UCL Social Networking Sites & Social Science Research Project
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    Elderly, ageing and social networking: a brief literature review

    By Tom McDonald, on 24 January 2013

    Photo by Ethan Prater (Creative Commons)

    One of the foci of our research project will be to assess the impact of social networking on elderly people and housebound individuals. Back in October of last year I spent a few days in the library undertaking a literature review on the theme to get an idea of what had been written so far.

    Most of the studies came from psychology. These investigations were almost all based in Europe or North America, and used questionnaires to try and understand the impact of internet use on people who were alone in their homes. Some studies suggested that computers and internet could decrease sense of isolation for homebound elderly and disabled persons, whilst others pointed to a relationship between social anxiety and a preference for online computer interaction. So the findings from these kind of studies, were perhaps not entirely conclusive.

    For anthropology, ageing represents a universal human phenomenon.  But at the same time, I agree with Lawrence Cohen that we should not just reify old age as an object of study. Even our titling of this research focus as ‘impact of social networking on elderly people and housebound individuals‘ is somewhat unfortunate, as it lumps together two groups of people that would not always identify with each other!

    Instead, I think that keeping an open mind on issues of ageing should be central to our ethnographic fieldwork. Ageing is a unique process which affects people in different cultures in vastly different ways, to the extent that some people in their seventies or eighties might not even identify as being ‘old’.

    And social networking will undoubtedly be bringing it’s own effects to the way ageing is understood and occurs in society. In an article by Laviolette and Hanson they record the effects of assistive technology devices that formed a telecare package were placed into the homes of older people with chronic heart failure living in north England. These devices were supposed to ‘monitor’ the older people’s activities (i.e. heart rate, moving around room, etc.) to enable them to remain at home instead of having to be admitted to a care home. Here too, being housebound was not necessarily a bad thing, and the participants of the study typically deeply feared the possibility that they might lose their home. However, whilst some participants appreciated that the monitors were reporting their health back to the hospital, for others they feared that the sensors would be used to gather evidence that would allow social care services to argue that the patients were unable to look after themselves in their own home.

    Our project will, of course, differ from all of the above. The data we gather will be through living with old people for 15 months in small towns of seven different countries. I will be fascinated to see how the findings of such in-depth, culturally diverse studies can contribute to our understanding of the way information technologies are shaping the lives of people in their older years.

    Why start with death?

    By Daniel Miller, on 8 October 2012

    Holding the hand of an elderly person

    Photo: Rosie O'Beirne (Creative Commons)

    Even I would have to admit it wasn’t the obvious way to go. The last three weeks have been amazing with the whole group coming together, but I have been on this project since May and during the intervening period I went ahead with my own fieldwork. Eventually all eight of us will start on our respective ethnographies with hopefully strong common threads. But we have agreed that there will also be some degree of autonomy in which we each have some themes of our own, something probably essential in a discipline such as anthropology.

    So in May I decided that my own theme would be to start my study in collaboration with a hospice. This was possibly a very stupid move since our project is centred upon the consequences of social networking sites, and the one group who are least likely to be using this sites are the elderly who, in turn, make up the majority of those who are terminally ill. So why work with a hospice? I guess there were three reasons. The first was that for such a large grant from the public purse I felt that ethics is not just written consent forms, ethics is also whether your research directly benefits the welfare of populations who, in some sense, are paying for it. As it happens, the hospice director was interested in the likely long-term impact of new media and had asked if I could work with them. The health service has been incredibly conservative on this front, the NHS is still mostly based on fax and letters, so this seemed potentially a useful contribution.

    The second was that I felt a project this big should address the big picture of anthropology, and not just our parochial ethnographies, and that, for theoretical reasons, I wanted to rethink what we understand by life as enhanced by technology and that this might be understood better in relation to the imminence of death. The third reason was that most researchers studying things like social network sites will simply focus on those alone, while for anthropology everything is context. Getting a real sense of the wider world of communications and social relations from non-users would ensure that we kept that broad context in view when it came to working on social networking sites specifically.

    It’s too early to know if any of these were right, but one thing I can say, is that you would not expect that a project based largely with terminal cancer patients would be anything other than downbeat. But I have found that these patients are genuinely happy to find someone who wants to talk about something other than illness and is asking for their advice and life stories and that actually the fieldwork so far has been really uplifting and often surprisingly enjoyable.