Tag Archives: ethnography

The Urban Future and the Aging Body

Photograph by author. Please do not reproduce without permission

Photograph by author. Please do not reproduce without permission

On Wednesday morning in February 2013, I rang the doorbell of Leena, a 77 years old woman who lived in the city center of Oulu in northern Finland. She had agreed to take me for a walk from her home to the health center. While we were in a lift, Leena expressed her concerns about her future living arrangements, since there was no room for a wheelchair in the lift. Leena had lived in her house since 1967, and hoped to live many more years.

In Finland, the public discourses on “the problem of aging” circles around how people could continue to live on their own as long as possible. Sometimes this tendency has led to situations where people with dementia have become prisoners in their own homes. The elderly in need of care might not have anyone nearby to look after them, and without sufficient public services, their futures as desired independent citizens doesn’t look very desirable.

Self-sufficient living should include not only the ability to stay at home, but also the ability to move between homes and the other important places in one’s life, like public services and the houses of family members and friends (see Gardner 2011; Penney 2013). In order to understand this part of  everyday life for people like Leena, I walked with Finnish seniors via their everyday routes on nine winter days. I have followed Tim Ingold’s (2011) notion that through the routes and movements, the pasts and futures are carried into the present.

While considering new plans and decisions, we should ask what kind of mobilities and practices do they enable and prevent. How can we ensure that our cities stay liveable to those seniors who wish to live on their own without making them feel like abandoned citizens?

While I walked with Leena, the streets were a bit slippery and there were piles of snow on the pavements, because snow ploughing is usually done first on the roads. The more able-bodied walkers can find detours for their ways, but for citizens like Leena who suffer from severe back problems and asthma, these barriers have long-term effects. To be able to stay as fit as possible, and thus to carry on independent living, she says she needs to walk every day.

There are also year-round material elements in the cities that can prevent or encourage seniors to move (see Freund 2001). In the spring 2013, Oulu was planning to replace the health center many seniors preferred to use with one outside the city center. Leena was “terrified” about this, because: “Then I’d have to take a taxi but I’d anyhow have to walk to get one, so what’s the point?” Being unable to walk to get medical services was perceived as a change that would affect seniors’ sense of independence. This sense might be constructed differently by different generations but what is common, is the need be able to affect one’s own future in a place (see Ylipulli 2015).

The possibility to keep on knowing the city through everyday embodied practices enhances seniors’ feelings of autonomy, and of being valued as competent citizens. Staying on the move is not just a question of keeping oneself fit as an aging citizen, but also a question of urban planning and management. While considering new plans and decisions, we should ask what kind of mobilities and practices do they enable and prevent. How can we ensure that our cities stay liveable to those seniors who wish to live on their own without making them feel like abandoned citizens?
Since in our study, city visits by solitary seniors were mainly about running errands; the urban planners and decision makers should consider how to secure seniors’ routes to health centers, libraries, pharmacists, and grocery stores in the future. For example, preserving the important historical places of the city as well as making places feel safe through sufficient lighting, supports the continuity of seniors’ everyday mobility.

Works cited:

Freund, Peter. 2001. ”Bodies, Disability and Spaces. The Social Model and Disabling Spatial Organisations.” Disability & Society 16:5: 689–706.

Gardner, Paula J. 2011. Natural neighborhood networks – Important social networks in the lives of older adults aging in place. Journal of Aging Studies 25: 263–271.

Ingold, Tim. 2011. Being Alive: Essays on Movement, Knowledge and Description. London: Routledge.

Penney, Lauren. 2013. The Uncertain Bodies and Spaces of Aging in Place. Anthropology & Aging Quarterly 34:3: 113–125.

Ylipulli, Johanna. 2015. A smart and ubiquitous urban future? Contrasting large-scale agendas and street-level dreams. Observation (OBS*) Journal, Media City: Spectacular, Ordinary and Contested Spaces: 85–110.

Tiina Suopajärvi holds a PhD in Cultural Anthropology and works as a University Lecturer of European Ethnology at the University of Helsinki in Finland. She has studied and published scientific articles on aging in “smart cities.” Her current research focuses on the co-design processes of public services aimed for senior citizens.

