felt strongly about the importance of memorializing the spirits of the ancestors were obaachan-ko, or “granny’s kids.” From a young age, they remembered spending time with their grandparents, often visiting the family graves or offering incense at the family altar. For them, rejoining the spirits in the other world beyond death, was something that lay ahead in the grander trajectory of the life cycle. At the same time, ancestors, by definition, are those who came before, and those to whom one owes one’s life. From this perspective, death was a kind of back to the future, a merging of one’s own life course narrative with that of the ancestors and descendants; it was a becoming oneself through the retelling of the other’s story.

90 year old Kyoto woman at her family altar (photo Jason Danely

Legacy is that silvery thread of that runs through the quiltwork of generations, allowing us to see the dreams of youth in age, and wisdom of age in youth. But today, in Japan and elsewhere, the divide between young and old seems greater than it has ever been. There are fewer children under 15 than adults over 65. Opportunities to nurture lifelong affinities between the young and old are rare. Longevity has, in some ways introduced expectations that pensioners can and should resist dependence, form their own, separate generational identity. This modern idea developed alongside changes in social welfare policies that erected further barriers between young and old, and older people would frequently comment on the fact that there is little to pass on, be it property, heirlooms, or knowledge of the ancestors. Houses, graves, and the elderly themselves are being abandoned; a haunting reminder of generational disjunction.

My favorite work on the disconnect between youth and age and the need for a new ways of retelling in the life course, is Margaret Mead’s Culture and Commitment (1970). In it, Mead cautioned against romanticizing cultures like the Australian Aborigines, where the importance of tradition kept elders in high regard, while at the same time, she warned of the consequences of abandoning the elders for the sake of progress. For Mead, generational harmony meant opening up a new dialogue where elders do not cling to an absolute authority based on their experience, and the young do not throw themselves into radical and rebellious ways at the cost of caring for older generations. Instead, Mead, saw the legacy of age as a kind of “love and trust, based on dependency and answering care,” a “sense of commitment” that would enable to the young to move into a yet uncharted future.

A life course perspective in anthropology does more than critique the ways modern social institutions still divide young and old, sometimes cruelly pitting them against one another in a competition for public resources. Age categories are not only cultural wedges driven between our young and old selves. They can also be a way of recognizing the links between generations and their embodied histories, between past and future selves, along which lives are told and retold.

Would I have chosen to study the lives of older had it not been for my grandfather’s legacy? I don’t know. I know that I learned something about what it meant to be old by watching my grandfather, and I also like to think that he learned something about himself by being with me as well.

Works Cited

Mead, Margaret
1970. Culture and Commitment. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, Inc.

Jason Danely is Senior Lecturer of Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University and President Elect of the Association of Anthropology Gerontology and the Life Course (AAGE). He is author of Aging and Loss: Mourning and Maturity in Contemporary Japan (2014 Rutgers University Press). He is currently conducting cross-cultural research with the support of an award from the John Templeton Foundation on the lived experiences of family caregivers of older adults in Japan and the UK.


A complete list of published exchanges in the series is available here.

Follow this link to the corresponding post on “Producing Difference” by ACYIG member Elise Berman.