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Health and Ethics – by Pauline Garvey

LauraHaapio-Kirk1 August 2019

Author: Pauline Garvey

The current advertising slogan for Gaelic Sports Clubs is ‘Where We All Belong’. The girl is shown holding a hurl for the sport called camogie. Gaelic sports including camogie for women and hurling for men have a huge national following, all-Ireland finals easily fill the national stadium with 80,000 spectators.

 

Why is it important to be active, or is it important to be active in specific ways? In recent years there has been mounting focus on health and wellbeing, as evident in the launch of the ‘Healthy Ireland Framework’ (2013-2025) a Government-led initiative that aims to enhance the population’s health. In this initiative health is presented as a public good, of individual and social concern. In the face of troubling temptations that arise with modern lifestyles the launch of this framework explicitly carries an ethical imperative: individual health, it asserts, affects the quality of everybody’s life experience. It is for the collective good to maintain one’s health. The approach recommends that the way to enhance wellbeing is less by focussing on the negative and more by highlighting what one can do to stay well. It recommends, in other words, a focus on the positive instead of the retribution of a poor quality of life that comes with bad behaviour.[i]

Often such initiatives focus on activities. From my fieldwork with middle-class Dubliners I have learned that staying well and being healthy is often talked about as routinised and collective in nature. People gather to walk, run or do yoga and the group aspect is an essential ingredient in the diverse efforts to stay healthy. When people talk of ‘activities’ they are often referring to group activities rather than solitary ones. Lots of keep-fit activities like walking or running can be done alone, yet they seem to be more successful when done with others. Respondents who attend tai chi classes might attend with a friend, and even if they don’t join these groups to extend their social networks they seem to prefer them to following a YouTube course online. This is interesting because it implies there is an added feel-good factor to the demonstration of healthy living beyond the benefits that come with social interaction. It is not just about being healthy, I suggest, but pursuing health in the company of others carries an added benefit in a cultural context where consensus is highly valued.

Younger respondents who have children report emphasis on mindfulness in schools where the health and wellbeing of children and young adults is couched as a social and spiritual category as much as a physical one. The National Council for Curriculum for example states that in ‘health promotion, health is about more than physical health and wellbeing. It is also concerned with social, emotional and spiritual health and wellbeing.’[ii] What we are seeing therefore is an interesting blurring of health, ethics and even spirituality to the degree that it is difficult to discern their distinctions.

 

References:

[i] A Framework For Improved Health and Wellbeing 2013 – 2025, available online https://assets.gov.ie/7555/62842eef4b13413494b13340fff9077d.pdf)

[ii] The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment. https://curriculumonline.ie/getmedia/007175e5-7bb7-44c0-86cb-ba7cd54be53a/SCSEC_SPHE_Framework_English.pdf

‘Ikigai’ – what is your purpose in life? By Laura Haapio-Kirk

LauraHaapio-Kirk25 July 2019

Photo (CC BY) Laura Haapio-Kirk.

I went to meet Wada san* on his land in the heart of the mountains of Tosa-cho, where he grows the plant sasaki, common in Shinto ceremonies and used to decorate altars. He keeps ducks who help him to take care of his rice by eating weeds and harmful insects, and by fertilising the rice crop. He knows the paths and trees in his forest as well as a city person would know the streets and buildings of their neighbourhood. School children often come here to learn about nature and see how we can work with it, such as by making beautiful things out of wood, or healing ourselves with plant remedies. He told us that the plants that are able to grow and thrive here in the mountains, growing up through other vegetation, have the strength to survive and therefore when you eat them you too gain some of that vitality. Along with my research assistant Lise Sasaki and two friends, we spent several hours walking and talking together about happiness and the things in life that give a sense of purpose, in Japanese termed ikigai. While this is quite an abstract term, Wada san was able to explain his ideas through vivid analogies to the landscape that surrounds him.

