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Carving out a Niche for Anthropology & Aging

Kao Postdoc By Phil Kao, PhD, Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh, Co-Editor of Anthropology & Aging

Anthropology & Aging’s recent move to an open-access platform allows scholars from across a wide range of disciplines to convene and engage with the latest trends taking shape in aging studies and sociocultural anthropology.

Since the halcyon days of anthropology, particularly during the intellectual period where structural functionalism reigned supreme as the go to model for British social anthropology, ethnographers have sought knowledge from informants representing various generations and age grade/sets.  For many, the older members of society provided a unique window through which to investigate tradition, ritual and myth. Godfrey Lienhardt, for example, would not have been able to capture the meaning of life and death, and thus the structure and belief system of the Dinka without tending to the elderly masters of the fishing spear and their (un)timely fates.

Yet, throughout the twentieth century, the focus on aging in anthropology has occupied a relatively small backwater within the discipline.  Ethnographers of all brands, still manage to raise doubts: “If you conduct ‘proper’ fieldwork, and if society and social relations within a community are your target, then issues of aging, the ‘status’ of the elderly (however conceived), and kinship as historical systems should make any focus on aging as a separate treatment redundant. Fair enough, but in the last decades of the twentieth century, the terrain began to shift.  New cultural forms, experiences and communities required novel methodologies and collaborations. Notwithstanding the long and ambivalent relationship between sociology and anthropology in the American academy, ‘classic’ works including Barbara Myerhoff’s ‘Number Our Days’, Jaber F. Gubrium’s ‘Dying at Murray Manor’, and even the earlier publication of Jules Henry’s ‘Culture Against Man’, became touchstones for many anthropologists researching and writing about aging in the western context. After the politics of writing culture and knowledge, anthropologists of/at home have sought refuge and encouragement to think critically about gerontological issues.

With the onset or at least the alarmist reactions surrounding ‘aging societies’  in places like Japan, Germany, and Denmark, anthropologists from around the world have looked to aging as a fruitful window of opportunity to investigate ‘our’ analytical categories, including: kinship, the life course, ritual, sociality and personhood. This perspective brought renewed interest to the study of aging, yet it was still rare for anthropologists to be noticed in the new field of social gerontology where other disciplines had already established themselves. This too, however, is beginning to change. The effects of population aging and generational changes in areas both inside and outside OECD have spawned a sense of urgency to think anthropologically about issues extending beyond the plight of the elderly, encompassing such topics as the local and political economic processes that (re)produce marginality, disability and the ontologies of the social welfare state.

It is within this spirit that Anthropology & Aging wishes to carve out a critical and particular niche. The tide has already begun to turn; a quick query of the latest AAA program offers up a bountiful number of sessions and papers dealing with aging and anthropology around the world.  And the numbers will no doubt keep growing over the foreseeable future.   To give the reader just a broad taste, session topics in this year’s AAA (2014) deal with allostatic load (senescence); the relation between frailty and health in various communities; aging and social demography; care; migration; ontologies of aging; sociality among the elderly; the moral and political components of aging ‘well’; et al.  Internationally speaking, aging studies have garnered particular attention from policy makers and social scientists.  One exciting and culturally resonate theme arising today has to deal with communities of care.  Not only is the United States experimenting with various kinds and brands of long-term care facilities, but societies are innovating new forms of communal arrangements and networks of support for their elderly.  Cities, housing structures, labor economics, and even technoscapes are starting to consider how the elderly can contribute and fit into an environment that is intergenerational and age-friendly.

Although research articles occupy central stage in our journal, submissions from non-anthropologists and submissions in the form of research reports, commentaries, policy, news, and book reviews dealing with both anthropology and aging allow us to create an online intellectual space.  We hope this transforms into a practiced space,  in the spirit of Michel de Certeau, where scholars can participate in producing a polyvalent forum for debate, analyses, and new methodologies and anthropological theories.   Anthropology & Aging, therefore, seeks to collect research on people’s social experiences of and in late life, paying particular attention to cultural forms that emerge as people age, live longer, and create relations of support, meaning and networks in the 21st century.

In the long and short of it, this is an exciting time. Anthropology & Aging’s aim is to support researchers who want to investigate aging in society, not as (yet another) topical sub-section of cultural anthropology, but as an intellectual subject worthy in and of itself; one able to engage not only mainstream anthropology, but also all the other scholars who view aging as a complex process that cannot be broken down into convenient categories or narratives.  We hope this journal offers a space where scholars can venture to float new hypotheses, leaving behind conventional and institutional commitments. Our hearts and minds are out there, like the rest of the world, waiting to be discovered and engaged with.

