Barbara Pieta (Max Planck Institute), an AAGE Student Member Profile

Barbara Pieta, PhD Candidate at the Max Planck Institute, Germany

A PhD candidate at Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology, I am now finishing my thesis based on ethnographic fieldwork in a town in Northeast Italy. In my work I explore how families who live with dementia craft their caring relations vis-à-vis local discourses, which on one hand moralize kin care provisions and on the other propose individualized models of personhood to both caregivers and care receivers. I was particularly interested in the role that images (seeing and being seen but also filmmaking images) play in these negotiations and I paid special attention to those moments in which visual engagement becomes a practice of care. To make sense of these local entanglements of seeing and caring, I brought them into dialogue with two strands of literature: anthropological writing on care and visual anthropology. In 2021 I had the honor of coordinating the inaugural edition of Anthropology and Visual Anthropology Award (AVA 2021), sponsored by AGENET, AAGE and VANEASA. Since 2020 I have also been the co-convenor of the EASA’s Age and Generations Network (AGENET), the AAGE’s European sister. Together with a number of colleagues, I am currently setting up the AGENET’s Ethics Collective, an initiative to address ethical, bureaucratic and methodological challenges that ethnographers encounter in their work with older adults who live with cognitively impaired conditions (join us!).

What made you interested in the study of aging and/or the life course?

I was volunteering in a long-term care facility in the town that later become my field location when Max Planck Institute opened its doctoral funding program, MaxNetAging, devoted to interdisciplinary research on ageing. The volunteering experience led me to notice several tensions regarding local care ideologies, some of which I considered rather exclusionary. Therefore, I was happy when an opportunity arose to theorize these issues ethnographically. The program was a great opportunity to see how demographers, sociologists and natural scientists build tools to study aging. But it also made me appreciate what anthropology has to offer, especially when one is looking to engage with dementia lifeworlds without falling into the trap of premature categorization. Dementia has pushed our subdiscipline into experimenting with all kinds of new phenomenological lenses and I have been lucky enough to join the discipline at a moment when the experimental vibe and the openness to transdisciplinary cooperation have become really strong.

What is an article, book, or other work that has made an impact on how you think about aging and your research?

I can’t narrow it down to one book! The work of Amanda Lashaw was extremely helpful, especially at the very beginning of my fieldwork when I was struggling to build my ethnographic relations amidst various competing ideas of what “doing good” means.  I also often come back to the work of Annette Leibing, Jessica Robbins, Aaron Seaman, Elana Buch, Felicity Aulino and Maria Puig de la Bellacasa. They all offer guidance on how to write an ethnographic story without tapping into the good/bad care dichotomy. Jay Sokolovsky’s volumes are helpful for anyone who is starting their adventure with anthropology of aging. Lisa Stevenson, with her Life Beside Itself, has wonderfully paved the way for anyone who wants to think with images and about care. The works by Paul Stoller, Tim Ingold, and Paolo Favero and Didi- Huberman are perfect when starting to think about images as agents and actions and not merely as semantic codes to decipher. Finally, because it’s not only the already-established scholars that shape us, I will always be grateful to Cristina Douglas, Francesco Diodati, Swetlana Torno, Jón Bjarki Magnusson, Veronica Pascoal Sousa and Elisa Pasquarelli for our ongoing conversations.

What do you do when you are not doing aging/life course research?

For the writing-up phase, after 12 years abroad I returned to my native Poland and based myself in my family’s ancestral home, where I’ve never lived before and which is currently under renovation. There are a lot of family and community archives to be rummaged through, an old barn and an attic to be cleaned up, the garden to lie out in and – inevitably! –  village stories to ponder. All this, although it’s coming to an end soon, offers such a grounding experience and a welcome alternative to the precarious life that so many of us have come know all too well. I continue experimenting with filming, especially with embodied documentaries, building up my filming muscles towards a new project. As I am writing this, I realize that my nephews and my friends’ children have also occupied a considerable amount of my time in the recent months. So, if you have any questions about Star Wars or Encanto – ask me!

Do you have a recent publication so that our members can learn more about your work? 

I have published short pieces and reviews in various blogs as well as a research note in Sokolovsky’s recent edition of Cultural Context of Aging:

Pieta, B. (2020) “Differently Young and Non Autosufficienti. Managing Old-Age Stigma in a Senior Center”In:  J. Sokolovsky (ed.) Cultural Context of Aging. Worldwide Perspectives, 4th edition. ABC Clio, Santa Barbara  (free download here)

Currently, I am co-editing two Special Issues, both to be published in early 2023. The first of these, prepared with Jay Sokolovsky, is on visual methods in anthropological research on ageing. The other, co-curated with Cristina Douglas, Matthew Lariviere and Maria Vesperi, focuses on ethical challenges of ethnographic dementia research (Call for papers linked here). Stay tuned!

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