“What is happiness? Human being’s happiness… I’ve heard that it is health. But after that, its whether or not you find the job you want to devote your life to. I have lived through many jobs and have picked up skills throughout. Now I use those skills to do what I do, my passion. My life story, my life history is written in the mountains, and is remembered by the mountains. Working in an office, once you retire someone else will take on your job. But in this rural area the trees I have planted will grow and remain here, and the trees will be cut down and I will plant them again. It will be a cycle. Not only that cycle, but here – (shows us the rings of a cut tree) you can see how much it has grown, how much it has lived. The trees, even if they are chopped, they will live on as someone else’s house or in another form. It reincarnates as several things. Trees live once in the mountains, giving us oxygen and giving to us our life. And it lives that way. But in its second life, it is transformed into our homes, giving us comfort. We can’t see the oxygen, but it produces it – let’s say it was living in the mountains for 50 years and then it was chopped down and lived as a house for 50 years. Then it has lived for 100 years.”

Wada san explained that trees, like humans, are naturally wild, but that with the right kind of nurture they can find their way in the world. He said that when we are becoming an adult we have to choose our path in life and our role in society – trees are the same. For many people I have spoken to the idea of ikigai is linked to the satisfaction you gain by fulfilling your role in society, especially when you see your positive impact on others. Whether through making delicious bean paste sweets and sharing them with people, or in taking workshops to become a better teacher for your students, people agree that one element of ikigai is about trying your best in serving others.

Everyone has a different definition of ikigai. For some people it refers to dreams and ambitions, such as pursuing a career as an artist, for others it is about doing daily activities which align with one’s interests such as learning English, or for others it is more about the thing in life that you could not live without, such as your children. For some people it is about enjoyment of life, for others it is about the fulfilment of obligations, and some people are in between – a sense of ikigai can come in both difficult and joyous moments and it is more about an underlying feeling of immersion in life.

The English translation of “purpose in life”, it seems, is completely inadequate for understanding the broad range of meanings that ikigai can have in Japan. In England we often talk about life dreams, or working towards goals that we want to achieve. But it seems that people here think about life purpose in a more subtle way, through trying your best day-to-day and being fully present in whatever you are doing. Wada san explained that we must live in the now, rather than waiting for happiness in the future. I think this is an important lesson for us all, especially for people living hectic city lives far removed from the cycles and rhythms of nature. We can often get caught up in our to-do lists and anxieties rather than being fully aligned with our passions and the flow of life.

Human beings are always worried, human being all have anxiety. If your passion wins over, you’re okay. If anxiety takes you over, you can’t take a step. You think life and death are far apart? They’re next to each other. You can die anytime you know? It’s up to you whether you stay anxious or live to the fullest, with passion.” 

Thank you to Wada san for sharing your time, wisdom, and inspiring passion for nature with us.

 

*Wada san is a pseudonym because this man preferred to remain anonymous.

The Words of “oldness” in Yaoundé — by Patrick Awondo

XinyuanWang18 January 2019

Hat weaving, common creative by Max Pixel

In a book published in 2004 the French linguist Alain Montandon[1] brought together studies that show how old age is expressed in different languages, not only Indo-European languages, but also in other parts of the world and especially in Africa. Montandon argues that these amount to two universal traits.

Firstly, in almost all languages, there are various categories  of old age, especially a division between terms implying  physical old age as against normative categories of old age. For example, old age may be considered a “a gift of God, a spiritual achievement”. At the same time, old age is linguistically expressed in terms of declining physical abilities, such as impotence. The decline of the body may become linguistically associated with  personality disorders that contrast other images of an old person who is “happy, harmonious, full of wisdom and serenity “.

Perception of old age may reference elements of physical modification, such as the appearance of white hair. Montandon also notes the sociocultural variability of age categorizations. Almost always signs of are or relative maturity are different when applied to the poor as opposed to the rich.  Our comparative project accentuates these economic differences because of its focus upon retirement, which presupposes a formal structure of employment, that cannot be assumed for some of our fieldsites, and this shows the importance of such comarative studies. With these thoughts in mind, what do the linguistic expressions of the perception of old age tell us about  Yaoundé and Cameroon?

Expressing old age in Yaoundé

Originally inhabited by the Ewondo, Yaoundé is today home to nearly 3 million people from across Cameroon. French is the most commonly spoken official language across the country, employed by 80% of the population followed by English.[ref UNESCO]. So linguistic terms testify to a creativity that speaks to the dynamics of contemporary French aligned with borrowings from many national and local languages which remain strong alongisde the two official languages. For example, Ewondo, the Bantu langauge of Yaounde.

