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Grand-parenting as the reconciliation of kinship

Daniel Miller10 April 2019

Kinship studies have been the bedrock of social anthropology for more than a century. But the main emphasis has been on issues of classification, the structuring of society, and the norms of relationships. Kinship will play a major role in our publications, but my hope is that the emphasis will be more on the experience of kinship. Grandparenting is a good example of this. Precisely because it comes late in life, grandparenting is so much more than simply the relationship to the grandchild. It is often a coming to terms with and sometimes a resolution of the entire experience of kinship up to that time. To understand why the people I study take a particular attitude or degree of involvement with grandparenting usually means understanding their past relationship to their own parents and to their children.

(Photo by Stacie Andrea)

For example, a man who feels he was neglected as part of a very large traditional family, and then in turn neglected the parenting of his own children, because he was in full time work, may see being a grandfather as his first opportunity to explore kinship as inter-generational love and care in depth. While a woman who had most of the burden of parenting and feels she discharged her responsibilities and has experienced that intensity of love and care, may be quite happy to keep her role as grandmother to a minimum, using this period to find the balance between personal autonomy and kinship obligations that has eluded her through a lifespan that up to now has fluctuated between too much kinship and too little kinship (such as the period of the empty nest).

When this works well grandparenting is both joyful and profound because it is experienced as the final reconciliation of so many tensions within past kinship, now at last reaching a balance in which kinship becomes pure enjoyment. But the key to this is not so much the relationship one chooses to have with one’s grandchildren but the transformation this brings about in the relationship to one’s own children. Because as a result of grandparenting, people often find that their own children, who for the period when they were teenagers or in their twenties, may have been barely in touch, are now, to at least a small degree, dependent again upon their parents. But often unlike the period when they were young, and most unlikely at the time they were teenagers, they may both acknowledge and appreciate that dependence and what their parents did for them. Welcoming their parents as the grandparents of their children demonstrates that they finally trust and respect the parenting that they themselves received. I have also been struck by how grandparents contrast this situation with the trauma and neglect they felt at being raised in traditional large families which seem to have resulted in many tensions with siblings and their own parents, and which now they are coming to terms with.

Often things do not work out quite so smoothly, a daughter wants her mother to mind both her grandchildren so she can go back to work. But the grandmother refuses because she wants to remain their grandmother not an ersatz mother. A child with very bad memories of being parented may want to keep the grandparent away from their own children. Grandparents feel they have been replaced by smartphone screens as their grandchildren are present in their carem but not interested in the stories and toys that the grandparents have been aching to share one more time. On balance though, at least for the people in Cuan I have been studying, grandparenting often appears to be this profound coming to terms with the entire history of kinship experienced up to that time.

My point is that studying grandparenting in depth has helped me towards an alternative anthropology of kinship itself, one that is perhaps more holistic and based on kinship as cumulative experience, a rather different perspective to the traditions of kinship studies I was taught as a student.

Neurochemical selves or social prescription? by Pauline Garvey

Xin Yuan Wang15 December 2018

Social Prescribing Brochure available at https://www.hse.ie/eng/health/hl/selfmanagement/donegal/programmes-services/social-prescribing/social-prescribing-brochure.pdf

In an academic article in the early 2000s sociologist Nikolas Rose asks ‘How did we become neurochemical selves? How did we come to think about our sadness as a condition called “depression” caused by a chemical imbalance in the brain and amenable to treatment by drugs that would “rebalance” these chemicals?’[i]. During the decade from 1990-2000 Rose charts high rates of prescribing psychiatric drugs in Europe, Japan and the United States. In Europe growth in the value of prescription drugs rose by over 125% while growth in sales of similar drugs in the United States rose by over 600%. He notes that a decline in prescriptions for hypnotics and anxiolytics was matched by a rise in prescriptions for anti-depressants of about 200% (2003: 46).

There is, however, another trend that is gathering momentum on the international stage and which couldn’t be more different than the trends that Rose documents.  Social prescription takes an altogether different approach to health and embeds it in social networks and cultural activities. It is defined by the NHS as ‘helping patients to improve their health, wellbeing and social welfare by connecting them to community services which might be run by the council or a local charity[ii]. In Ireland the Health Service Executive webpage speaks directly to the reader and defines it as a free service that ‘helps to link you with sources of support and social activities within your community. These include Physical activity, Reading groups/books for health, Self-help programmes such as the Stress Control Programme, Men’s Sheds, Community gardening, Arts and creativity’. Social Prescribing is for you if you feel that you need some support to mind your health and wellbeing, you feel isolated, stressed, anxious or depressed, you simply feel you need the service[iii]

In a comparable project called Local Asset Mapping Project (LAMP) run through St James’s Hospital in Dublin their webpage again addresses the reader directly and conjures the scenario: ‘Imagine visiting your doctor and as well as getting a prescription for a pill, you get an electronic  prescription designed especially for you, with a list of all the local businesses and services around you that might improve your health – that is the vision of LAMP’[iv]. The LAMP project points out that wellbeing is determined by ‘good health behaviours’ such as exercise, nutrition, minimal alcohol consumption and good social networks, but notes that traditional medical consultation does not address this adequately’.   As if to echo these arguments, just two weeks ago the Irish Longitudinal Study on Ageing at Trinity College Dublin (TILDA) presented their most recent findings regarding ‘Change in life circumstances’ for Ireland’s over 50s between 2009 and 2016. They found that quality of life peaks at 68, and therefore shouldn’t be thought of in a linear way (ie as a steady decline) but also that fundamental to quality of life is social connnectedness. Quality of life improves with age for the majority of their sample, but only if social engagement is strong. [v]

As an anthropologist the holistic approach to health and wellbeing makes perfect sense. My respondents do not organise their lives ‘in silos’ (see LAMP), and how one feels ripples into all aspects of life, in the same way that everyday experiences are integral to how people think about their wellbeing, happiness – and age. Some respondents occasionally talk in neurochemical terms -particularly when wondering how to get a good night’s sleep, but the majority of their time and energy is devoted to their busy lives.  One of my informants aged in her early 80s resisted joining Active Ageing groups because she did not consider herself elderly. Another woman said ‘I’m 78 but I feel 60, I feel younger, not older’. In the course of my research I have met some retired men and women who are lonely, isolated or bored but many others take to retirement with vigour and enthusiasm. What interests me is whether these activities such as knitting, writing or meeting friends for coffee are reflected upon as ‘good health behaviours’. What are the social trends that social prescription is tapping into, or indeed leading?  Meanwhile as I conduct me research the benefits of social embeddedness seem clear. As one man told me since retiring from work he has never been so busy.

[i] Rose, N. (2003) ‘Neurochemical Selves’ Society 41 (1): 46–59.

[ii] https://www.england.nhs.uk/contact-us/privacy-notice/how-we-use-your-information/public-and-partners/social-prescribing/

[iii] https://www.hse.ie/eng/health/hl/selfmanagement/donegal/programmes-services/social-prescribing/

[iv] http://www.ehealthireland.ie/Case%20Studies/Local-Asset-Mapping-Project-at-St-James-Hospital/

[v] https://tilda.tcd.ie/news-events/2018/1812-w4-key-findings/