CLICK HERE to go to the new Anthropology & Aging Journal site and register as a reader or author

Review: Collaborative Autoethnography (Chang, Heewon, Faith Wambura Ngunjiri, and Kathy-Ann C. Hernandez)

Chang,  Heewon, Faith Wambura Ngunjiri, and Kathy-Ann C. Hernandez. Collaborative Autoethnography. Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press.  2013. ISBN 978-1-59874-556-6  200 pp. Price $34.95 (paper)

Heewon Chang, Faith Wambura Ngunjiri, and Kathy-Ann Hernandez have collaborated to produce  Collaborative Autoethnography.  Coll-aborative Autoethnography (CAE) is a further elaboration of Autoethnography (AE). Researchers in both approaches see themselves as both the subject/informant of the research and the analyst of that research.  In CAE, the researcher/subject is part of a team that collects and analyzes her/his data.    This book is a review of past research in terms of methodology and a handbook on how to do collaborative research.

The authors place CAE and AE in terms of an evolving field of theoretical interest.  Researchers themselves have personal and professional lives that are situated in their institutions and culture(s).  AE (as well as CAE) allows the researcher/subject to turn a lens (p.22—their word) on her/his own life as well as the larger society.

AE has addressed abortions, pregnancy, death and grief, and sexual abuse, among other topics (pp.19-20.)  The book’s authors agree with other students of AE that while rich in data, more can be gained by a more collaborative approach.  Collaborative approaches allow for more depth as well as personal and community building.  At minimum, a collaboration can be two people—the researcher/subject and another researcher. They propose an ideal team of at least one more member.

CAE can focus on traditional academic concerns, with a single or several research focuses.  It can also extend to performance art, wherein “…autoethnographies are written as theater scripts… [or as] a series of poetry, or performance narratives… (p.51.)”  In terms of AAGE’s mission on aging, I can see many places where CAE can be used. A few “personal” examples come to mind.  People are doing “Story” projects in many communities.  Often located in museums or libraries, a person tells her/his story.  Teams of collaborators, whether professionals and/or non-professionals trained by professionals, can engage a person or several people to tell their life stories in greater depth.  Several years ago I taught a discussion class on “Generations” through our local junior college’s Older Adults Program. The discussion group was based in a nursing home.  It could have easily been based in a senior center as well.  The participants  reviewed their lives, providing wonderful information on their similarities and differences according to all our “standard” kinds of foci—gender, class, education, region, job, religion, sexual preference, and so on.  The data were rich and could easily be used to add to histories of different periods. Moreover, the data were enriched by each participant’s interaction with the others when they questioned or reaffirmed or remembered something or some events another had not.   Hopefully, we can find issues worthy of study that we had not expected as well.

As for academic collaborative teams, the authors contend that they  work best when the participants are located where they can have continued social interaction.  They are located in the same city.  They meet for coffee, lunch, dinner, and other events and they meet over time.  In terms of proposed methodologies, they suggest different models of collaboration, which can offer differing degrees of complexity. It would be interesting to see what kinds of data and studies can be gained by on-line collaboration or a mixture of the two.  As noted above, it may be possible to add that to the repertoire of CAE for older people that they can do by themselves or with some help.

As they lay out their models for research and their places in theory, they note that many of the studies involve women in the academy, immigrant experiences, and people of color.  They situate themselves in all the above ways and especially in terms of motherhood (pp.185-6.)  The authors build upon both feminist theory and feminist critique and the whole field of qualitative research.  The ends they seek say it all: “It [CAE] is a transforming process that allows scholars to build community, advance scholarship, engage in social activism, and become empowered in their social context (p.148.)  What makes this book  even more interesting is that as the authors lay out their formulations, they share relevant anecdotes about their own lives.

The authors also address some of the dilemmas this kind of fieldwork entails.  One always has to ask:  How much should I reveal about myself?  How much should I reveal about others—especially without their consent?  How should I present my data?  They recognize that collaboration helps reveal issues that are not always apparent to the subject (p.28.)  Lastly, they see the research process as supportive for the person studied as she experiences or re-experiences trauma or a difficult situation (p.30.)

