Tag Archives: AAGE2017

Finding community far from home: A student report of #AAGE2017

By Michelle Bentsman

I arrived at the AAGE conference in Oxford unsure of what to expect. I was a few thousand miles from home, standing likewise on foreign intellectual terrain. Despite my involvement in death studies, I am a comparative religion scholar in training, and I have only recently begun immersing myself in anthropology. However, any initial hesitation was quickly replaced by a mounting eagerness to engage with the ideas and conversations that swirled across our swift and brimming two-day schedule.

The first panel I attended featured fascinating work in religious anthropology and aging, providing an ideal bridge through which I stepped into the proceedings. Professor Uchibori Motomitsu of the Open University of Japan discussed the Iban longhouse communities of Malaysia, describing the practice of providing ngibun, care, to the dying. This includes the mundane, which one community member likened to “feeding a corpse,” leading into post-mortem rites conducted in the open corridor of the longhouse. Hom Shrestha of Laurentian University gave an overview of the Nepalese Bura Janko ceremony, through which the elderly are elevated to the status of gods through a series chariot rides into the divine realm. Shrestha emphasized their power to strongly increase the psychosocial well-being of seniors, urging such practices to become more widely integrated into elder-care. These papers pointed to the influence that imaginative and ritual foregrounding can have on end-of-life processes and attitudes, affirming the potential for further inquiry into aging, dying, and religion.

I was in very good company during my panel, playfully dubbed the “death panel.” Iza Kavedzija of the University of Exeter offered a meditation on gratitude in the lives of Japanese elderly, observing that in conversation, expressions of gratitude were often preceded by a space of silence. She concluded by noting that although gratitude points directionally toward the past, it is experienced in the moment, opening affective possibilities in the present. Heekyoung Kim of Seoul National University expanded on the topic of Japanese aging, discussing the methodical preparations for death undertaken by healthy Japanese adults. This, Kim explained, has the effect of transforming death into a necro-social project with a long process, rather than a singular event. Natashe Lemos Dekker of the University of Amsterdam addressed the legal limitations faced by dementia patients seeking euthanasia in the Netherlands, in which euthanasia is understood as a request rather than a right. She left open the question of whether euthanasia is sought out as an act of desperation, or as a way out of desperation. I was grateful for the enthusiastic feedback I received on my paper about the rising role of death doulas in the aging western world. In addition to having the privilege of meeting a formerly practicing death doula among the attendees, I was pushed to further investigate how such services break down across class lines and in different geographic areas.

[scholars] were immensely helpful, sharing their own experiences in the field and encouraging me to pursue my research further

In a panel focused on intergenerational dynamics, Nancy Burke of University of California, Merced, used the awe-inspiring murals of JR and Jose Parla, depicting the elderly upon crumbling facades in Cuba, to convey its changing healthcare system. These images became the backdrop–or in her Bakhtinian parlance, the chronotype–for the comments of elderly Cuban civilians, such as, “we live like slaves and we die like kings,” or, “I can see the doctor whenever I want. But once I get there, he has nothing to give me.” Fayana Richards of Michigan State University described how African American grandmothers, who often took their personal relationship with God very seriously, regarded church as a seed to be transmitted to their grandchildren. For these women, faith could provide a way out of street life by carrying the possibility of change at any moment.

In addition to some very sobering truths, the AAGE had a great deal to give us, the conference-goers. Alongside coffee-breaks, meals, and a very pleasant wine reception, I was treated to genial company and brilliant conversation. I was impressed and heartened by the scholars I spoke to, all of whom were deeply involved with the issues they studied. They were immensely helpful, sharing their own experiences in the field and encouraging me to pursue my research further. The possibility of future collaborations emerged, as well as suggestions for like-minded journals where I might pursue publication. I left with the sense of having tapped into a network of supportive and passionate people that are leveraging theory and community engagement as a means for social change.

Michelle BentsmanMichelle Bentsman is currently an M.Div. candidate at Harvard Divinity School. Her areas of focus include end-of-life care, ideologies of death and dying, and comparative religion, with a particular emphasis on Judaism and Hinduism. She has worked in a north Indian hospice, where she collaborated with doctors, nurses, and volunteers to develop a spiritual care program, as well as served with an NYC Chevra Kadisha (Jewish burial society). She recently co-published an article on embodiment and the unknown in the Performance Research Journal.

