Tag Archives: life course

Putting Linked Lives at the Center of Ethnography

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


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


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


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

Cesare 1

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

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


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


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


Works cited:

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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AAGE X ACYIG: Richard Zimmer on generational links in special needs families

When I was in San Diego last spring for the SPA/ACYIG Meeting (Anthropology of Children and Youth Interest Group), I attended a panel discussion on the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (which only the USA and Somalia are yet to ratify).

Many of us are involved in similar political advocacy for the rights and welfare of older persons. We may work in areas of the world where these rights are debated, ignored, or threatened. In most cases, the rights of older persons are either explicitly or implicitly covered in generic human rights declarations such as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). However, although positive steps were taken last August at the Open-Ended Working Group on Ageing, the UN is yet to adopt a Convention on the Rights of Older Persons. (See the pdf of the August 2012 working paper on the rights of older persons by Fredvang and Biggs here)
Realizing that the challenges and vulnerabilities faced by older adults were shared by children and youth as well, and that the AAGE and ACYIG share a common emphasis on the life course perspective, the anthropologists at the table thought it would be a good idea to to move towards building a common agenda on both advocacy or engaged anthropology issues as well as on life course research on human rights, including the distinctive ways older people and younger people are affected by climate change and natural disaster, poverty, abuse, mental health, discrimination, war and displacement, institutional living, and many other issues.

ACYIG was generous in taking the first step. Aviva Sinervo (UCSC), who edits the newsletter for ACYIG published this piece by AAGE/AALCIG member Richard Zimmer (pdf of his contribution here). Zimmer does not speak specifically to the human rights issues brought up at the workshop I attended, but he does raise the crucial issues of working across generations in communities affected by developmental disabilities. In working with these families, Zimmer highlights the need for greater anthropological/ethnographic work on the family that can draw together the complexity of individuals at different ends of the life course.

I hope that our groups can find additional ways to make additional generational links. From here, we might think about organizing a panel for the ACYIG meeting (in Charleston, SC, 12-15 February) and keep things rolling (AAA 2014?). Hope that AAGE X ACYIG this becomes a recurring theme in the news here. Email us and/or Aviva Sinervo at ACYIG if you would like to get involved or organize conference symposia/events (You can also join the ACYIG for free if you are a AAA member, or join their listserv, or like their Facebook page even if you are not!)

Postmenopausal Health and Disease from the Perspective of Evolutionary Medicine

Anthropology & Aging Quarterly Volume 34, issue 3 (September 2013) pp.61-86

Postmenopausal Health and Disease from the Perspective of Evolutionary Medicine

Andrew W. Froehle

Department of Community Health, Boonshoft School of Medicine Wright State University

Download PDF version here: AAQ34(3)FROEHLE


Menopause normally occurs between 45-55 years of age, marks the end of a woman’s reproductive lifespan, and is accompanied by a reduction in estrogen that has substantial physiological effects. The standard medical view is that these changes underlie high postmenopausal disease rates, defining menopause as an estrogen deficiency condition needing treatment. This view stems from the idea that extended postmenopausal longevity is a consequence of recent technological developments, such that women now outlive their evolutionarily-programmed physiological functional lifespan.Increasingly, however, researchers employing an evolutionary medicine framework have used data from comparative demography, comparative biology, and human behavioral ecology to challenge the mainstream medical view. Instead, these data suggest that a two-decade human postmenopausal lifespan is an evolved, species-typical trait that distinguishes humans from other primates, and has deep roots in our evolutionary past. This view rejects the inevitability of high rates of postmenopausal disease and the concept of menopause as pathology. Rather, high postmenopausal disease risk likely stems from specific lifestyle differences between industrialized societies and foraging societies of the type that dominated human evolutionary history. Women in industrialized societies tend to have higher estrogen levels during premenopausal life, and experience a greater reduction in estrogen across menopause than do women living in foraging societies, with potentially important physiological consequences. The anthropological approach to understanding postmenopausal disease risk reframes the postmenopausal lifespan as an integral period in the human life cycle, and offers alternative avenues for disease prevention by highlighting the importance of lifestyle effects on health.

Keywords: menopause, estrogen, evolution, human lifespan, aging

NEW Member Publication: Transitions and Transformations: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course

LynchTransitionsIt began at the 2009 American Anthropological Association meeting in Philadelphia.  There, founding AAGE member Jay Sokolovsky and Publisher Marion Berghahn announced the start of a new book series devoted to the study of aging  and the life course in anthropology. This series became Life Course, Culture and Aging: Global Transformations and we are happy to announce that the first volume in the series has now arrived!

Transitions and Transformations: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course, edited by AAGE members Caitrin Lynch and Jason Danely, features contributions from several AAGE members. You or your institution can purchase the book from Berghahn Books here. Even better, there is a 50% discount available with this flyer if you purchase it by July 31, and instructors can have their institution’s bookstore purchase student copies at paperback price! (around $30-35 for students, though the cover price is $95)

For details on how to get this price, contact: Janea V Brachfeld, janea.brachfeld@berghahnbooks.com Marketing and Publicity Assistant, Berghahn Books, Inc.20 Jay Street, Suite 512 | Brooklyn, NY 11201 | Tel: +1 (212) 233-6004 | Fax: +1 (212) 233-6007)

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