Carving out a Niche for Anthropology & Aging

Kao Postdoc By Phil Kao, PhD, Post-doctoral Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh, Co-Editor of Anthropology & Aging

Anthropology & Aging’s recent move to an open-access platform allows scholars from across a wide range of disciplines to convene and engage with the latest trends taking shape in aging studies and sociocultural anthropology.

Since the halcyon days of anthropology, particularly during the intellectual period where structural functionalism reigned supreme as the go to model for British social anthropology, ethnographers have sought knowledge from informants representing various generations and age grade/sets.  For many, the older members of society provided a unique window through which to investigate tradition, ritual and myth. Godfrey Lienhardt, for example, would not have been able to capture the meaning of life and death, and thus the structure and belief system of the Dinka without tending to the elderly masters of the fishing spear and their (un)timely fates.

Yet, throughout the twentieth century, the focus on aging in anthropology has occupied a relatively small backwater within the discipline.  Ethnographers of all brands, still manage to raise doubts: “If you conduct ‘proper’ fieldwork, and if society and social relations within a community are your target, then issues of aging, the ‘status’ of the elderly (however conceived), and kinship as historical systems should make any focus on aging as a separate treatment redundant. Fair enough, but in the last decades of the twentieth century, the terrain began to shift.  New cultural forms, experiences and communities required novel methodologies and collaborations. Notwithstanding the long and ambivalent relationship between sociology and anthropology in the American academy, ‘classic’ works including Barbara Myerhoff’s ‘Number Our Days’, Jaber F. Gubrium’s ‘Dying at Murray Manor’, and even the earlier publication of Jules Henry’s ‘Culture Against Man’, became touchstones for many anthropologists researching and writing about aging in the western context. After the politics of writing culture and knowledge, anthropologists of/at home have sought refuge and encouragement to think critically about gerontological issues.

With the onset or at least the alarmist reactions surrounding ‘aging societies’  in places like Japan, Germany, and Denmark, anthropologists from around the world have looked to aging as a fruitful window of opportunity to investigate ‘our’ analytical categories, including: kinship, the life course, ritual, sociality and personhood. This perspective brought renewed interest to the study of aging, yet it was still rare for anthropologists to be noticed in the new field of social gerontology where other disciplines had already established themselves. This too, however, is beginning to change. The effects of population aging and generational changes in areas both inside and outside OECD have spawned a sense of urgency to think anthropologically about issues extending beyond the plight of the elderly, encompassing such topics as the local and political economic processes that (re)produce marginality, disability and the ontologies of the social welfare state.

It is within this spirit that Anthropology & Aging wishes to carve out a critical and particular niche. The tide has already begun to turn; a quick query of the latest AAA program offers up a bountiful number of sessions and papers dealing with aging and anthropology around the world.  And the numbers will no doubt keep growing over the foreseeable future.   To give the reader just a broad taste, session topics in this year’s AAA (2014) deal with allostatic load (senescence); the relation between frailty and health in various communities; aging and social demography; care; migration; ontologies of aging; sociality among the elderly; the moral and political components of aging ‘well’; et al.  Internationally speaking, aging studies have garnered particular attention from policy makers and social scientists.  One exciting and culturally resonate theme arising today has to deal with communities of care.  Not only is the United States experimenting with various kinds and brands of long-term care facilities, but societies are innovating new forms of communal arrangements and networks of support for their elderly.  Cities, housing structures, labor economics, and even technoscapes are starting to consider how the elderly can contribute and fit into an environment that is intergenerational and age-friendly.

Although research articles occupy central stage in our journal, submissions from non-anthropologists and submissions in the form of research reports, commentaries, policy, news, and book reviews dealing with both anthropology and aging allow us to create an online intellectual space.  We hope this transforms into a practiced space,  in the spirit of Michel de Certeau, where scholars can participate in producing a polyvalent forum for debate, analyses, and new methodologies and anthropological theories.   Anthropology & Aging, therefore, seeks to collect research on people’s social experiences of and in late life, paying particular attention to cultural forms that emerge as people age, live longer, and create relations of support, meaning and networks in the 21st century.

In the long and short of it, this is an exciting time. Anthropology & Aging’s aim is to support researchers who want to investigate aging in society, not as (yet another) topical sub-section of cultural anthropology, but as an intellectual subject worthy in and of itself; one able to engage not only mainstream anthropology, but also all the other scholars who view aging as a complex process that cannot be broken down into convenient categories or narratives.  We hope this journal offers a space where scholars can venture to float new hypotheses, leaving behind conventional and institutional commitments. Our hearts and minds are out there, like the rest of the world, waiting to be discovered and engaged with.

CLICK HERE to go to the new Anthropology & Aging Journal site and register as a reader or author

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