Review: Transitions & Transformations: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course (Lynch, Caitrin & Danely, Jason, Eds.)

Lynch, Caitrin & Danely, Jason, Eds. Transitions & Transformation: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course. New York, NY: Berghahn Books.  2013. ISBN978-0-85745-778-3 272 pp Price $95.00/£60.00 (Hardback)

Transitions & Transformation: Cultural Perspectives on Aging and the Life Course, officially launches Berghahn Books new book series, entitled Life Course, Culture and Aging: Global Transformations  (series editor is Jay Sokolovsky), that proposes to focus on aging and the life course in anthropology. This is a welcome addition to the growing literature on cross-cultural aging that applies creative and multifaceted approaches of anthropological analysis and inquiry to the wonderfully complex subject of age. While firmly situated within the global urgency of burgeoning numbers of aged individuals worldwide, the chapters in this volume resist the panic trope so often summoned in usual representations of the squaring of age pyramids and ominous dependency ratios that preference doom and ruin over dynamic cultural identities and innovative human strategies. The anthropological stance is uniquely well suited to tackling individual and larger social issues embedded in changing cultural norms and practices, and nuanced treatments of aging across the globe are featured in this volume. Focusing on on-the-ground situations within specific cultural contexts, important issues are discussed in the well-written, lively and varied collection of articles displayed here. How to embed meaning, recognize personhood and respect relationships in later years is a strong theme of the volume.
In the initial section that introduces the essays of this book, the editors describe their dynamic approach of “transitions and transformations.” In the papers that follow, relationships and changes, the interactions of individual, family, and society through time and flux are highlighted. The chapters claim a connection with earlier anthropological collections that focus on diversity and creativity; at the same time, the articles purport to depart from “reductionistic uses of cultural diversity as points on a scatter-plot” (p 5) and argue for enhanced cross-disciplinary inquiry. Organized in sections titled, “Frameworks,” “Bodies,” “Spatiality and Temporality,” “Families,” and “Economies,” the chapters consider an important variety of issues and provide insights to extend the existing literature. An Afterword by Jennifer Cole that focuses on importance of including cross-generational analysis rounds out the volume.
“Frameworks” includes the introductory chapter by the editors that describes the approach of the book, places the volume in historical context of anthropological writings on age, highlights the importance of the “life course” approach to studies of age, and provides brief summaries of the chapters and their relationship to the unifying thread of the book. Following this introduction, Mary Catherine Bateson updates Erickson’s developmental stages with “Adulthood II,” a phase of life she characterizes as showcasing “active wisdom.” She considers the necessity of this stage in light of global aging and the expanded period of time of healthy aging so prevalent today in industrialized nations. Many of the chapters in this volume echo Ericksonian principles of development and psychological growth over time.
Section II contains chapters that explore the notion of “Bodies” by presenting varied and lively accounts of different subjects rooted in universal biological processes and situated in specific cultural contexts. These chapters examine how individuals cope with chronic pain at different ages in a clinic in the United States and use strategies to construct continuity challenged by the disruption to identify caused by pain (Lindsey Martin); how Chinese middle-aged women construct their experiences with menopause (gengnianqi) to explain and protest through “irritability” and “venting anger” their individual perspectives on growing older in a rapidly changing China (Jeanne Shea);  and how men both young and older describe reaction against and identification with traditional and changing notions of what it means to be masculine and Mexican in a rapidly modernizing Mexico (Emily Wentzell).
Section III, “Spatiality and Temporality,” explores the intersection of time and identity and notions of place in relation to individual aging. Jessica Robbins examines the intimate and intricate connection between the national and personal “moral ideal” of identity in Poland, how suffering in old age is entangled with victimization throughout Polish history, and the relationship between kin nearby and abroad.  Frances Norwood uses the Dutch window bridging the public and private spheres of life as a metaphor to showcase cultural notions and intense “euthanasia talk,” inspired by the rarely enacted legal choice to die. Jason Danely’s treatment of the temporal world of older Japanese notes individuals’ connections “involving mutual recognition with unseen spirits and invisible worlds that structure memories, aspirations, and emotions” (p109). Narratives of older Japanese individuals as well as various common phrases and sayings emphasize interdependence and exchange across time and place.
The fourth section of the book focuses on “Families,” and its three chapters explore caregiving by Azorean women in Brazil (Diane De G. Brown), Puerto Rican grandmothers who care for their grandchildren in Boston (Marta B. Rodríguez-Galan), and how in Sri Lanka, complex notions of reciprocity in debt and obligation among generations are displayed in changing and discrepant attitudes about using care institutions for older individuals when they become dependent. These chapters, like others in the volume, include vivid quotes, elicit cultural values, provide national context and specific circumstances, and situate the authors in their ethnographic accounts.
The final section, called “Economies,” includes chapters on the conflicting meanings attributed to the rise of eldercare institutions in India (Sarah Lamb), how best to provide seva (respectful service or care) to elderly individuals and manage the dilemmas of these sparring narratives embedded in “the project of being human” (p177). Membership and mattering are prime concerns of the elderly factory workers discussed in Caitrin Lynch’s lively chapter. These workers choose to continue to work, maintain friendships within the factory and thereby preserve a viable identity that seems to cushion old age. It is reminiscent of my ethnographic exploration of elderly New York diamond dealers who find satisfaction and meaning by working whenever possible into their 90s (Shield, 2002). The fascinating chapter by Jane Guyer and Kabiru Salami describes notions of indebtedness and responsibility examined from the perspectives of their separate studies over decades in rural Nigeria. Again, mutuality and interdependence are stressed in how changing contexts reframe the meanings of finances, old age, and worth. Finally, Jennifer Cole’s “Afterword” explores the important notion of generations within the heterogeneity of age and youth. She warns against the “synoptic illusion” and reductionism of definitional shortcuts that stereotype and damage dynamic differences among ages.
This volume is full of good writing, lively situations, some wonderful photos, revealing quotes and stimulating ideas. Its readability makes it appealing as a text to be used widely in the undergraduate/graduate classroom. A brief introduction to each section would have been a good addition as another opportunity to remind the reader of key unifying themes. Still to be explored by anthropologists are their own relationships to their aging and the subjects with whom they interact, a point I’ve argued elsewhere (Shield 2003). A concern is that the volume claims a radical distinction from prior anthropological works on aging considered static and totalizing in contrast. This argument privileges new contributions without fully recognizing some important precedents such as the “life’s career-aging” examination by Myerhoff and Simić (1978), for example. Here  the authors attempt “in their analysis of aging to reconcile its culturally stable aspects with its dynamic dimensions conceiving of each particular cultural niche as a distinct and unique resource subject to manipulation and individual interpretation and misinterpretation” (1978: 231). Of course, each generation has the challenge of recognizing its own myopia in thinking itself unique as it discovers and rediscovers these insights. These concerns aside, the current volume makes for excellent reading and launches the new Berghahn book series admirably.
Myerhoff, BG and Simić, A. 1978. Life’s Career-Aging: Cultural Variations on Growing Old. New York: Sage.
Shield R. 2002. Diamond Stories: Enduring Change on 47th Street. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. (Paperback issued 2005).
Shield R. 2003. Wary partners: Dynamics of interactions between nursing assistants and family members in nursing homes.  In Stafford P (Ed.) Gray Areas: Ethnographic Encounters with Nursing Home Culture. Santa Fe (NM): SAR Press.

Renée Rose Shield, PhD
Professor of Health Services, Policy & Practice (Clinical)
Brown University


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