I have several suggestions for the book.  First, I think the title should have been Collaborative Autoethnography: A Handbook. That makes it clearer as to what the book is about.  Second, the authors should tie their research into other related research about the psychology and anthropology of fieldwork experiences, (cf. Davies and Spencer  2010.)  Third, in terms of my self-disclosure about my comments, I am an anthropologist as well as a licensed psychologist. I would have liked to see much more of a discussion of the handling of trauma and denial, among other psychological issues (e.g., p.29.)  In sum, I would strongly recommend this book for those unfamiliar with this emerging field and who want to do this kind of valuable research.

Davies, James and Dimitrina Spencer. 2010 Emotions in the Field: The Psychology and Anthropology of fieldwork Experience. Stanford, California: Stanford University Press.

Richard Zimmer   
Sonoma State University


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Portfolio: Argentine Tango: Social dance health ‘to’ you, text and photos Jonathan Skinner

Anthropology & Aging Quarterly Volume 34, issue 4 (April 2014) pp.260-263

Argentine Tango: social dance health ‘to’ you

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These three photos evoke the plaint of life. They are a static portrait of Argentine tango dancers mid-movement. This is life and action frozen and memorialized from a long-awaited Christmas party in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Unlike Julie Taylor’s (2001) succession of mini-tango moves in her ethnography of tango and Argentina, a choreography by flipping, there is only the hint or trace of movement in these photos: the legs in open position with torque on the body, a shoelace working its way free; couples in closed embrace, the leader with motility, the partner with either open or closed eyes, primed to follow their initiations. There is longevity in the pictures from the detail of the marriage rings to the wrinkles on faces solemn with the dance, concentrating but also flowing with solace – ‘relaxed responsiveness’ as Richard Powers (2013) puts it.
Dance – described by Spencer (1) as that ‘nonutilitarian patterned movement’ – can be cathartic, controlling, competitive, communitarian as well as sustaining, maintaining and self-generating. There is solidarity amongst dancers, regularity in the order of attending, learning and performing a dance, and mutual self-affirming of an ontology of being-in-the-world each night when one dons one’s dance clothes and horns a pair of dance shoes. Leslie Gotfrit (1988) speaks to the nostalgia and longing of a bygone body in women reclaiming theirselves on the boogie floor. The same can be said of the tango couple, rejuvenating under the Christmas decorations. There is familiarity and comfort in the sociality of the Other in one’s arms, often a life partner of decades moving with you, reassuring walking as one. “I dance to you”: the ‘to’ a linking narrative and a metaphor for corporeal intimacy in the eyes of Judith Hamera’s (2001) appropriation of Irigaray-ian philosophy.
‘Indistinction’ is how Jonathan Bollen (2001) phrases it as the dancers lean in, support each other, and begin to move in an improvised script to a music from a far-away land and a far-away time. In this case, social dance transports us to Argentina in the 1940s. In the beating of the hearts, and the fleetness of the feet, and the alert anti-clockwise lead around the room, there is wellbeing. Solace seeps up through the motile feet and calm descends from a labile imagination.  Argentine tango, a self-selecting social dance, affects the dancers – variously, an anti-psychotic (Anon. 2013), a stabilizer for Parkinson’s (Hackney et al 2007), an omni-therapy (Woodley and Sotelano 2011). These are just some of the benefits of this genre of social dancing. Other social social dancing such as ballroom dancing also has its strengths as a form of ‘serious leisure’ (Stebbins 2006) – a personal vehicle for successful ageing (Skinner 2013) – and can retain muscle density and stave off social isolation amongst other benefits. But Argentine Tango has the ‘Healing Embrace’ (Berve 2008): it is a resting place for the active. Those interested in more tango visuals and in following up on the worth of tango in the medical setting can follow this link to the annual ‘All of Us Are Crazy for Tango’ programe put on by Hospital Borda in Buenos Aires.
Wherever danced – from Buenos Aires to Belfast, and carrying whatever condition – from physical to mental health issues, this dance addiction can become a boon and adjunct to other fracturing and faltering rhythms in life.
Dr Jonathan Skinner
University of Roehampton
2013 The “tango therapy,” very special treatment hospitals in Argentina. http://www.pineywoodsghosttours.com/the-tango-therapy-very-special-treatment-hospitals-in-argentina.html, accessed 29 December.
Berve, Anette
2008 Tango Therapy: The Healing Embrace. The Argentina Independent, 1 August, http://www.argentinaindependent.com/life-style/society-life-style/tango-therapy-the-healing-embrace/, accessed 6 February 2014.
Bollen, Jonathan
2001 Queer Kinesthesia: Performativity on the Dance Floor. In Dancing Desires: Choreographing Sexualities On and Off the Stage. J. Desmond ed. Pp. 285-314. Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin Press.
Gotfrit, Leslie
1988 Women Dancing Back: Disruption and the Politics of Pleasure. Journal of Education 170(3): 122-141.
Hackney, M. E., Kantorovich, S., Levin, R., and Gammon, M.
2007 Effects of tango on functional mobility in Parkinson’s disease: A preliminary study. Journal of Neurologic Physical Therapy 31(4): 173-179. See more at: http://www.ncpad.org/624/2589/Effects~of~Tango~on~Functional~Mobility~in~Parkinson~s~Disease#sthash.PH5TXpsQ.dpuf.
Hamera, Judith
2001 I Dance To you: Reflections on Irigaray’s I Love To You in Pilates and Virtuosity. Cultural Studies 15(2): 229-240.
Powers, Richard
2013 Great Partnering. http://socialdance.stanford.edu/syllabi/partnering.htm, accessed 29 December.
Skinner, Jonathan
2013 Social Dance for Successful Aging: The Practice of Health, Happiness, and Social Inclusion Amongst Senior Citizens. Anthropology & Aging Quarterly 34(1): 18-29.
Stebbins, Robert A.
2006 Serious Leisure: A Perspective For Our Time. Piscataway, NJ: Transaction Publishers.
Taylor, Julie
2001 Paper Tangos. Durham: Duke University.
Woodley, Karen and Sotelano, Martin
2011 Tango Therapy 2, Research and Practice. Cardiff: Lulu.com/Tango Creations.