Read the companion to this post, Futures Past: Absent Kinships and the Japanese Child Welfare System, by Kathryn E. Goldfarb


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Age Imaginaries in School Ethnography

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Like most social scientists, my approach to methodology is in important ways entangled with personal narrative. My interest in age as a field of social analysis emerged from my early experiences as a secondary school teacher. As a twenty-three year-old trainee, I was barely older than the more senior teenage students in my charge. At the same time, I was easily recognisable to my senior colleagues as member of the same generation as their own children. Training to be a teacher involved my immersion in the uncertain performance of several different identities: professional adult, grown-up in a classroom full of kids, youthful teacher. It was jarring to me to experience simultaneously what seemed like mutually exclusive categories of age. Out on the playground, students (and, sometimes, teachers) engaged in their own complex and ever-shifting negotiation of the age-based rules of engagement in everything from friendship to bullying, dating to disgust, dominance to deference. This led me, several years later and newly formed as an anthropologist of education, to focus explicitly on age in its multiple imaginings as aspect of social life in schooling in the UK.


Approaching age as the primary focus of anthropological analysis presents methodological challenges. Expanding one’s methodological approach to capture multiple, overlapping reckonings of age is perhaps particularly tricky in schools, where order is predicated on the neat portioning of the life course into categories like age groups, year groups, grades, or stages of the life course linked to educational achievement. The difficulty lies in analysing age as an aspect of social experience, while also recognising that age is both an essentialised and an essentially dynamic aspect of social identity. This makes it something of a moving target for the beleaguered anthropologist in the field.


Ironically, researchers have tried all kinds of approaches aimed at mitigating the impact of age, and its concomitant asymmetrical power relations, as a barrier to robust data gathering. Many of these, I would argue, serve to further reify the discreteness of the age-based positionality that a researcher holds relative to younger (or older) informants. Attempts to adopt a ‘least adult’ role in ethnographic research (put crudely, adults acting out childhood with children) may lead children to experience rather peculiar imaginings of childlike adulthood. The sociologist Ronald King (1978) famously hid in a Wendy House (or play house) in order to conduct non-participant observation with children in a classroom, uninterrupted by the presence of adults; and not surprisingly, this method also raised its own problems. Hammersely and Atkinson have pointed out the tension between knowledge, power and age in the role of the school ethnographer, arguing that, in the eyes of participants, chronologically younger researchers may fit more neatly with the role of ignorant but curious observer than do older, and therefore seemingly wiser, greying professors (2007:77). More recently, the ‘new’ sociology of childhood has championed participatory methods as a way to foreground the voice of children and young people in school-based research. While there are significant gains to be made in better representing the self-efficacy of young people as actors in the research process, there are also issues here: it is debatable as to whether ‘child-centred’ research (research that privileges and makes paramount the voices of children) can always be equated with what might be termed ‘childhood-centred’ research (research that questions the terms by which the children and young people in child-centred research are defined). Research about children’s and young people’s lives in this sense must be seen as an important part of the process by which discourses of age are shaped and reproduced, rather than as a practice that exists alongside and apart from it.


In my own research, I have pursued, failed, and persevered with a range of methods for capturing the social complexity of age. Ultimately, I have found some success in a traditional approach to ethnography that embraces the messy, mercurial, dynamic nature of age as a ‘unit of analysis’ and in so doing also attempts to capture the rich and complex ways in which age is given meaning in everyday life. Rather than limiting my analysis to the known taxonomies of age that shape life in school, my challenge was to capture the complex, concurrent, multiple notions of age that served to structure the lives of both teachers and students. As with my own experience as a teacher – of performing at once a version of grown-up, of growing up, and of being little more than a big kid with a beard – these imaginings of age were constructed relationally, idiosyncratically, and in dialogue with dominant discourses of how age ‘ought to be’ experienced. Age, I found, was imagined in a moment-to-moment way that moved beyond existing taxonomies of age, but was also obliged to render itself sensible to them. The methodological hurdle was to capture this complexity. I have attempted to do so through applying the concept of age imaginaries – a ‘warts and all’ approach to recognising how age shapes the ethnographic process as much as it shapes experiences of schooling for children, young people, adults – and everyone in between.


Patrick Alexander is a social anthropologist specialising in education, childhood and youth studies. He is a Senior Lecturer in Education (Anthropology and Sociology) at Oxford Brookes University. In 2014 Patrick was awarded a Fulbright Peabody Scholarship to conduct research as a Visiting Scholar at New York University. This project comprises a two-year comparative ethnographic study exploring aspiration and imagined futures in urban public/state schools in NYC and London. Find out more at the project blog. This project is also connected to Patrick’s research project with Professor Graham Butt exploring aspiration and imagined futures in rural and urban contexts in the UK. Patrick is a Research Fellow at the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology, University of Oxford, and he is also an active member of the Anthropology of Childhood and Youth Special Interest Group of the American Anthropological Association. Prior to joining Oxford Brookes Patrick was a College Lecturer in Social Anthropology at the University of Oxford (St. Hugh’s College), and a researcher in the Oxford University Department of Education working on a range of projects related to aspiration and social identity. Follow Patrick on twitter here.


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

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