Tag Archives: life course

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

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!

“Not in His Right Mind”: The Life course of Adoptees Diagnosed with Reactive Attachment Disorder in the United States

Not-right-mind

By Rachael Stryker

In spring 2010, Tennessee adoptive mother, Torry Ann Hansen, sent her seven-year-old adopted son, Artyom (Justin) Savelyev, back to his native country of Russia with a note that effectively said “Return to Sender.” Her reasons? That the child was “not in his right mind,” “violent,” and “mentally unstable” (Batty 2010). In the weeks that followed, the world witnessed a twisted version of “he said/she said” as government officials in Russia and the U.S. attempted to determine exactly what went wrong with Savelyev’s placement. Even months later,  the rhetoric would prioritize saving political face within economic and diplomatic relations, rather than addressing those factors associated with international adoption pathways that would drive a mother to send her adoptive son back to his sending country (Loiko 2013).

Continue reading

The Importance of ‘Blood,’ Identity, and Intergenerational Relationships over the Life Course of Ugandan Children Orphaned by AIDS

Photograph by Kristen Cheney. Please do not reproduce without permission

 

“They are my daughter’s blood. I couldn’t watch my blood suffer,” an elderly grandmother in Uganda told me. She was referring to her daughter’s four orphaned children, explaining why she refused to allow the children to go live with their father’s clan – the clan that is traditionally responsible for the upbringing of orphaned children.

In my forthcoming ethnography, Crying for Our Elders: African Orphanhood in the Age of HIV/AIDS (Cheney 2017), an intergenerational, life-course approach helped me examine the way AIDS orphanhood has influenced child circulation and dynamic processes of kinship construction in Uganda.  I trace the sometimes-contradictory social, economic, and emotional effects of orphan circulation within and across family networks, highlighting orphaned children’s concerns with identity that prompt intra-family mobility as they grow into adulthood. In doing so, I show how orphan care in the age of HIV/AIDS is consequently transforming both fosterage practices and kin obligation, potentially jeopardizing children’s well-being and their ability to identify with the ‘blood ties’ that still form powerful tropes of relatedness for them – in spite of, and sometimes because of, AIDS’ tainting of ‘blood’. Continue reading

Time and bodies in grandparenthood

Physical exercises as part of an NGO health programme to build older people's strength and independence in Kagera Region Tanzania (Photograph by author. Please do not reproduce without permission)

Physical exercises as part of an NGO health programme to build older people’s strength and independence in Kagera Region Tanzania (Photograph by author. Please do not reproduce without permission)

After more than a decade of following how the lives of grandparents and grandchildren – two different generations- in northwest Tanzania have unfolded, it is increasingly exciting to think with the concepts of time and the body. How does time play out in relations with grandchildren as they gradually grow up from toddlers to young children to adolescents and young adults? What is ‘grandparenthood’ about in these different life-stages?

Time has long been at the centre of intergenerational analysis in anthropology. We look at historical time in the Mannheimian sense: the particular era in which a set of people are born; or demographic time: household cycles over time. In ‘Lifetimes intertwined’(Whyte, Alber and Geissler 2004), a special issue of ‘Africa’ on grandparents and grandchildren, several scholars engaged with new approaches to kinship, based on time as lived with others, analysing how broader societal transformations play into this relation. At the same time, Julie Livingston reminds us of another ‘temporal perspective:  experiences of aging are explicitly ‘bio-social: not only situated in cultural realms but are also about the changing body and its local biology. Separately each of these perspectives provides a specific view on generations and experiences of aging. But what would happen if we bring these perspectives together?

I am currently exploring these questions through the write-up of fieldwork conducted in northwest Tanzania (de Klerk in preparation), reading through stories and interviews. One of them that I would like to share is Consolatha’s:

