The magnifient Duomo in central Milan. EASA 2016 was hosted by University of Milan, Bicocca
This was my first time attending the biennial meeting of the European Association of Social Anthropology, and with over 130 panels, laboratories, films screenings and events and some 1700 attendees from across Europe and the world, it didn’t fail to disappoint. It had all the breadth and excitement of the AAA meetings, but on a more modest scale that facilitated the kinds of interactions you get at smaller meetings of only a few hundred attendees. The meeting was hosted by the Department of Human Sciences and Education ‘Ricardo Massa’ and the Department of Sociology and Social Research at the University of Milano-Bicocca. Not as flashy as a convention centre or hotel (the book exhibit consisted of about ten tables set up in a corridor), but I have to say the organization and technical support was outstanding. Aside from a mostly comical issue with a live feed during the opening plenary with Didier Fassin, everything seemed to run well (see Allegra Lab’s blog for an interesting take on Fassin’s talk). Which is very good news indeed when you are dashing between sessions trying to catch all the panels that you can!
As with most anthropology conferences, I didn’t get to see half of the panels I wanted to, and if anyone else reading this blog had a favorite panel related to ageing that I don’t report on, my sincere apologies. Please leave a comment below and let us know about it!
Panels on Ageing at EASA
Although EASA has several sub-networks (resembling interest groups in AAA), there is yet no network on aging and the life course. Even so, there were two double-panels and one Lab event on ageing as well as several other papers on ageing related issues in panels on a variety of other topics, from migration to epistemologies. For those of you who couldn’t make it to Milan, here are a few of my highlights:
Although day 1 had only two sessions, we managed to fill them with a double panel convened by myself and fellow AAGE member Jolanda Lindenberg (Leyden Academy on Vitality and Ageing). Following the theme of the conference, “Anthropological Legacies and Human Futures”, our panel focused on kinship and relatedness in an ageing world. Jay Sokolovsky (USF St. Petersburg) started us off with a presentation on his long-standing engagement with indigenous residents of a Mexican village and the effects of globalization on patters of ageing and family. Jay’s presentation highlighted the importance of multigenerational and cohort-based networks and exchanges, a theme that ended up running through many of the other papers.
Tanja Ahlin (University of Amsterdam), for instance, spoke about the ways information and communication technologies enable care relations among transnational Keralan families, but also generate local networks of care support. Noémi Sebök-Polyfka (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München) reported on her work in a small Slovakian village, where older women face loneliness and abandonment by family, but work to establish alternate forms of social networks to support themselves in old age. Isabel de Salis (University of Bristol) spoke about how experiences of menopause are interpreted within a framework of links between female kin. Similarly, my own paper examined the ways idioms of kinship provide meaning and legibility to the ethical responsibility of caring for aging parents. Maria Vesperi (New College of Florida) Looked at how contemporary literature and films featuring older protagonists can facilitate alternative kinship identities in the United States.
Finally, Barbara Pieta (Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology) challenged us to consider the ways “old” models of kinship and aging based on empirical regularities such as genealogical distance might still provide useful insights that cannot be gained when focusing solely on social constructionist models. (Barbara also wrote a post for our Life Course blog exchange series that you can read here)
No complaints about the coffee in Milan! Worth standing in long lines for this.
Unfortunately, concurrent with the second session of this double-panel was a Lab format session run by Kamilla Nørtoft (University of Copenhagen) called “The old-age jigsaw puzzle”, in which participants were encouraged to think about alternate ways of representing aging by visualizing different quotes that she had gathered during her ethnographic work in Denmark. Kamilla, along with co-conveners Cordula Endter (Institute of European Ethnology/Cultural Anthropology, Univ. Hamburg) and Tiina Suopajärvi (University of Helsinki) also organized a double-session titled “Imagining an old future: anthropological perspectives on age and ageing” on day 3.
The first session (which I was able to attend) focused on the use of ethnographic methods in applied settings. Jolien Makkinga (Meertens Institute) introduced this topic, suggesting that until now, interaction with older persons has been peripheral to most studies of aging and social welfare. Kamilla Nørtoft described a photo elicitation project that presented alternate diverse representations of aging to the public. Similarly, Tiina Suopajärvi (University of Helsinki) described her collaborations with older people to think of ways to create better communities in Finland. Cordula Endter and Anamaria Depner (University of Heidelberg) both shared experiences of integrating older adults into technology design projects from the start, rather than as a afterthought. Both emphasized the ways ethnography helps us grasp the interactions between people and the material world and how these might help us question assumptions about personhood and experiences of older people.
While I was not able to attend the second session, I will list the papers here so that you can get a sense of the new research that is happening in anthropology and aging studies.
Other papers of interest
Several other papers caught my eye, even though they were not on panels specifically focused on aging. Christina Leeson (University of Copenhagen) presented a fascinating paper on social robots for eldercare in Japan in a session on “Traps” as analytic. By applying this analytic to the design of robots that can “trap” the attention and imagination of an older person with dementia or other cognitive disorders, Leeson described the ways simple robots with ambiguous features provide a sense of non-threatening emotional distance and detachment. If robots are the future of eldercare, however, Leeson’s paper underlined how far away we still are from replicating the comfort of human presence.
Two presentations drew attention to ageing in urban settings. Sandra Staudacher (University of Basel) discussed her fieldwork in Zanzibar, Tanzania (see website here), while Roberta Mandoki (Heidelberg University), Annika Mayer (Heidelberg University), and Jakob Gross presented their interactive documentary on middle class South Asian elders called Elderscapes. Ageing in Urban South Asia (click to view the site). As these papers evidence, aging in urban settings is becoming increasingly relevant in both developed and developing countries, and while cities may provide more access to health and social services, they also pose challenges as spaces that have historically been oriented towards youth, cultural change, and future oriented temporal modes of life may marginalize older adults.
This being EASA, current issues affecting Europe drew a lot of attention, particularly the topic of immigration. Immigration has become a major issue in Europe recent years, intensifying as people displaced by war and political turmoil seek refuge in the ‘north’, and contributing to the UK’s recent vote to leave the EU. Of course, this is not only an issue affecting Europe, but is part of a much larger frame of mobility and globalization in which older adults are often seen as peripheral. Franziska Bedorf (Uppsala University) focused on aging Mexican migrants in the greater Chicago area, and the “the power of “master narratives” as collective frames of reference that influence people’s considerations of mobility.” Not only are people moving to other countries after retirement, or to join family living in other countries, but care workers are moving as well. Prof. Guita Grin Debert (State University of Campinas) looked at the immigration of care workers in Italy and Brazil and the ways “new forms of professional care redefines dependence, gives new meaning to family relationships, to state obligations and to domestic life.” Debert was a contributor to our 2014 special issue of aging, sex and well-being in Brazil (read her article here!)
What struck me most about the EASA conference was the enthusiastic participation of so many graduate students and early career scholars. While acting as Editor of Anthropology & Aging, I was impressed by the interest and frequent submissions from scholars based in Europe, and the new initiatives that they are leading to develop new research. The 2017 AAGE conference in Oxford will be a particularly exciting event for bringing these scholars together and building our international network for the first time.
Were you at EASA 2016? Did you hear any papers or participate in events that you want to let us know more about?
Please leave a comment below if you do.
***More previews and guides to AAA 2016 and GSA 2016 will be coming soon!
In the meantime, you can see more about conferences AAGE has been involved in at the conference page here