Tag Archives: methods

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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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.

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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.


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Global Aging Forum at GSA Annual Scientific Meeting, Nov. 24

Global Aging Forum 2013 GSA-flyerPDF of this Flyer: FINAL Global Aging Forum at 2013 GSA-flyer

Sun, Nov 24 I 11:45 am-5:00 pm I Sheraton Hotel, Oak Alley Room I $30 (Lunch included).
Focus on transnational research and educational efforts concerning global aging and health.
A stellar cast of speakers will advance our understanding of ongoing activities and outline
future opportunities.

Session Topics Include:
“Methodological Issues in International Research”
“Funding Opportunities for Global Aging Resea rch”
“Exemplars in Cross-Cultural Education”
“Using International Datasets”

Jacqueline Angel, PhD – University of Texas at Austin
Ken Bridbord, MD, MPH – Fogarty International Center
Maria Claver, PhD, MSW – California State University, Long Beach
Eileen Crimmins, PhD – University of Southern California
Athena Fulay- Fulbright Scholar Program
Norah Keating, PhD – University of Alberta
Tsuann Kuo, PhD, MSG, MHA, MSW -Chung Shan
Medical University, Taiwan
Christine Mair, PhD – University of Maryland
Margaret A. Perkinson, PhD – NAPA-OT Field School
Heather Snyder, PhD – Alzheimer’s Association
Enrique Vega, PhD- Pan American Health Organization
Rebeca Wong, PhD – University of Texas Medical Branch

For more information about GSA’s 2013 Annual
Scientific Meeting, November 20-24, 2013,
visit the conference site. A discount is available
for PAHO/OPS member countries; contact
meetings@geron.org at GSA for further information.
Please note, separate registration {$30, includes
lunch) is required for the post-conference

Global Aging Forum
Register for the Global Aging forum now.
For more information about GSA’s 2013 Annual
Scientific Meeting, November 20-24, 2013,
visit the conference site: www.geron.org