‘These are my children, they came to see the visitor (me), One is ailing, he is 61 and the other is 68. They are the children I still have, I lost seven children. I raised my grandchildren, eight of them. Three have left me [to start their own lives], but five of them also died. I was about 11 in the time of Chief Ruhinda (who died in 1936), I do not know my age. I lived a long life but a life full of grief. My children died in a short time of each other. The graves are there [she points to the land adjacent to the house where the dead are buried to ensure generational continuity]. We could not even finish one year and then someone had already died again. We had a big shamba [land], but I sold so many parts of it to take care of them. [..]. I remain with three grandchildren but they are not living here, they have left. One is learning to be a driver, in Bukoba, the other one is married and the third one is in Mwanza. They left recently and I do not know if they will assist me. I am now living with the son of my son over there and with the son of the child of my daughter over there. They stay for company. I also have a granddaughter. She is not really my granddaughter, we begged her from neighbours, she helps in cooking, water and washing clothes. My strength has gone because of my worries. But I was still strong when I was raising my grandchildren, I gave them food, took out the jiggers [chigoe flees], and I beat them if they did wrong. If you compare small grandchildren and big grandchildren there is a difference. The small ones, they really are a problem, they cry when they want food and are dirty all the time. Big grandchildren don’t do so. You have times when they refuse if you ask them to fetch firewood through.

The narrative of Consolatha, elicited through several questions around growing up and growing old with grandchildren, beautifully evoked the notion of time together as shared. In the rural area where I work, grandparents have always lived with grandchildren, and grandparenthood forms an intricate part of experiences of old age. As the ever changing nature of Consolatha’s household composition shows, grandchildren and greatgrandchildren move in and out at different life stages. But grandparenthood has also been transformed. Increasing numbers of grandchildren grow up with their grandparents as main providers, for reasons including – but not only pertaining to – the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Shared time is about the making of ‘relatedness through living together’. Consolatha’s story shows how the process of physical aging brings a dimension of physicality to these experiences of shared time. At different moments in the life course Consolatha reflects on her aging body and strength: physical strength is needed to provide food to hungry children, and wash them, but also to discipline adolescent children. In advanced old age her declining strength makes her reflect on the absence of specific grandchildren and the presence of others who do provide care, but also show us how the aging body is being reconceptualised at a particular historical moment of time.

This jumble of transformations and transitions (to borrow from Danely and Lynch) show how a focus on time and the body complicates our thinking about intergenerational relations and the ‘qualities’ of care throughout the life course. Not only do we need to look at how intergenerational relations and the conflict and closeness within them are being shaped at particular moments in time but also at how these intergenerational relations itself change through time in the process of growing up and growing old together.

 

Works cited:

Danely, J. and C. Lynch eds (2013) Transitions and Transformations: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course. New York: Berghahn Books.

De Klerk, J. Growing up and growing old together. Time and the joined life-course in northwest Tanzania (in preparation)

Whyte, S., E. Alber, W. Geissler (2004).Lifetimes intertwined: African Grandparents and Grandchildren. Africa 74(1): 1-5.

Josien de Klerk is a lecturer at Leiden University College, The Hague. She works on aging in the era of AIDS in Kenya and Tanzania, looking at informal care and self-care in the context of HIV. Her fieldwork is the basis of critical analysis of the politics around aging and care in the treatment-dominated AIDS landscape in East-Africa.

 

Read the companion to this post, The Importance of ‘Blood,’ Identity, and Intergenerational Relationships over the Life Course of Ugandan Children Orphaned by AIDS, by Kristen Cheney

 

 

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Futures Past: Absent Kinships and the Japanese Child Welfare System

Laundry hanging up to dry at a child welfare institution in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

Laundry hanging up to dry at a child welfare institution in the Tokyo metropolitan area. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

Assigned to write about “futures” in the context of childhood, I find myself dwelling on the past. Although approaches to childhood often must grapple with how “the child” is seen to signify the future (of a family, of a town, of a nation, of humanity), within child welfare systems, which are the context of my research, my interlocutors’ considerations of the future are inevitably inflected by their understandings of what has come before.