However, I would prefer to start with the Ewondo language, which belongs to the Bantu group.  In Ewondo the expression “Nya modo”, ‘this cultural area and modo ‘man’. ‘Nya modo’ is a name and a notion that refers to a person perceived as old, as well as a concept symbolically meaning the attributes of nobility of spirit, of wisdom. Even today, the expression ‘Nya modo’ refers to people who are seen as being middle aged, the most prestigious age group, superseding even the elderly. The term is made up of nya’ meaning ‘mother’ and modo which means man in the sense of the human species. The female equivalent of ‘nya modo’ is ‘nya minega’, which carries less status.

Aging: age, social status and moral discourse

In everyday French, older age is often expressed through a term analogous with the English expression ‘of a certain age’  which for people in Yaounde seems to translate as ‘as an intermediate age’, neither too old nor too young, implying people over 50 years old. The informants of Yaounde often say “he / she has an old age” while the expression “advanced age” could mean an “older person”. The top end of this category according to most informants would be around 70 years old. When a Yaoundéan feels that a person “of a certain age” says things which are deemed unworthy, he will be called “an old man like that” or an “old woman like that”, making clear the moral expectations that are associated with the process of ageing  This puts forward a moral expectation related to ‘getting old’.  In this manner we can see the linguistic variety within yaoundé that help to both forge categories for labelling the stages of ageing, but also represent these as having moral and cultural expectations against which the actual people are judged. . These games of linguistic meaning are important especially because the people who are thereby designated with both labels and normative expectations have then to confront the manner in which they have been defined.

[1] For more please see Alain Montandon (études rassemblées par), Les Mots du Vieillir, Clermont-Ferrand, Presses Universitaires Blaise Pascal, 2004.

Let’s laugh together – by Marilia Duque

XinyuanWang26 December 2018

Author: Marilia Duque

Marilia (left) with her friend

One year of fieldwork and I must say, I am here laughing alone whilst I remember all the good times I had with my informants. At first I could have argued that most of them were fighting against the stigmas of ageing. On one hand, it means that they were trying their best to hide their physical limitations in order to keep their independence and their autonomy. On the other hand, it also means they were trying to adapt to the model of successful ageing, the image of respectful old people who are healthy, productive and socially engaged. Yes, they are always alert and fighting for their space and that resistance can result in a kind of self-surveillance, with a zero-tolerance with those who try to make fun of old people.
But wait until you are accepted by the group, wait until they feel comfortable with your presence and you will be surprised. They laugh at old people all the time. They recognize their frailties and they make fun of them. I was at an event with old people last week, and an old lady was stealing the scene, dancing with her very long hair, when one jealous old woman whispered to me “her geriatric diaper will fall”. After a while, when the lunch was served and a long queue of old people had formed, one of them said laughing, “where is the senior row? I have priority”. They also make jokes of issues like impotence, lack of memory, deafness, insomnia and their difficulties with technology. They address with humour the amount of time they spend in hospitals, all they have to do to pay their health insurance, how young people think they are stupid and how they feel tired after they have to pretend they were not “that old”.
We shared incredible moments together when they were not old people anymore. They were just human beings facing some difficulties in life and getting old day after day, just like me and anyone else.

We are all going to die before we get old

DanielMiller2 December 2018

When The Who sang ‘I hope I die before I get old’, the underlying assumption was that unless they died first they would become elderly. For The Beatles we were already sitting by the fireside knitting a sweater or with grandchildren on the knee by the age of 64. As a result it is possible to give a precise date to the ‘death’ of the elderly, which is 28th May 2007, when a band called The Zimmers consisting of people who had to use zimmer frames, sang ‘I hope I die before I get Old’ on the BBC. They later also covered You Gotta Fight for your Right to Party.

When we started this project I was aiming to concentrate on what I called Mid-Life, roughly between 45-70. It didn’t take long to realise I had been hopelessly simplistic. Mid-Life would need to be between two other categories. But this doesn’t really work if people no longer regard themselves as getting old or elderly. What our fieldwork demonstrates is how variable this issue of age and elderly has become. To have a fixed age bracket makes no sense when people rarely live into that bracket in our Kampala site, routinely retire at 50 in Shanghai and are still planting rice at 95 in Japan. But the other major issue is that in each site one senses that becoming elderly is turning into a choice. Visiting our Palestinian site it was clear that many women in their sixties are comfortable taking on the clothing, mannerism and activities designated for that separate senior group that could be called elderly. In my own Irish fieldsite there remain some people where this is still the case. Most conspicuously at the rather misnamed Active Retirement Group that is dedicated to playing bingo and a few mild activities such as tea dances, but clearly rejected the suggestion that they might replace bingo on one occasion with computer classes.