Note from the Editor-in-Chief

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As Editor-in-Chief of Anthropology & Aging Quarterly, I am proud to announce that our journal has finally completed preparation to take the bold step into the world of open-access digital publishing. Beginning with Volume 35 (the next issue), Anthropology & Aging Quarterly will be published by University Library Systems (a non-profit corporation) through the University of Pittsburgh. It will join other ejournals that our readership may be already familiar with in the D-Scribe Digital Publishing Program such as Ethnology and Health Culture and Society. We will work with the ULS and Pitt to partner with abstracting, indexing, and discovery service providers to increase our visibility.

Our contributors, peer reviewers, and staff all put a great deal of effort into the content of AAQ, and I am impressed with the quality of the results with every issue. One need only look at this current issue, featuring new contributions from three prominent anthropologists on three continents to find and example of the kind of rigor and dedication we value. This is work that can inspire anthropologists, social gerontologists, and others in related fields to engage as a community to expand our base of empirical knowledge on global aging, and explore new theoretical frames and concepts. We do this work because we believe it is important, and our new digital format will make this work freely available and readily accessible to the world. For more on open-access in social science research, I highly suggest the Society for Cultural Anthropology’s free podcast “Can Scholarship Be Free to Read.”

As we make our transition to this new format, many things will remain the same: our mission to create a global forum for the exchange of knowledge, our rigorous double-blind peer-review process, our commitment to publishing work that is original, diverse and engaging. Contributions will be protected under the Creative Commons Copyright attribution 3.0, and neither AAGE nor the University of Pittsburgh will have publication or reprint rights without author agreement. There will be no hefty publication fee as there are with many other open-access journals, but we will require all contributors to be members of AAGE.

Other things will change, beginning with the number of issues published per annum, and consequently the journal’s name. Beginning with Volume 35, the journal will be published twice per annum, and will drop “Quarterly” from its title. In an informal poll of members, “Anthropology & Aging” was the most preferred new title. Other changes will include a streamlined review system, search functions, ability to include new forms of media, and greater interactivity. We have also expanded our editorial advisory board by seven members, including scholars based in Japan, Demark, Canada, and the US.
Finally, AAQ would like to encourage student readers to submit essays for the revived Margaret Clark Award. Anthropology & Aging will have the right of first refusal for the winners of this award, which, together with workshops and conference events, is a key way that the journal remains intertwined with the ongoing activities of AAGE.

To be sure, this new step means new challenges and a lot of work to be sustainable. AAGE members will remain key, but keeping the journal vibrant will depend on growing our network and building relationships. We hope that the journal will present new opportunities to meet our challenges and build our strengths.

Thank you to all who have helped AAQ reach this point. Looking forward to your submissions.

Jason Danely, Editor-in-Chief Anthropology & Aging Quarterly

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Review: Transitions & Transformations: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course (Lynch, Caitrin & Danely, Jason, Eds.)