I conduct research in Japan, where children who cannot be cared for in their family of origin are generally cared for in institutions, sometimes for many years. Activists working for child welfare reform in Japan cite international children’s rights discourses and the science of child development and neurology to argue that institutional care indelibly damages state wards. Specifically, they argue that institutional care for infants is tantamount to violence, that children who receive this sort of state care are harmed by the parental state, that children raised in institutions will not be able to form attachment relationships with others (for example, HRW 2014). These arguments circulate as international scientific and popular discourses and are certainly not specific to Japan. They hinge on the understanding that “the child is father of the man”: that within an adult lives the former child, whose body and brain is shaped by caregiver labor. These understandings of child science posit a particular burden of responsibility on caregivers: “‘our’ input literally materializes the child-brain’s neural connections,” a project haunted by the ever-present possibility of failure (Castañeda 2002: 76, 77; see also Rose and Abi-Rached 2013). Underlying reformers’ claims about the developmental harms of institutional care is the logic that children’s pasts shape their future potential, claims authorized by expertise in child development and neuroscience. Despite deeply sympathizing with these child welfare reform efforts, I remain troubled by the pathologizing, deterministic, and often highly normative language that seems to be the only way that activists can gain attention—the ways they must represent past damage as determining a person’s future, using scientific “evidence” to bolster their claims (Goldfarb 2015). Emotional narratives of experience—the experiences of people who received state care—never seem quite compelling enough to induce policy change. Nuance, the complex relationship between past, present, and future, is lost in the shuffle. The meanings of “the future” for former state wards seem prescribed by past deprivation.

In contemporary Japan, social recognition, legal rights, and subjective identity are deeply entangled in a way that complicates simple understandings of the past’s relation to a livable future.

The kōnotori no yurikago” (“cradle of storks”) in Kumamoto, Japan, 2010. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

The kōnotori no yurikago” (“cradle of storks”) in Kumamoto, Japan, 2010. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

The past shows up in considerations of the future in other contexts, as well—particularly, the question of whether knowledge of the past is an important condition for meaningful life. Ethnographic studies of adoption highlight how the idea of a person’s family or nation of origin often exerts undeniable pull on that person, prompting investigations and sometimes visits (for example Howell 2006, Kim 2010, Yngvesson 2010). In Japan, I have been intrigued by one case that epitomizes the culturally specific gravity of origin stories, and the ways attention to origins is institutionalized in the Japanese family registry. In 2007, the Catholic Jikei hospital in the southern city of Kumamoto, Japan implemented the “kōnotori no yurikago” (pictured left)—the “cradle of storks”—or what quickly became known (to the hospital’s chagrin) as the “akachan pōsuto” or “baby drop box.” The yurikago had been publicized as a place where an infant could be anonymously and safely deposited without legal ramifications for the infant’s parents; the infant would later be placed for adoption. The issue of anonymity rapidly became a flashpoint for child welfare scholars and practitioners. While hospital representatives emphasized that anonymity was a crucial way to encourage safe relinquishment rather than infanticide, critical voices argued that anonymity benefited the parents but harmed the child, who would lack the knowledge about his or her origins central to being an “ordinary” person in Japanese society. Thus, while the child would indeed be alive (the counterfactual was, of course, impossible to prove), a child lacking all knowledge of origin—concretely, a child existing outside of a normal family registry—would not be a socially recognized person in some of the ways that matter most in contemporary Japan. So while the proponents of this child welfare mechanism argued that it is life-saving and the very condition of a child’s future, its detractors claimed that this saved life is denied a fundamental form of social being. Notably, children themselves did not contribute to this conversation. To me, this case exemplifies the tensions between understandings of a person’s past—as documented in a family registry, or made invisible and unknowable in the case of anonymous abandonment—and perceptions of a livable present and an imaginable future in Japan. Japanese family registry is sometimes understood as a base for identity (Krogness 2008), and those without knowledge of their family of origin may feel they lack a foundation for moving forward in life.

 

Toothbrushes lined up at a child welfare institution in the Kansai area of Japan. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

Toothbrushes lined up at a child welfare institution in the Kansai area of Japan. Photograph by Kathryn Goldfarb. Please do not reproduce without permission

