Trust is along the way to social change….

Theresa Southam is a Doctoral Candidate in Organizational Development and Change, Fielding Graduate University.

Photo by the author of a research participant sharing a story with a care home resident

My doctoral research explores the everyday contributions of 70+ adults in three communities in western Canada. I argue that non-physical contributions are precious, but overlooked, gifts that 70+ adults give to society. These include emotional support, loving thoughts, moment-to-moment awareness, listening, and coaching. When representatives of modern institutions see seniors as a burden, they separate them into care homes or gated housing complexes. This provides few opportunities for these gifts to be shared. Through the social justice lens enabled by ethnography (Westbrook, 2008), I sought an appreciation of the everyday contributions of older adults that may otherwise be ignored.

Important to my project were the interlocutors, representatives of institutions that work with older adults, who live in urban and rural communities with a variety of economic, environmental, and social contexts. In these communities, older adults are viewed as both a burden and a precious resource, depending on their abilities. The interlocutors were asked to identify ‘highly generative’ potential participants for the study; caring for others in their communities.

Some of the interlocutors balked at recommending participants, citing intrusion of privacy and protection of their members as reasons for not nominating. These are classic attributes of gatekeepers who keep their own interests at the forefront, hoping their members’ time and resources will remain focused on them. When initial conversations with interlocutors uncovered shared goals and possibilities for reciprocity, they were more likely to suggest participants. My request for participants eventually became an invitation to collaborate with interlocutors on some of the issues identified in my research proposal: loneliness and isolation in seniors, decline of intergenerational relations, and ageism. After discovering shared interests, the process evolved to build greater trust and eventually collaborative action.

Photo by Philippe Leone on Unsplash

Building Greater Trust

I spoke with representatives of 32 groups to obtain 47 participants. Fourteen groups made recommendations, three refused to participate, and fifteen referred me to other groups or didn’t get back to me. The process took many months of emails, phone calls, and videoconferences. The information exchanged included: my research proposal, letters of consent, webinars, live events, websites, and articles. Central to this process of relationship building was the question: for what purpose would I create such a lengthy and comprehensive participant selection process?

Ethnographers have a history of taking their information and placing it in an ivory tower. Once the study of the primitive, exotic other in order to define what is common in humanity and to critique the modern (Eriksen, 2010), contemporary ethnography most often consists of accounts of our own worlds, in order to make change that is beneficial to those worlds. Westbrook (2008) rightly asks how contemporary ethnographers move from the periphery, commenting on the unfitness of others’ societies and our own societies, to the centres of power of those societies in order to make change? I would reply that we move to the centres of power by establishing trust in multiple ways, including through a participant selection process that is mutually beneficial.

In my own community, where my name is known due to thirty years of residence, recommendations for participants were more easily obtained. Because this is a new field for me, I had to make a case for becoming a valid player in the arenas of justice that this research addresses. In communities where I am unknown, interlocutors were even more wary about who would benefit from this research. As I build trust, I view this work as a necessary prerequisite to social change.

Photo by Stéphane Juban on Unsplash

Collaboration for Social Change

Through the process of working with interlocutors, I have made significant contributions to at least seven major projects: a regional age-friendly initiative; a course on creating intergenerational projects; the formation of a wisdom council; two complementary funded projects for intergenerational programming that will lead to a documentary; a third funded project for photo documentation that addresses social isolation and loneliness in seniors; and a book on the value of aging across cultures.

Additionally, the research methods can support participants to become more active in the organizations represented by the interlocutors. Methods such as life review, identifying life’s crossroads, spiritual life maps, and Life Forward plans, all part of my study, help older adults integrate their life experiences, engender hope for the future, and recover meaning that may be obscured (Cohen, 2006; Hodge, 2005; Keisari & Palgi, 2017). Mapping out the next chapter of life often results in repurposing and envisioning (McLean, 2016) – all important elements of contributing to organizations of their interlocutors and social change. Many of the research participants have become more supportive of the interlocutors through their participation in my research.

Taking the Social Change Agenda Forward

Student researchers with a social change agenda require a commitment to what may be a new field of inquiry. In future, I hope to become further enmeshed with my interlocutors, joining their networks and creating new networks through an atmosphere of continually strengthened trust. Hopefully, the number and quality of our collaborative actions will continue to grow.


Cohen, G. D. (2006). Research on creativity and aging: The positive impact of the arts on health and illness. Generations, 30(1), 7-15.

Eriksen, T. H. (2010). Small places, large issues: An introduction to social and cultural anthropology. New York, NY: Pluto Press.

Hodge, D. R. (2005). Spiritual life maps: A client-centered pictorial instrument for spiritual assessment, planning, and intervention. Social Work, 50(1), 77.

Keisari, S., & Palgi, Y. (2017). Life-crossroads on stage: integrating life review and drama therapy for older adults. Aging & Mental Health, 21(10), 1079-1089.

Kusenbach, M. (2003). Street phenomenology. Ethnography, 4(3), 455-485.

McLean, P. D. (2016). LifeForward: Charting the journey ahead. Santa Barbara, CA: The Hudson Institute Press.

Westbrook, D. A. (2008). Navigators of the contemporary: Why ethnography matters. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

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