As fieldwork has progressed, it has been increasingly clear that they represent a declining proportion of people, in that most I meet of the same age as those in this relatively (in)Active Retirement Group, feel no affinity with that shift into a category of elderly. Nor do they relate to the idea of mid-life. Instead they state firmly, if slightly apologetically, that they feel in almost every respect youthful. The Rolling Stones were prescient in that apparently, they will Not Fade Away.

The Rolling Stones at Marcus Amphitheater in Milwaukee, USA, performing at Summerfest festival on June 23, 2015 – Photo by Jim Pietryga (wikemedia commons)

The people I meet really do feel that youth was wasted on the young and they spend their time power walking, and bicycling if they are fit enough, or otherwise playing intensely competitive bridge and learning new skills such as painting or singing. They still listen to rock music and at least consider dating, if appropriate. When, as here, a 13 year old is desperate to see 72 year old Cher at Las Vegas the relationship between music and age is pretty unclear.

The other side to this change is that previously to be senior was to gain ‘wisdom’ and respect. This made sense in an agricultural society where older people were skilled as a result of longer experience. But the skills that matter more today consist of things like using smartphones. Many of these older people welcome this loss of wisdom because it is replaced by continued equality with youth, rather than being placed in another category. On a committee they are listened to simply to the extent that others find their argument convincing, the same as everyone else.

The category elderly is likely to remain but now seems to designate physical disability and the dependence upon others, within which the clearest example is dementia. People recognise that there will eventually be a physical deterioration leading to death, so the category is more about dying and incapacity, rather than entering a different cultural category. Until then they will not regard themselves as having become old, however white their hair or resplendent their liver spots. Different societies are moving in this direction at different speeds but my prediction is eventually we will all die before we get old.

 

Sharing is caring: communities of abundance in rural Japan – by Laura Haapio-Kirk

LauraHaapio-Kirk22 October 2018

Harvested corn. Illustration by Laura Haapio-Kirk

Last week I returned from ten days among the wonderful people of my rural fieldsite in Kochi prefecture. The vibrant green rice terraces I had been mesmerised by back in August are now the colour of gold, and in the fields small pyramids of drying rice are beginning to appear. It is harvest season and I was able to experience first hand, as people kept telling me, how Kochi is truly a land of abundance. I was given bags of chestnuts and yuzu lemons, and large Japanese pears (nashi); people here are adamant about sharing the fruits of their labour. The gifting of food binds the community and is, as one woman told me, important for creating a feeling of wealth without money: “Even if we have no money here in Kochi, we have abundance because we can grow so much delicious food and we love to share it.”

Community is sustained in this small rural town through a number of institutional initiatives, such as group activities for elderly residents, or regular workshops in the town hall, for example for new mothers. But it is also through these informal networks of reciprocal giving that community is made. The building and sustaining of community is especially important to people here because Japan’s ageing and shrinking population is felt most acutely in rural areas. It is not rare to come across abandoned schools which have been repurposed as community spaces, and indeed entire empty villages. Yet, I have also come across another quite different picture – young people and families moving into this rural town in search of a slower pace of life and self-sustainability. I have met numerous families who left behind jobs in cities both in Japan and abroad, to start new lives in a place where they feel safe; both protected by a community that looks out for each other, and as a number of people have told me, far enough away from the site of the Fukushima nuclear disaster of 2011 for the food to not be contaminated.

Akaushi – a famous breed of local cow. Illustration by Laura Haapio-Kirk.

This group of relatively recent immigrants, who have mostly arrived within the last eight years, are active on Facebook community groups where they buy and sell clothing, and post about local events. I have been told that local people are less active on Facebook, but perhaps more reliant on one-to-one messaging through Line. However, I have come across local people practicing traditional crafts who share their work on social media. For example, one woodworker in his sixties who uses Instagram to promote his products has customers as far as Tokyo. He told me “It is important for us to be active online because this is how we can reach the rest of Japan and the world, and show the beautiful things that we make here from nature.” Indeed, one of the first people to move to this community eight years ago blogged about her experience and inspired others to follow her move from urban to rural living. Blogs and social media are one way that people in rural Japan can influence a wider perception of the rural from being depopulated and dying, to re-populated and thriving. Social media also provides an opportunity for local people to build and develop their community in new ways. As my bags of fruit demonstrate, they have always had an extraordinary tradition of sharing.