In contemporary Japan, social recognition, legal rights, and subjective identity are deeply entangled in a way that complicates simple understandings of the past’s relation to a livable future. One of my interlocutors, now a man in his sixties, believed that he could not marry because he lacked knowledge of his origins; marriage, as he told his girlfriend, is between two households, and he did not belong to one. He had spent his entire childhood in a Japanese child welfare institution, and did not have a relationship with either his mother, who had lived in a psychiatric hospital, or his father, of whom he knew nothing. His girlfriend had scoffed at him, calling his thinking old-fashioned. “Marriage doesn’t have to be between two households these days,” she told him. “It is a contract between two people.” So the two decided to get married. My interlocutor, disconnected from a “genealogical grid” (Povinelli 2002), had never imagined himself as able to enter into a marriage precisely because of the lack of kinship network that would make a union of families possible. Unmoored from ancestors, he had been equally unmoored from future generations. However, his own ability to have a son, and foster another, allowed him to develop a new understanding of forward-oriented kinship ties that emerged from present-day intimacies. Self-reflexive attention to the future—the future family that might be made new out of nothing—animates the desires of many of my interlocutors who have decided to foster or adopt children in Japan (Goldfarb forthcoming). Their meditations on a future with children new to their family, children with their own past histories, illustrate how the past is not always a condition for future relational possibilities. For them, present-day investments and caregiving relationships are generative, transformative, and hopeful.

 

Works Cited:

Castañeda, Claudia. 2002. Figurations: Child, Bodies, Worlds. Durham: Duke University Press.

Goldfarb, Kathryn. 2015. “Developmental logics: Brain science, child welfare, and the ethics of engagement in Japan.” Social Science & Medicine 143:271-278.

Goldfarb, Kathryn. 2016. “‘Coming to look alike’: Materializing affinity in Japanese foster and adoptive care.” Social Analysis 60(2) (forthcoming).

Howell, Signe. 2006. The kinning of foreigners: Transnational adoption in a global perspective. New York: Berghahn Books.

Human Rights Watch. 2014. “Without Dreams: Children in Alternative Care in Japan.”

Kim, Eleana J. 2010. Adopted Territory: Transnational Korean Adoptees and the Politics of Belonging. Durham: Duke University Press.

Krogness, Karl Jakob. 2008. The Koseki System and ‘Koseki Consciousness’: An Exploration of the Development and Functions of the Modern Japanese Household Registration System and How it Influences Social Life. PhD dissertation, University of Copenhagen.

Povinelli, Elizabeth A. 2002. Notes on Gridlock: Genealogy, Intimacy, Sexuality. Public Culture 14(1): 215-238.

Rose, Nikolas and Joelle M. Abi-Rached. 2013. Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Yngvesson, Barbara. 2010. Belonging in an adopted world: Race, identity, and transnational adoption. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

 

 

Kathryn E. Goldfarb is an Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at the University of Colorado at Boulder. She is working on a book manuscript, entitled Relational Futures: Material Ties in Japanese State Care. Her research brings together kinship, medical anthropology, and semiotics to explore the ways that social relationships shape bodily experience.

 

Read the AAGE companion to this post: Staying on the move: The urban future of the aging body, by Tiina Suopajärvi

 

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“Time is no longer a river”: Reflections on life, death, and youth in the digital age

digital_memorial

This post is part of the Life Course Collaborative Research Network blog exchange, also available on the website of ACYIG. To see all of the posts in the series, click here.

In a recent editorial about how our “overdocumented lives” are making it more difficult to let go of the past, Susanna Schrobsdorff writes:

Most of us type more than we talk these days. And the more we live in this parallel digital world, the blurrier the line gets between present and past. Because when nothing is lost, nothing is past. Even if you want it to be. Unbidden, Facebook’s Memories function has started posting photos of a meal you ate seven years ago with people who may not even be alive anymore. And those images sit in your feed along with photos of the mimosa brunch you’re having on vacation right this very second. Time is no longer a river; it’s a looping series of digital paths.

While human beings have long found diverse means of organizing and traversing the flow of time, Schrobsdorff’s observation raises interesting questions for anthropologists today: How are “digital paths” and practices changing the way people navigate and experience the life course? How is the contemporary obsession with documentation and digital connection altering our relationship to time, memory, and even death? How might digital technologies and social media be reconfiguring the experiential boundaries between life and death, and reshaping practices of mourning and memorialization? Finally, how might the youth, the most avid users of such technologies be particularly affected by these developments?

These are questions I am just beginning to explore in my new research on death in the digital age. For instance, I have come across very moving examples of bereaved children using online memorials to communicate with a deceased parent even months and years after the death occurred.  As one ten year-old girl posted several months after her father’s death, “Hi Daddy! It’s me again! I miss you so much! Tell God I say Thank you for taking care of u for us!” Two years later she began another post with, “Dear Daddy, I got into the spelling bee and made it to the second round.”