Lynch, Caitrin & Danely, Jason, Eds. Transitions & Transformation: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course. New York, NY: Berghahn Books.  2013. ISBN978-0-85745-778-3 272 pp Price $95.00/£60.00 (Hardback)

Transitions & Transformation: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course, officially launches Berghahn Books new book series, entitled Life Course, Culture and Aging: Global Transformations  (series editor is Jay Sokolovsky), that proposes to focus on aging and the life course in anthropology. This is a welcome addition to the growing literature on cross-cultural aging that applies creative and multifaceted approaches of anthropological analysis and inquiry to the wonderfully complex subject of age. While firmly situated within the global urgency of burgeoning numbers of aged individuals worldwide, the chapters in this volume resist the panic trope so often summoned in usual representations of the squaring of age pyramids and ominous dependency ratios that preference doom and ruin over dynamic cultural identities and innovative human strategies. The anthropological stance is uniquely well suited to tackling individual and larger social issues embedded in changing cultural norms and practices, and nuanced treatments of aging across the globe are featured in this volume. Focusing on on-the-ground situations within specific cultural contexts, important issues are discussed in the well-written, lively and varied collection of articles displayed here. How to embed meaning, recognize personhood and respect relationships in later years is a strong theme of the volume.
In the initial section that introduces the essays of this book, the editors describe their dynamic approach of “transitions and transformations.” In the papers that follow, relationships and changes, the interactions of individual, family, and society through time and flux are highlighted. The chapters claim a connection with earlier anthropological collections that focus on diversity and creativity; at the same time, the articles purport to depart from “reductionistic uses of cultural diversity as points on a scatter-plot” (p 5) and argue for enhanced cross-disciplinary inquiry. Organized in sections titled, “Frameworks,” “Bodies,” “Spatiality and Temporality,” “Families,” and “Economies,” the chapters consider an important variety of issues and provide insights to extend the existing literature. An Afterword by Jennifer Cole that focuses on importance of including cross-generational analysis rounds out the volume.
“Frameworks” includes the introductory chapter by the editors that describes the approach of the book, places the volume in historical context of anthropological writings on age, highlights the importance of the “life course” approach to studies of age, and provides brief summaries of the chapters and their relationship to the unifying thread of the book. Following this introduction, Mary Catherine Bateson updates Erickson’s developmental stages with “Adulthood II,” a phase of life she characterizes as showcasing “active wisdom.” She considers the necessity of this stage in light of global aging and the expanded period of time of healthy aging so prevalent today in industrialized nations. Many of the chapters in this volume echo Ericksonian principles of development and psychological growth over time.
Section II contains chapters that explore the notion of “Bodies” by presenting varied and lively accounts of different subjects rooted in universal biological processes and situated in specific cultural contexts. These chapters examine how individuals cope with chronic pain at different ages in a clinic in the United States and use strategies to construct continuity challenged by the disruption to identify caused by pain (Lindsey Martin); how Chinese middle-aged women construct their experiences with menopause (gengnianqi) to explain and protest through “irritability” and “venting anger” their individual perspectives on growing older in a rapidly changing China (Jeanne Shea);  and how men both young and older describe reaction against and identification with traditional and changing notions of what it means to be masculine and Mexican in a rapidly modernizing Mexico (Emily Wentzell).
Section III, “Spatiality and Temporality,” explores the intersection of time and identity and notions of place in relation to individual aging. Jessica Robbins examines the intimate and intricate connection between the national and personal “moral ideal” of identity in Poland, how suffering in old age is entangled with victimization throughout Polish history, and the relationship between kin nearby and abroad.  Frances Norwood uses the Dutch window bridging the public and private spheres of life as a metaphor to showcase cultural notions and intense “euthanasia talk,” inspired by the rarely enacted legal choice to die. Jason Danely’s treatment of the temporal world of older Japanese notes individuals’ connections “involving mutual recognition with unseen spirits and invisible worlds that structure memories, aspirations, and emotions” (p109). Narratives of older Japanese individuals as well as various common phrases and sayings emphasize interdependence and exchange across time and place.
The fourth section of the book focuses on “Families,” and its three chapters explore caregiving by Azorean women in Brazil (Diane De G. Brown), Puerto Rican grandmothers who care for their grandchildren in Boston (Marta B. Rodríguez-Galan), and how in Sri Lanka, complex notions of reciprocity in debt and obligation among generations are displayed in changing and discrepant attitudes about using care institutions for older individuals when they become dependent. These chapters, like others in the volume, include vivid quotes, elicit cultural values, provide national context and specific circumstances, and situate the authors in their ethnographic accounts.
The final section, called “Economies,” includes chapters on the conflicting meanings attributed to the rise of eldercare institutions in India (Sarah Lamb), how best to provide seva (respectful service or care) to elderly individuals and manage the dilemmas of these sparring narratives embedded in “the project of being human” (p177). Membership and mattering are prime concerns of the elderly factory workers discussed in Caitrin Lynch’s lively chapter. These workers choose to continue to work, maintain friendships within the factory and thereby preserve a viable identity that seems to cushion old age. It is reminiscent of my ethnographic exploration of elderly New York diamond dealers who find satisfaction and meaning by working whenever possible into their 90s (Shield, 2002). The fascinating chapter by Jane Guyer and Kabiru Salami describes notions of indebtedness and responsibility examined from the perspectives of their separate studies over decades in rural Nigeria. Again, mutuality and interdependence are stressed in how changing contexts reframe the meanings of finances, old age, and worth. Finally, Jennifer Cole’s “Afterword” explores the important notion of generations within the heterogeneity of age and youth. She warns against the “synoptic illusion” and reductionism of definitional shortcuts that stereotype and damage dynamic differences among ages.
This volume is full of good writing, lively situations, some wonderful photos, revealing quotes and stimulating ideas. Its readability makes it appealing as a text to be used widely in the undergraduate/graduate classroom. A brief introduction to each section would have been a good addition as another opportunity to remind the reader of key unifying themes. Still to be explored by anthropologists are their own relationships to their aging and the subjects with whom they interact, a point I’ve argued elsewhere (Shield 2003). A concern is that the volume claims a radical distinction from prior anthropological works on aging considered static and totalizing in contrast. This argument privileges new contributions without fully recognizing some important precedents such as the “life’s career-aging” examination by Myerhoff and Simić (1978), for example. Here  the authors attempt “in their analysis of aging to reconcile its culturally stable aspects with its dynamic dimensions conceiving of each particular cultural niche as a distinct and unique resource subject to manipulation and individual interpretation and misinterpretation” (1978: 231). Of course, each generation has the challenge of recognizing its own myopia in thinking itself unique as it discovers and rediscovers these insights. These concerns aside, the current volume makes for excellent reading and launches the new Berghahn book series admirably.
Myerhoff, BG and Simić, A. 1978. Life’s Career-Aging: Cultural Variations on Growing Old. New York: Sage.
Shield R. 2002. Diamond Stories: Enduring Change on 47th Street. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (Paperback issued 2005).
Shield R. 2003. Wary partners: Dynamics of interactions between nursing assistants and family members in nursing homes.  In Stafford P (Ed.) Gray Areas: Ethnographic Encounters with Nursing Home Culture. Santa Fe (NM): SAR Press.