Conducting a health check in rural Japan

LauraHaapio-Kirk22 August 2018

Earlier this month I was invited to help in an annual health check in a rural town in Kochi prefecture. I had wanted to find a rural comparative site to my main fieldsite of Kyoto, so when Dr Yumi Kimura, a researcher at Osaka University, invited me to participate in the health check, this seemed like the perfect opportunity to establish myself in a rural community. I arrived in Kikuyama* on a Sunday afternoon along with my research assistant, Lise Sasaki, and about 50 other researchers, students, doctors, and dentists. The five-hour train and bus journey from Kyoto ran alongside sparkling clear turquoise rivers winding their way through lush mountains.

We were first briefly taken to a scenic spot to view rice terracing; breath-taking luminous green tumbling down the mountainside. But that was the limit of our sightseeing; we soon got down to business. We were expecting to welcome about 300 people to the health check over the next five days so we spent that Sunday afternoon preparing. The health check was to take place in a large hall adjacent to the town’s health clinic. We set up distinct areas for different kinds of medicine and tests, including areas for dentists, cardiologists, gynaecologists, mobility and dexterity tests, dementia tests, driving tests, blood tests, and a space for general practitioners to give consultations at the end of the visit. The area where Lise and I were stationed featured a machine called InBody which we used to measure body fat and muscle percentage.

The machine works by running a small electric current via electrodes placed on the fingers and ankles. Over the course of the week, while we attached and removed electrodes, we had a chance to chat with people about their health. This was a great opportunity to meet a large number of people in a short space of time and to establish myself as a known person to this community. Many were very surprised to see a foreigner, and some even asked to touch my hair, telling me it was the first time they had seen someone with fair hair and skin up close. Given the hectic nature of the health check we were only able to have long conversations with a few people, most were limited to about five to ten minutes. However, we managed to get a sense of the topics that were most insistent and frequently occurring in relation to health: work, food, luck, and community. Identification of these key topics will direct my conversations that are scheduled during my return trip in October, when I am planning to conduct more in-depth interviews and also do filming. Without participating in the health check I feel it would have taken much longer to build up trust with this rural community, especially as a foreigner, but now we have many invitations to visit people in their homes.

I will save a longer discussion of the above mentioned topics for a blog post after my second visit to the site, but for now I will briefly explain why the topic of work appears so pertinent to understanding how health is conceived in this community. Most people we met were rice farmers or foresters, often still working well into their 80s. The foresters had extremely big hands which were often missing fingers, and the rice farmers were deeply tanned from spending their days in the fields. This is hard work which leaves its mark on the body, yet when asked what is the secret to staying healthy and energetic (genki) in old age nearly everyone said that daily work is key. Men and women appeared to be equally committed to farming, while all of the foresters were male. For some farming had been a life-long career, and for others they had taken it up after retiring from other jobs. While the physical nature of strenuous work appears to benefit the physical health of these strong elderly people, I am particularly fascinated by how the sociality of work affects people’s emotional and mental health. Farming requires communication, not only with suppliers and buyers, but also with fellow farmers about how to cooperate and to manage seasonal fluctuations. People also mentioned that they socialise with people who do the same work: a rice farmer will go and have sake now and then with fellow rice farmers in their association. The significance of work for health in later life appears to be about more than staying active or having an income, it seems to be central to maintaining a sense of belonging within a community. I look forward to further exploring this topic, along with the others, in the months to come.

 

Text and Illustrations by Laura Haapio-Kirk

*A pseudonym is used in order to protect privacy.

The Challenge of Menopause – Daniel Miller

DanielMiller3 August 2018

Photo (CC BY) Daniel Miller

For a project concerned with health and mid-life, menopause is an obvious target. What specifically does an anthropological perspective add, first to understanding menopause and second to envisaging a positive digital intervention? One key anthropological component, which is the comparative perspective, will have to wait until the team completes its research, but from my Irish fieldsite there are many possible insights. The challenge is firstly that no two women have the same experience. Menopause can start in your 30s or 50s. It can be almost symptom-free or have dramatic effects, some of which may never end.