This girl’s appropriation of social media for the purpose of mourning and memorialization is becoming increasingly common among youth. Some observers interpret it as evidence that digital technologies are playing a key role in “democratizing” the mourning and memorialization process. Others suggest that online memorialization among the youth is generating new intergenerational conflicts about who has the authority to mourn, memorialize, and even communicate with the deceased. Indeed, a number of scholars studying “virtual mourning,” have observed that messages posted on online memorials typically take the form of a letter or message written directly to the deceased. This has led them to conclude that in the digital age, biological death is less and less congruent with social death. The deceased are often kept alive, or at least in circulation through the postings of online friends and others, and in many cases, as Lim has found, “the dead are either assigned, or else presumed to have active social roles” (Lim 2013).

“…perhaps these ongoing and prolonged attempts to communicate with the dead could be conceptualized as a digital drying of the bones. Perhaps, they reflect not only a desire to maintain connections with the dead, but also provide the bereaved with a way to ferry the deceased to the other side.”

This raises further questions for anthropologists about the functions that online mourning and memorialization serve. Are such practices providing young people with a way to transcend the embarrassment of grief and more effectively cope with loss? Or alternatively, as Hartman has proposed, does cybermourning recharge “the libidinal cathexis to the object” launching it “into ever-new iterations such that the ego is no longer impelled to give up the object”(Hartman 2012:463- 465)? Could the current popular fascination with the “Walking Dead” be reflective of a digital society where the dead do not so much disappear, as linger on in varying states of animation?

It might be tempting to conclude that in a society of networked selves and hyper-connectivity, the human fear of disconnection has become exacerbated. After all, “nomophobia”- the fear of being separated from one’s cell phone is now recognized as a legitimate disorder among younger generations. And a recent report by CNN found that teens currently spend about nine hours a day on social media and check their Facebook pages approximately 100 times!

And yet it is also clear that the attempt to maintain connections with the deceased is as old as humanity itself. As such, anthropologists might also consider how digital technologies are providing the bereaved with new means for pursuing a very old desire- continuing bonds with the deceased.

From my vantage point, examples of online memorialization by children are interesting not only because they suggest that the digital age is enabling bereaved children and youth to play a much more active role mourning but also because these examples suggest fascinating parallels with many other ethnographic contexts where extended mortuary processes and the double burials are the norm. As Robert Hertz noted long ago, “We cannot bring ourselves to consider the deceased as dead straight away: he is too much a part of our substance, we have put too much of ourselves into him, and participation in the same social life creates ties which are not to be severed in one day” (Hertz 2004:209-210).  Considered from this perspective then, perhaps these ongoing and prolonged attempts to communicate with the dead could be conceptualized as a digital drying of the bones. Perhaps, they reflect not only a desire to maintain connections with the dead, but also provide the bereaved with a way to ferry the deceased to the other side. Perhaps writing and posting messages to the deceased does provide contemporary Americans with a ritual means through which the deceased are rendered dead, and ultimately incorporated into a collective world of ancestors.

To be honest, I am not sure what to make of all of this yet. But I do know that if time is no longer a river but rather a looping series of digital paths, as Schrobsdorff suggests, then anthropologists should be actively considering what the entailments of this change are. How is the digital age shaping the way youth navigate the life course and deal with matters of life and death?

Works Cited:

Durkheim, Emile. (1912) 1995. The Elementary Forms of Religious Life, translated by Karen Fields. New York: Free Press.

Hartman, Stephen. 2012. “Cybermourning: Grief in Flux From Object Loss to Collective Immortality.” Psychoanalytic Inquiry, 32: 454-467.

Hertz, Robert. 2004. “A Contribution to the Study of the Collective Representation of Death” In Death, Mourning, and Burial: A Cross-Cultural Reader edited by Antonius Robben pp.197-212. Malden MA: Blackwell Publishing.

Lim, Ming. 2013. “The Digital Consumption of Death: Reflections on virtual mourning practices on social networking sites.” In The Routledge Companion to Digital Consumption edited by Russell Belk pp.396 -403. Hoboken: Taylor and Francis.