Renée Rose Shield, PhD
Professor of Health Services, Policy & Practice (Clinical)
Brown University


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Heterotopia and Illness: Older women and Hypertension in a Brazilian Favela- Annette Leibing

Heterotopia and Illness: Older women and Hypertension in a Brazilian Favela

Annette Leibing, PhD
Professor of Medical Anthropology
Faculty of Nursing
Université de Montreal

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This article is about older women and the way hypertension is linked to their life in a favela, a “shantytown”, in Rio de Janeiro. Inspired by Foucault, I suggest calling this complex phenomenon ‘heterotopic illness’. By calling attention to the importance of place for understanding certain illnesses, the limited usefulness of some public health prevention campaigns is shown. Since hypertension can be considered a “disease of aging”, it will be argued that some place-related stressors often have a greater impact on seniors than they have on younger adults.

Keywords: Heterotopic illness, favela, Brazil, place, hypertension, aging.

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Leibing, Annette. 2014. Heterotopia and Illness: Older women and Hypertension in a Brazilian Favela. Anthropology & Aging Quarterly 34(4): 225-237.

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Aging, Gender and Sexuality in Brazilian Society- Guita Grin Debert

Aging, Gender and Sexuality in Brazilian Society

Guita Grin Debert, PhD
Full Professor, Department of Anthropology Institute of Philosophy and Human Sciences
Universidade Estadual de Campinas

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Drawing on the interplay between gender, aging, and sexuality, the aim of this article is twofold: (1) to show how Brazilian gerontologists treat gender differences and sexual activity in old age; (2) to analyze the  ways  discourses regarding the aging body and sexuality are perceived and evaluated by older women and men . I argue that  attempts of gerontologists’ to eroticize old age have to contend with the widespread notion that the desire for sex is inevitably lost with age. Thus, in the retiree associations that were studied, men had a tendency to assume they are not ‘old’ because their erectile function was still in good condition, and divorced or widowed women, in senior citizen associations, tend to regard themselves as happy due to having freed themselves from the sexual obligations imposed by marriage. In both cases, the dominant belief that there is a loss of sexual desire in old age was reproduced.