The anthropologist will focus on the way medical issues are inextricable from the social context. The effect can be on close relationships. As a pharmacist told me, Sometimes they come and say ‘I’m ready to kill my husband I think I’m going crazy’ very reassured when you say it could be the menopause”. Or women report that vaginal dryness makes it too painful to have sex. Women have told me that their mothers never mentioned menopause to them, or that they do or do not feel they can discuss the topic with their sister or close friends. Mostly they report that menopause is a topic that can only be broached through jokes. The impact might also be on wider relationships, such as to one’s work: “You might say to your colleague `could you just take over for a moment’ and then not explain why you would disappear, because you had a flush and you needed to remove yourself”.

Then there is the relation to wider medical authorities. Concerns about HRT or addictive sleeping pills may mean they prefer to consult complementary medicine rather than doctors. Knowledge seems to be a complete lottery, where some are well aware of the potential effects on bone density while others have never had anyone suggest this is something they might look into. Listening to women, within an ethnography, also alerts one to the considerable differences in perspective. One woman will give a feminist perspective about the need to rethink menopause as a celebration of a natural process, rather than merely a medical problem. While another, who is undergoing IVF and is desperate to have children, sees nothing to celebrate.

For us, the ASSA team, it is important that this same alertness to the social and wider context should manifest itself as the anthropological contribution towards delivering that will be of genuine benefit. One of the lessons from this research is that we need to see smartphone apps less as autonomous interventions and more as potential hubs. Different women will respond to different levels of information. There are those who are turned off by text and just want visuals, contrasted to those who want to read the medical journals. In my research so far, women have split equally between those who would prefer a discussion forum based on complete anonymity, to those who would only want to discuss these issues with people they can identity and feel some sort of relation to. In making relevant information more accessible all these factors need to be taken into account, but first and foremost comes listening to what a broad range of women say.

 

Work, stress, and health in Japan

LauraHaapio-Kirk4 July 2018

Photo (CC BY) Laura Haapio-Kirk

“Because of my job it is not easy to feel Im living a healthy life. If you have a stressful life or stressful job it is a cause of ill-health. Work gives you stress but you need work to be healthy.”

This quote is from Tomoko san, a teacher who is near the age of retirement but is not considering retiring any time soon. She works six days per week and lives alone, her adult daughter living in another city. We met in the botanical garden and, after feeding turtles, we chatted overlooking a small lake and ate rice crackers that she had brought. We talked about health and in particular its relationship to stress which has surfaced as the most commonly cited source of ill-health in my conversations with people so far. She works hard and acknowledges that work stress, particularly social stress from colleagues and parents of students, causes ill-health. But at the same time she recognises that routine and purposeful work keeps her healthy. Her quote above is interesting because it captures this idea of work as both the main cause and prevention of ill-health, expressed in different ways by all of my informants. The routine and stimulation provided by work, especially of interacting with younger colleagues, has been cited as a way that people feel like they might retain their youth and stay healthy.

Diminished mental health, widely recognised by my informants under the umbrella term “stress”, does not appear to be as much of a priority to address as bodily health and fitness. Work and social relations are simply accepted as stressful because of a deference to hierarchical structures within social life. Colleagues often may not leave work until after their boss and then, if they are required to go drinking together, they also cannot leave the bar until their boss wants to. If a boss is insensitive to the exhaustion of their colleagues, this is known as power hara or power harassment. This kind of intense pressure from social bonds is often accepted as a source of stress and ill-health which people can do little about. As one informant told me with a sense of resignation “we (Japanese) have a lot of stress in daily life”. Unsurprisingly the mindfulness trend seen in Europe is also popular in Japan. However one of my informants said that mindfulness is just trendy and that people don’t really practice such activities in their daily lives. Japanese cultural activities such as tea ceremony and flower arranging (ikebana) are also supposed to be a form of paying attention and mindfulness, but as someone told me “ordinary people want to learn (such things) because its cool. For us, the mind is not so important, lifestyle is much more important. Mental health is not visible, whereas your body is, so people easily forget to take care of their mental health. How we look is very important.” One woman in her 40s confirmed these sentiments when she told me that the invisibility of mental health means that people often ignore warning signs and then reach burn-out stage. This is what happened to her while working as a designer, a job which often required 14-hour days. She subsequently quit the profession entirely and is now working as an administrator for a medium-sized company, where she feels less pressure to work excessively and therefore her health has returned.