Schrobsdorff, Susanna. February 2016. “In our overdocumented lives, letting go has gotten a lot harder.” Time Magazine. 59. http://www.cnn.com/2015/11/03/health/teens-tweens-media-screen-use-report

 

Jenny Huberman is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She is the author of Ambivalent Encounters: Childhood, Tourism, and Social Change in Banaras, India. Her current research explores how experiences of loss, mourning, and memorialization are changing in the digital age.

 

Read the AAGE member companion to this post on “Death and the Life Course” by Cristina Douglas

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Growing old and growing up: Teaching and learning about death

Romanian funeral

(Photograph by Cristina Douglas, do not reproduce without permission)

This post is part of the Life Course Collaborative Research Network blog exchange, also available on the website of ACYIG. To see all of the posts in the series, click here.

In 2004, as part of my research regarding the beliefs in ‘strigoi’ (a term referring to dead people who come back to harm and even kill the most loved relatives who survive them) in a Romanian community, I observed the roles in funeral rituals performed chiefly by older women and young children. Later, I became interested in the teaching and learning about death as components of both the processes of growing old and growing up, which are strongly intertwined. As a child, growing up in Romania with my maternal and paternal grandmothers around, I learned my own community’s view of the good way of both ageing and dying.

(Photograph by Cristina Douglas. Do not reproduce without permission)

(Funeral gifts create bridges between the living and the dead. Photograph by Cristina Douglas. Do not reproduce without permission)

For older people in Romania, “successful ageing” refers to the maintenance of an active life, the avoidance of becoming physically dependent on other and dying “in full awareness.” The inevitability of death at the end of a long life and its “serene” acceptance (what Philippe Ariés (1974) called the “tamed death”) is supposed, culturally, to come with age. Good death, associated with dying in old age, is the death that finds someone “fully prepared” as part of this acceptance. After their retirement, Romanian older people’s savings are destined mainly to support their own funerals, and the shopping list will include the funeral gifts (towels, hankies, scarves) for the potential participants in their burial. These gifts (some of them offered specifically to children) are considered payment for the 44 customs that the soul has to cross in its journey through the underworld, where malefic creatures will try to make it lose its way unless they are paid. From an anthropological perspective, these gifts create “bridges” between the living and the dead, the old and the young, and they assure the deceased’s remembrance for as long as the material objects exist?.

In rural parts of Romania, growing up as a child is intertwined with the process of the ageing of their caretakers, the discourse of dying well, the performance of funeral rituals and being taught to manifest personal and cultural grief.

Both of my grandmothers, long before they passed away, made sure that all of the ritual funeral gifts and the clothes they wanted to be buried with were bought early enough so that death wouldn’t find them ‘unprepared’. Other older people from my village were going yet further, buying their own coffins and using them for the storage of cereal, before eventually being used for their intended scope. Another way of preparing for one’s own death in old age is the ritual called “alms while living” (“pomana de viu” in Romanian), which is performed only by older people while still alive. These people either don’t have any successors or feel like they need to take “extra measures” in case their successors don’t properly organize the traditional funeral feasts at 40 days, 1 year and 7 years after their death (during which the soul is traveling in the underworld). They participate as an “absent presence” in their own funeral feast as if already dead – serving and observing the others, rather than eating themselves. Conversely, at the funeral feast after someone’s death, a person of the same sex and age will wear the clothes of the deceased offered as funeral gifts, announcing his/her (absent) presence as if still alive.

(Photograph by Cristina Douglas, do not reproduce without permission)

(Passive learning about death. Photograph by Cristina Douglas, do not reproduce without permission)

 

The acceptance of death and the preparation for it also manifests in its inclusion in daily conversations between older people and potentially anybody else. This represents another feature of the Romanian cultural model of manifesting one’s appropriate old age, and it is quite often brought into discussions between grandparents-grandchildren. Several psychologists (see Corr 2000; Corr and Corr 2013; Kastenbaum 2000) argue that coping with death, loss and absence is an implicit part of growing up. In Romania, children learn how to face loss, how to grieve and how to remember (make present) the absent dead as part of learning how to show affection, take care and behave “maturely.” Passive learning about death (hearing adults’ talking about death; observing funerals, see Astuti 2011) is supplemented by an active teaching, both conceptually (what happens with the body and with the soul) and ritually (gestures to be performed). This “teaching about death” role is a key feature of Romanian intergenerational relationships and an important component of the kinship system of caring: while children learn how to take care of the elderly from their parents caring for their own parents, grandparents take care of their grandchildren by teaching them about how to age and die “with dignity” (according to the community’s cultural norms), and how to care for the dead. From an anthropological perspective, teaching children about death is part of an elderly caretaker’s role, and becomes an assurance of the maintenance and transmission of culture.