How easily does ‘care’ travel? Crossing boundaries at #AAGE2017

By Gina Crivello

Every time I attend an anthropology conference it feels as if I’m returning to a piece of home, having worked for the past fifteen years in the multi-disciplinary field of International Development and during which time I have been just as likely to collaborate with economists as with anthropologists. Concepts like ‘kinship’, ‘culture’, ‘affinity’ and ‘relatedness’ might slide easily off the tongue in an anthropological discussion of care, but I have learned to not take such discussions for granted. Continue reading

Contesting categories of age and youth at #AAGE2017

lunch was buzzing at the AAGE conference (Photo by Ebru Ozer)

The Association for Anthropology, Gerontology and the Life Course held its Biennial Conference meeting at Oxford Brookes University, in Oxford, United Kingdom this past June 8th and 9th. C The theme, “Culture, Commitment, and Care across the Life Course,” provided an opportunity to expand our perspective of the anthropology of aging by taking a comparative perspective on youth and seeking to explore the continuities between early childhood and the life-long process of aging. With a program packed with thought-provoking and relevant information, it was hard to choose what sessions to attend! Continue reading

What commitments and cares connect generations? #AAGE2017

The 10th Biennial AAGE Conference, “Culture, Commitment and Care across the Life Course” brought together over 100 participants from 15 different countries for two days of research presentations, workshops, and keynote lectures. We opened on June 8th, as UK citizens were voting in a snap election that would proclaim their commitment to education, social care, housing security and tolerance. Whereas the Brexit vote one year earlier seemed to push generations and their values further apart, the results of the snap election showed a broader support for the Labour Party across age groups, and perhaps a rejection of the kind of misguided policies that would take school lunches from children and issue a #dementiatax on the old.

So there couldn’t be a better time to talk about the ways our commitments to values and aspirations are linked to our experience of generation and the life course.

For the first ever AAGE conference to be held in Europe, this enthusiastic turnout exceeded my expectations, and I was thrilled to meet so many students and scholars for the first time. I was so impressed, in fact, that I quickly put together a proposal to establish a new research network of the European Association of Social Anthropology so that we could continue to stay in touch and hold conferences even when AAGE’s Biennial moves back across the pond.

One of the keys to the success was our partnership with ACYIG, represented by my unflappable co-organizer Patrick Alexander. ACYIG has been a fantastic supporter of AAGE through the Collaborative Research Network on the Life Course. Through the CRN, we’ve organized a blog exchange and organized panels for #AAA2017 focused on how age is situated within the life course. One of the classic anthropological works on culture and the life course is Mead’s ‘Culture and Commitment’, and when Mead’s daughter, Mary Catherine Bateson agreed to fly over as a keynote speaker, it felt like we really had a conference worth shouting about.

And you heard. While I can’t possibly summarize all 16 panels (73 papers!) presented, as you can imagine, there were several on inter-generational relationships, kinship and community and many more on the ways global and local politics of care bring youth and age into closer affinity. The life-course perspective meant grappling with the ways personal and historical change intersect, how mobility, precarity and hopes might be shaped by generational patterns as well as changes in life-course trajectories. Alone, telling such a complex story would be formidable, but together, I could see how each of the conference presenters contributed some unique piece of the puzzle.

Apart from the papers, the conference included a workshop on ageing in Sub-Saharan Africa by Jaco Hoffman of the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing and another on research on children and development by Young Lives. These workshops were mainly aimed at presenting outward facing research aimed at contributing to public policy. Nearly half of the presenters at the conference were PhD students or recent graduates, and these workshops helped them consider the ways our research can have impact and the kinds of opportunities that are available outside of academia.

AAGE President Jason Danely introducing Mary Catherine Bateson on Day 1

Finally, we were treated to two wonderful keynote presentations, both of which drew out the fundamental importance of inter-generational life-course interactions. Mary Catherine Bateson spoke of the importance of learning from each other and the joys of being depending on each other at every age. She spoke of how infants and children teach adults how to be better carers, and how older adults can offer perspectives to the young. Pia Christensen told stories of ‘wonder’ that arise when we listen and pay attention to the worlds of children. I felt that much of what she said could easily be applied to our thinking about old age as well, and how aging societies might provide new chances for reflecting on the values and commitments that are most important to our shared future.

ACYIG Board Member Patrick Alexander introduces Pia Christensen on Day 2

What’s next?

Over the last 20 years, anthropology of aging and of youth has produced an impressive body of research that recognizes the agency and influence that people of all ages have on culture and society. As ethnographers who strive to bring a more holistic perspective of human relationships to our work, it seems that the next step is to try to understand the life course inter-generational interactions. What kinds of care are given or received across the life course? Are there commitments that cross generations? What do different ages bring to our understanding of the role of commitment in social and political change?

These are questions that can’t easily be solved by looking at only a narrow slice of the life course or one demographic group within a multi-generational society. The connections made at AAGE 2017 between the themes and ideas of presenters doing work at different ends of the life course presented an exciting challenge, both intellectually and empirically, and I hope AAGE and ACYIG will continue to work together in the future to strengthen our common interest in the life course. With the establishment of a formal network within the European Association of Social Anthropology (coming soon!) and organized panels ready for AAA 2017, we hope to keep up the momentum started in Oxford.

Thank you again to everyone who made the conference a success and to all of the presenters and chairs. I encourage all of you stay in contact with people you met at AAGE2017 and stay tuned for AAGE2019!