Keywords: sexuality, gender, aging, Brazilian gerontology, sexology

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Debert, Guita Grin. 2014. Aging, Gender and Sexuality in Brazilian Society. Anthropology & Aging Quarterly 34(4): 238-245.

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Surgery-for-Life: Aging, Sexual Fitness and Self-Management in Brazil – Alexander Edmonds

Surgery-for-Life: Aging, Sexual Fitness and Self-Management in Brazil

Alexander Edmonds
Professor of Social and Medical Anthropology
University of Edinburgh

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This article draws on ethnographic fieldwork on plastic surgery to explore tensions in aging norms and ideals for women in Brazil.  I situate my analysis in relation to debates about a “de-chronologized life course.”  Some scholars argue that the life course in late capitalism has become less standardized.  In this account, chronological age diminishes in importance as consumers are defined by life style choices available to all ages and the period of youth extends into middle age and beyond.  In Brazil consumers embrace plastic surgery as a means to “manage” aging, mental well-being, and reproductive and sexual health.  This promise of a flexible and optimized aging trajectory seems to echo the notion of a de-chronologized life course.  I argue, however, that medical discourse and patients’ accounts show ambivalence about aging and conflicts in the ideal of medically-managed sexual fitness for women.  Drawing on analysis of changes in family structure and women’s health regimes, I argue that passage through the life course, rather than becoming more flexible, is in some ways becoming more rigidly defined by biological processes.

Keywords: Aging, plastic surgery, de-chronologized life course, sexual fitness, self-management

Cite as:

Edmonds, Alexander. 2014. Surgery-for-Life: Aging, Sexual Fitness and Self-Management in Brazil. Anthropology & Aging Quarterly 34 (4): 246-259.

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Review: Health Promotion and Aging: Practical Application for Health Professionals (David Haber)

Haber, David. Health Promotion and Aging:  Practical Application for Health Professionals. New York, NY: Springer Publishing Company. 2013. ISBN978-0-8261-9917-1, 536 pp. Price $90 (Paper)

Dr. Haber’s text delivers exactly what the title says and more.  Like most books on aging, this book begins with a demographic perspective of aging in the Unites States.  It then moves onto a clinical perspective of the current state of health (or disease based on your perception) in older adults.  The book continues with a frank discussion of how we as helping professionals should focus on wellness vs. health care (or disease management, again based on your interpretation of the health care system).  The text provides examples of evidenced based practical applications of wellness that can be utilized by gerontologists, public health professionals and everyone in between who works with older adults.  The book ends with a look at the ever changing public policies and programs for older adults such as Medicare, Social Security, and the Affordable Health Care Act.  The final chapter provides words of wisdom, ideas, and hope for the future to continue to serve and care for the growing older adult population.  One can only hope that policy makers have a copy of this book on their shelves and take Dr. Haber’s words to heart.
Health Promotion and Aging is now one of my favorite books and I look forward to using it in class.  It takes many of my interests in the professions of gerontology and public health and combines them all in one book.  This is perfect for the jack of trades professional.  Every health educator, health care administrator, and community planner could benefit from the research and application examples described in this text.  This is the perfect “crossover” text for the public health professional who says they don’t work with older adults and the gerontologist who says they don’t focus on health care.  This book provides a “big picture” look at our society and how we plan (or have not planned) to meet the needs of the fastest growing segment of our population.  This would be an excellent text for an applied gerontology course.  It provides valuable examples for future professionals in the world of recreation, wellness, and administration for older adults.
As a former senior center director, I particularly liked chapter 13, where Dr. Haber provides five unique career paths for students.  The first one, being to redesign existing senior centers as wellness centers.  This book would have been a great asset to assist me in new program development.  As an instructor, this book provides examples for future service-learning projects.  Dr. Haber provides ideas for new programs using evidenced based practices and a good amount of detail to write the policies and procedures (if not the actual procedure) to get a new project off the ground without having to reinvent the wheel.  As a bonus, Dr. Haber provides suggestions on agencies for community collaborations.
I found the author’s writing style particularly engaging.  While reading the text, I felt as if Dr. Haber were speaking to me as if we were old friends or colleagues.  I enjoyed reading his personal insights and thoughts even in areas of the text I would have been tempted to skim just to read what his impression was of a particular topic or situation.
There is a wealth of history along with current events described in the text.  For those of us who have been around, I really liked how Dr. Haber provided “then and now” examples.  For example in chapter five, Dr. Haber describes the USDA’s new program MyPlate vs. MyPyramid in teaching about balanced meal planning.  In chapter four he provides examples of the Surgeon Generals recommendation for activity that used to focus on targeted heart rates and now focuses on the accumulation of activity most days of the week and explains why we changed from one method to another.  If there is a weakness in the book, I have not found it, unless you are not a fan of Dr. Haber’s style of humor and blunt honesty.