In many communities from the South of Romania, the teaching goes even further by interchanging various roles in funeral rituals. ‘Bringing the water for the dead’, a funeral ritual meant to assure the soul’s water for its journey through the underworld, can be performed either by a young girl ‘who didn’t meet men’ or by an old ‘clean’ woman (a woman who has entered menopause and does not have sexual relations anymore, usually a widow). Both groups – the children and the elderly – are represented as having a ‘fringe’ social status. Thus they are considered to have a higher capacity for communicating with the other world through ritual because of their proximity to it through life cycle. It is this status of children and the elderly in the funeral performance that reflects death as a manageable condition and doesn’t allow it, ritually, to damage the community.

(Photograph by Cristina Douglas. Do not reproduce without permission)

(Photograph by Cristina Douglas. Do not reproduce without permission)

While helping her to sew her own funeral towels, I remember Machi (the way we used to call my maternal grandma – a diminutive of the word “maica” used for grandmothers, meaning ‘old mother’) giving me instructions about which scarf or towel should be given to whom after her death. She often asked me to light candles for her and to cry at her funeral, somehow training me as a child to imagine how my life will continue in her absence and how, ritually and emotionally, I should face my encounter with her death: acknowledging the pain that her death would cause me, but grateful that this came during her old age so she could die prepared and believing that this is yet only one step in her continued existence in another world. In rural parts of Romania, growing up as a child is intertwined with the process of the ageing of their caretakers, the discourse of dying well, the performance of funeral rituals and being taught to manifest personal and cultural grief.

Sometimes I wonder, just as Jason Danely pointed out in the first essay of these collaborative posts, whether my interest in the anthropology of death and dying would have been the same in the absence of this early learning about death from my grandmas. The following years of education and research seem often as if they just added further structure to my approach of a subject I was initiated into by the elderly people around me ever since my very first years of existence.

 I would like to thank Jason Danely for his invitation to write for these collaborative posts and also for his and Elise Berman’s helpful comments, suggestions and assistance.

Works cited:

Ariès, Philippe (1974). Western Attitudes toward Death: From the Middle Ages to the Present. Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press.

Astuti, Rita (2011). “Death, Ancestors, and the Living Dead: Learning without Teaching in Madagascar”. In Children’s Understanding of Death: From Biological to Religious Conceptions edited by Victoria Talwar, Paul L. Harris and Michael Schleifer, 1-18. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Corr, Charles (2000). “What Do We Know About Grieving Children and Adolescents?”. In Living with Grief – Children, Adolescents, and Loss, edited by Kenneth J. Doka, 21-34. Hospice Foundation of America: Brunner/Mazel – Taylor & Francis Group.

Corr, Charles A., and Donna M. Corr (2013). Death and Dying, Life and Living. Belmont: Wadsworth, Cengage Learning.

Kastenbaum, Robert (2000). “The Kingdom Where Nobody Dies”. In Living with Grief – Children, Adolescents, and Loss, edited by Kenneth J. Doka, 5-20. Hospice Foundation of America: Brunner/Mazel – Taylor & Francis Group.

 

Cristina Douglas is a PhD candidate (awaiting examination) in cultural anthropology at the University of Bucharest, Romania. Her main interest is focused on the anthropology of death and dying in relation to cultural transmission, representations of good/bad death and beliefs in immortality. Recently, she focused on researching the New Zealand institutional settings for the dying (end of life and palliative care). Currently she works in two projects: one dedicated to the imaginary of (shameful) death, diseases and hygiene in the political discourse of anticommunism, and another one that explores the medical learning of the body through the use of cadavers.

 

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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.

 

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