X Close

Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing Blog

Home

Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

Menu

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.

Illustrating ASSA’s Findings With Comics: Part 2

Georgiana Murariu22 June 2021

By Georgiana Murariu & Laura Haapio-Kirk

In this blog post, we present the second comic in our series illustrating key findings from the ASSA project. ‘The Next Step’, based on research by Alfonso Otaegui, drawn by John Cei Douglas, and scripted by ourselves, can be seen below in both English and Spanish.

Alfonso Otaegui did his fieldwork in Santiago, the capital of Chile, where he spent a year volunteering at a cultural centre in the city, teaching older adults how to use smartphones. Alfonso has recently written about Chile’s increasing digitalisation of services and the government’s aim to become ‘paperless’ soon. Many of his research participants expressed the anxiety that soon they might be left with no choice but to use a smartphone to access specific services, even if they do not feel confident using one.

Alfonso has also written about how the COVID-19 pandemic has further accelerated the imposition of digital services upon people in Chile. Older people are not only strongly encouraged to become digitally savvy by their government, but also by their own family and other acquaintances in order to stay connected during the pandemic.

Alfonso’s experience teaching smartphones at the cultural centre has given him a wealth of insight into the sorts of things older people struggle with when they first learn how to use the device. One of the common struggles older adults encounter when learning to use the device is the experience of anxiety facing too many options, for example on a menu that offers several calls to action illustrated through icons. While doing an exercise on sharing an image, several students would be distracted by the vast array of other possibilities/icons.

It’s not all negative, however – far from it: Alfonso found that once older people had mastered the smartphone, their developing digital skills opened up all sorts of possibilities for them. As Alfonso put it in the short video below, at any given time, they are two taps away from frustration, and two taps away from empowerment.

It is this journey towards digital literacy that we wanted to illustrate in the comic below.

To script the comic, we used material from Alfonso’s photos, research, anecdotes and the short film above, deciding to create a character that combined many of the experiences of his participants. Using the direct quote “pa,pa,pa, it’s done!”, which came from an individual in Alfonso’s research, we shaped a character and narrative around this particular moment of frustration, which you can see below in both English and Spanish:

‘The Next Step’

‘¿Y ahora, cómo sigo?’