Jennifer A. Wagner, MPH, LNHA
Bowling Green State University
Gerontology Program


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Review: Gray Panthers (Roger Sanjek)

Sanjek, Roger.  Gray Panthers. University of Pennsylvania Press.  320 pp.Cloth 2009  ISBN 978-0-8122-4137-2 , $65.00; Paper 2011, ISBN 978-0-8122-2191-6  $26.50; Ebook 2011, ISBN 978-0-8122-0351-6,$26.50

Studies of elder activism are rare indeed.  Much more so the kind of rich and detailed account which veteran anthropologist and activist Roger Sanjek offers us here.  Gray Panthers has much to give those interested in older people, not just because of the quality of the study itself, but also because the Panthers to whom we are introduced are themselves experts on aging from whom we need to learn.
Some professor once taught me that  the test of a good ethnography was the degree to which the data it presented could enable another scholar to re-anaylze it to answer different questions.  I was reminded of this criteria as I read Gray Panthers.  The careful study of the emblematic activist organization is rich enough in data to speak to a dozen different research agendas: relating to the history of left politics in the United States, the activism of older people, social movement organizing, leadership and gender, ideas about older people, intergenerational politics, and insider anthropology, among others. The life history of a social movement, Gray Panthers traces the story of the eponymous organization from the moment of the group’s inception in 1971 in a fight against mandatory retirement and the ageism it represented.  The group grew to represent the interests of older Americans in a variety of ways: denouncing living conditions in nursing homes, unethical practices in the hearing aid industry (in collaboration with Ralph Nader), media portrayals of older people, for example.   Yet, it has been much more than that.  It’s slogan, “Age and Youth in Action,” signals the group’s intergenerational philosophy.  It took up pressing social justice issues of the moment, including the war in Viet Nam, public health care, sexism and racism.  It is to this larger critique that the group owes its name, an intentional reference to the Black Panthers. The story spans several decades and many states, including specific chapters focusing on the Panthers in Berkeley, New York, and Washington.  (Sanjek originally encountered the Panthers in Berkeley in 1977.  He and his wife both became personally involved with the Panthers.  The author only later took up the group as an object of study.)  The account continues through the organizations various ups and downs, including internal conflict, and the death of its found Maggie Kuhn in 1995, to the time of writing.
For scholars interested in aging, the book is doubly fruitful.  There is much to learn about how older people organize and do politics.  Most striking perhaps is the symbolic politics which the Panthers were so good at: intentionally interrupting mainstream views of older people and aging by doing “outrageous” things.  Another important question for older activists is time.  In Gray Panthers, we see this particular relation to time in at least three ways.  First, older people are often retired, thus have more time available to dedicate to their causes.  Second, older people also benefit from long experience and extensive networks.  Once and again in Gray Panthers we see how members make use of expertise and contacts acquired in earlier stages of their lives.  One of the most personally compelling aspects for this reader was the way the Panthers connect us to earlier activist movements and political struggles that have been all but forgotten in US political memory — in particular the pre-cold war left traditions.  Third, the activists and their organization have to contend with the fact they are nearer the end of their lives, than the beginning.  This can create a sense of urgency, that time is limited. It also creates practical challenges for political organizing.  Experienced and knowledgeable members are more likely than their younger counterparts to be sidelined by illness, or even to die.  The particular strengths of and challenges faced by the elder activists here can thus inform our understanding of the third age more generally.
In sum, Gray Panthers is a book that needed to be written.  Evidently Sanjek was the man for the job.  The Panthers have played an important role in redefining what it means to be old.   This book both describes and continues that project.

Lindsay DuBois
Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology
Dalhousie University


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