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Bringing Ageing to Life

alex.clegg12 May 2022

Author: Charlotte Hawkins

On 8th June, the ASSA team will host a workshop to bring together different anthropologists of ageing. This will include discussion of comparative papers from each of the team members.

My paper, written alongside ASSA researcher Laura Haapio-Kirk, offers a comparative perspective of ageing and how it is defined around the world. Whilst we bring insights from our colleague’s research, the bulk of the ethnographic comparison is based around my work in Kampala, Uganda, and Laura’s in Osaka, Japan; despite contrasting socio-demographic circumstances, with Uganda one of the world’s youngest populations, and Japan one of the world’s oldest, this comparative framework offers an opportunity to explore how people redefine age and older personhood in ever-changing circumstances, particularly in light of shifting intergenerational relationships.

Like the rest of the ASSA team, both Laura and I quickly realised that the ‘mid-life’ or ‘middle age’ (45-70 years old) category we had set out with, was not particularly applicable in our research contexts. For example, amongst my participants in Uganda, including older people, health workers, researchers of ageing[i] and age-based advocacy organizations in Kampala such as The Aged Family Uganda (TAFU), Uganda Reach the Aged Association (URAA), HelpAge Uganda, Health Nest Uganda (HENU), age is more likely to be determined by the experience and health of the individual, as well as their income and environment. People with sufficient experience and social status could be considered an elder at as young as 40 years old. Or, in Japan, older age categories are shifting within the ‘super ageing society’. While such age-based categories may be required for developing policy regarding health care and work, Laura found that such categories are of diminished importance for most people in their daily lives. For example, while people may recognise that they are suffering from age-based illnesses or use the category of ‘elderly’ when struggling with their smartphone (“I can’t do it, I’m elderly!”), in their day-to-day lives they also enjoy many continuities with their younger selves and feel rather that their interests and personality have actually become even more pronounced with age. Or, in Ireland, Brazil, Chile and China, people aged 45-70 rebuke the stereotypes associated with middle age which is something the ASSA project explored in more depth as this short video shows.

This is not to say that age categories are not also socially significant, but that they do not necessarily acquire meaning in line with the chronological concept of age we had set out with. Instead, our comparative discussion shows that age categories are socially negotiable, which means that they are dynamic, experiential and continually evolving, but also often articulated in line with established intergenerational norms and family roles. In this articulation, what values are brought to life, re-established, and experienced as part of ageing? How does this relate to contemporary contexts informed by global marketisation, migration, urbanisation and digitisation?

The ASSA project has documented various ethnographic examples which demonstrate how age is redefined by our research participants in diverse settings and within a shared global context of population ageing, longer life expectancies, declining public health investment and increasingly individualised self-responsibility. These redefinitions tend to disrupt chronologies, for example in resistance to meanings attributed to ‘middle age’ or ‘elderly’, and in the more relational and experiential definitions of age, ‘bringing ageing to life’. Often, we found that people seek to re-define established categories of age based on their experience as it deviates from that of their parents’ generation or public discourses around ageing. In some cases, this may reflect ‘active ageing’ discourses or even ageist attitudes, which tend to discriminate against inactivity, poor health and appearances of age.

[i] Thanks to Dr. Annet Nankwanga, Dr. Betty Kwagala and Dr. Abel Nzabona at Makerere University for introducing categories of age in the Ugandan context.

Ethno-graphic collaborations

alex.clegg31 March 2022

Author: Laura Haapio-Kirk

During my research in Japan, I became increasingly aware of the importance of visual communication, for example stickers and emoji, for how many of my research participants were using their smartphones. As a result I decided to experiment with collaborative graphic methods that combined both analogue and digital media, to explore a range of topics including participants’ relationships to their smartphones and their notions of life purpose (ikigai in Japanese). I found that through such collaborative graphic approaches I was able to foreground their framing and aesthetic choices in conducting and disseminating my research, and importantly, was able to access different kinds of knowledge than without such collaborative approaches.

For example, Ito Megumi, one of my research participants in my rural site, is an artist who I invited to paint her response to the word ikigai. The resulting painting below was then used as the basis for elicitation during remote interviews conducted over zoom. In grounding the interviews in a painting she had created, the discussion was directed by her sense of narrative which emerged as non-linear, highlighting connections throughout her life, represented by motifs in the painting. It was only by using her painting as the basis of our discussion that I was able to understand how she thought of this elusive topic which had proved rather contentious among many of my research participants, associated as it is with the pressure to finds one’s ikigai as one gets older. It was through such drawing exercises that I was able to see how people felt that ikigai, and other intangible topics, figured in their lives, drawing out feelings that are difficult to put into words.

Painting by Ito Megumi, 2021

When I was asked by one of the editors of Trajectoria, a new experimental journal published by the Japanese National Museum of Ethnology, to submit a proposal for a special issue, I knew that I wanted to use this opportunity to further explore the collaborative potential of graphic methods in anthropological research. The editors were responsive to the idea, as were several contributors who I approached. After almost a year of collaboration, the special issue ‘Ethno-graphic Collaborations: Crossing Borders with Multimodal Illustration’ has just been published. The issue includes wonderful contributions from two anthropologists (Dimitrios Theodossopoulos and José Sherwood González) and two anthropologist-artist collaborators (Charlie Rumsby with Ben Thomas, and myself with Ito Megumi), along with an extended discussion by Dimitrios. In the piece by Ito Megumi and myself, you can hear Megumi talking about the various elements of her painting in embedded audio clips, turning her painting into a multimodal exploration that blurs the distinction between research object and research dissemination.

The special issue also contains several discussion videos between all of the contributors, in which we talk more broadly about the gifts of graphic anthropology and modes of collaboration. Please see my introduction for more details on the contributions, and the various ways in which they highlight different potentials of collaboration through graphic experimentation in anthropological research.