Another person I have been getting to know is Hiroshi san, a 66-year-old nurse who also works 6 days per week. He tried retirement for 3 months but found that he wasn’t writing the novel he had planned to write, and instead felt anxious that others were doing more than him and being more productive, so he returned to work. For him, his peers are rivals who he feels in direct competition with, and retirement means dropping out of the race. Other people have told me that they don’t want to retire because it’s not healthy, they will just end up watching tv all day long, which they feel will shorten their lives. Work and “ikigai”, or purpose in life, are so bound up with health in Japan, yet in every conversation I’ve had people cite work as their main cause of stress and stress as their main cause of ill-health. This is a paradox I wish to further explore in the coming months.

Author: Laura Haapio-Kirk

Note: all names used are pseudonyms.

What is a smartphone?

DanielMiller1 June 2018

Author: Daniel Miller

Photo (CC BY) newkemall

I have spent the last two months in my Irish fieldsite trying to answer a simple question: what is a smartphone? Actually, it’s a fiendishly difficult question. Several older people started our discussion by insisting that the only things they use their phones for are voice calls and texting. Once we looked at the phone in more detail, it turned out that just the most common functions include WhatsApp, maps, voice calls, camera, alarm/time, Facebook, text messages, calendar, weather and news. Once we add a variety of more specialist apps such as sports, music, airlines, banks etc. we easily reach the most typical result which would be that an individual uses between twenty-five and thirty different functions of their smartphone.

In the newspapers, the personalisation of the smartphone is understood as the advances in algorithms and artificial intelligence, which allow smartphones to learn from people and predict their behaviour. But, just as in our previous Why We Post project, for the ethnographer, these corporate developments pale into insignificance compared to the personalisation represented by the diversity of usage that will arise from the way an individual configures this multitude of apps.

Indeed, it may be the personality of the user that comes across most. A man expresses a particular version of masculinity in demonstrating how all his usage is based on need and pragmatism. He mentions more than once how, now his daughter is no longer in Australia, he will never use Skype again. By contrast, a woman, aged 69, has every last detail of her life, from the steps involved in paying each particular type of bill, to the slide decks from workshops she has attended, all carefully classified in nested hierarchies of icons on her iPhone. About the only thing she doesn’t like is the clumsy and intrusive Siri. In both cases the smartphone effectively expresses their personality. Sometimes a particular activity dominates an individual’s phone life; a phone where everything is geared to a retirement spent playing and teaching the banjo, or a phone that contains seven apps all associated with sailing.  It’s not that a woman is addicted to her phone, or even to YouTube per. se., it’s just that she can’t stop spending two hours a day following US politics on YouTube. More commonly the phone will revolve around three or four key activities and concerns such as a combination of family, sports, holidays, and photography.

Working with people in their 60s and 70s, I come to appreciate that they are not elderly, but that much of their life may be devoted to caring for an elderly parent in their 90s. For some of these people everything about the phone is connected with this responsibility of care, whether mobilising family care through WhatsApp, showing pictures of great grandchildren through Facebook, using maps to get to a hospital appointment, employing phone and text to negotiate with the local council and never turning the phone off, because you never know…

An equally important component of what makes the phone is people’s lack of knowledge. An older person is told to download an app, but she has never heard of Google Play and so attempts this action using an icon labelled ‘Downloads’. A man won’t buy a new Samsung Galaxy because it doesn’t have an inbuilt radio and he doesn’t know he can download radio as an app. Many users do not know the distinction between Wi-Fi and data that they have to pay for, so they won’t watch video while on Wi-Fi because they think it will cost them. Many can’t understand that a phone which ‘doesn’t work’, is not a broken phone, rather they just need to go about something in a different way. This is because the smartphone has so little in common with traditions of machines and tools. There is no manual they can actually use. Trying to work out precisely why one 80-year-old finds every little step impossible and another seems entirely comfortable in using these phones may give us many clues as to what, in effect, a smartphone is.

In the newspapers the smartphone appears as the constant development of new capacities – articles about the latest thing you can do with your smartphone are commonplace. For the ethnographer the smartphone is the myriad constellation of new actualities – we strive for an appreciation of what ordinary people create with or cannot understand about these devices.