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Anthropology of Smartphones and Smart Ageing

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Mothers and Daughters in Milan & beyond

ShireenWalton22 March 2019

Milan fieldwork, May 2018

Among the themes that have emerged from my research on ageing in Milan over the last 14 months, relationships between women and their Mothers have been particularly prominent. I have been exploring the significance of physical proximity, distance, and smartphones in examining how care is enacted in these relationships, amongst women of different ages and backgrounds. The following examples illustrate some aspects of this work.

Elena (55) and her 80-year old Mother, Maria, are both from a nearby northern Italian city where Maria lives alone following the death of her husband, Elena’s Father, three years ago. Elena, who is married, without children, lives and works full-time in Milan. Maria has a range of physical mobility issues, meaning that she is largely house-bound. She refuses to accept help from care workers (known as Badanti, in Italian, who are often from other countries), for the encroachment she says she feels this would pose to her autonomy. Maria does not appear to trust Badanti and dislikes the idea of ‘strangers’ inhabiting her home space so intimately: “These carers are caring for the money after all, are they not?” She explains. “For them it’s a job. They don’t really care”. The ‘real caring’, following Maria’s definitions, is carried out by her daughter Elena, who, not having any siblings, bears full responsibility for her Mother’s care. Maria does not have a smartphone, so Elena calls the house phone up to three times a day from Milan to check in. At the weekend, Elena drives the two-hour round trip to provide weekly shopping and carry out basic household chores. The two women share in each other’s company, and Elena will often stay overnight on the Saturday. Elena herself, back in Milan, faces a range of problems of her own, including pending unemployment, and a marriage under strain.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton, Milan fieldwork.

Elena’s situation is not uncommon in Italy, and elsewhere. Studies have highlighted the anxiety, depression, and emotional strain often experienced amongst children, particularly daughters, who are primary carers for elderly parents (Amirkhanyan AA, Wolf DA. 2006). These pressures characterise, for instance, what has become known as the ‘Sandwich Generation’ (Chisholm 1999; Riley and Brown 2005) of presently middle-aged women caring ‘upwards’ to parents and ‘downwards’ to younger children. From Maria and Elena’s nigh-on co-dependent relationship, one sees how what makes ageing so complex and intense a social experience is how the physical conditions of ageing bring about the modulating of roles, without altogether subverting or eradicating existing ones. ‘At a certain point” Elena explains, “you swap – daughters become Mothers and vice versa.” The relationship in reality is not as clear-cut or one-directional as Elena’s swapping over analogy implies. Instead, the layering of the Mother-daughter relationships thickens, and intensifies as the denial of change sets in. Maria appears to be very much still “the Mamma” in charge of the family home, whilst Elena effectively ‘project manages’ her Mother’s care. Never actively acknowledged between the two women is how ageing has modulated their relationship.

Where international migration is involved, daughter-Mother relationships play out in different ways. Kemala is from a small village in North-East Indonesia. She came to Italy ten years ago to study and work. She now lives in Milan with her husband and two children. Despite the distance, Kemala feels deeply connected with her childhood upbringing in Indonesia, and particularly with her Mother, who at 75 still runs the rice-packing business she had established in the village forty years ago. Despite this, Kemala has always found the intense sociality of her natal village context stifling. The youngest of eight children, she felt, from an early age, a need to leave, by pursuing education and upwards social and transnational mobility. Kemala has returned to Indonesia with her young children, but is unable able to do this often. Kemala’s wariness towards “too much” hometown sociality is reflected in her WhatsApp usage. Strikingly aware of what constitutes her “equilibrio” (equilibrium), Kemala chooses when and how she participates on family WhatsApp groups. She responds on the transnational family group (consisting of over 30 people) only on important occasions such as select birthdays, or Eid. Knowing that this group exists however, and that “everyone is there”, she confesses, provides comfort to her being physically far. She speaks with her Mother one-two times a week via WhatsApp on her sister’s phone in the village, since her Mother does not have a smartphone.

Kemala engages in care, but on a crafted, individual basis that she deems important for maintaining her sense of balance between countries and socio-cultural groups. She explains how “the distance helps. It creates a kind of a safety barrier, and behind this barrier, I quietly live my life.” Kemala’s use of smartphones recalls in part Ahlin’s (2018) notion of ‘frequent calling’ in the ethnographic context of transnational Indian families, whereby regularly keeping in touch constitutes notions of ‘good care at a distance’. The frequency of calling with Kemala, however, is modulated by her notion of self-care. For Kemala, (self-)care is constituted through distance, or rather the smartphone’s socio-technological capacity for facilitating ‘distant-closeness’ (Van House 2007). Meanwhile, the pervasive guilt that Kemala feels about honouring her individual commitment to social distance, and in being physically away from her village and ageing relatives, shows up in her everyday life in Milan. Over the months of participating in community activities together, I notice how she breaks into tears at what appear to be the slightest things that link her to Indonesia, to her village culture, but especially to her Mother.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton. Milan fieldwork.

As Kemala continues to crafts her life in the present, this is done at the intersection of her emotional proximity but physical distance to her kin and village, and her determination to facilitate the best life she can as a Mother herself to children born and growing up in Italy.

Elena, Kemala and their relationships with their Mothers reveal how individuals navigate their wellbeing in complex ways on– and offline via a range of practices rooted in kin relations, social-cultural contexts, and normative expectations. The smartphone, highly present for some, less so for others, facilitates a capacity for virtual presence, distant-closeness and ‘care at a distance’, while physical distance for some enables self-care in the pursuit of individual wellbeing. This is particularly significant in cases of co/dependent Mother-daughter relationships, and contexts of intense family and/or cultural sociality.

Milan fieldwork photos 2018-2019 (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Milan fieldwork photos 2018-2019 (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Milan fieldwork photos 2018-2019 (CC BY) Shireen Walton

References

Ahlin, T. (2018): Frequent Callers: “Good Care” with ICTs in Indian Transnational Families, Medical Anthropology, DOI: 10.1080/01459740.2018.1532424

Amirkhanyan AA, Wolf DA. (2006). Parent care and the stress process: Findings from panel data, The Journals of Gerontology Series B-Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 61(5): 248–255.

Chisholm, J. F. (1999). The Sandwich Generation. Journal of Social Distress and the Homeless, 8(3), 177-180.

Riley, L, D and Bowen, C. (2005). ‘The Sandwich Generation: Challenges and Coping Strategies of Multigenerational Families’. The Family Journal: Counselling and Therapy for Couples and Families. Vol 13., No.2. Pp.52-58

Van House, N. A. (2007). Flickr and Public Image-Sharing: Distant Closeness and Photo Exhibition. CHI’07 extended abstracts on human factors in computing systems, New York, ACM Press.

Ageing Actively in Focus

ShireenWalton8 January 2019

Books about ageing are currently in the spotlight. As discussed by Daniel Miller in an earlier blog post from February 2018, philosopher Kieran Setiya has looked at mid-life, from theoretical and practical perspectives. Another more recent work comes from journalist and author Carl Honoré, who in (B)older: Making the Most of our Longer Lives (2018) suggests a rethinking of ageing as a positive feature of the human experience, to be increasingly acknowledged and enjoyed more than ever before in history – a bonus not a burden.

Image (CC BY) Shireen Walton

What these books have in common is a call to shift our thinking about ageing from a negative; to consider the positive aspects of later life, and to rebrand ageing along ‘active’ lines, recalling the European Union’s emphasis on ‘active ageing’. In Italy, a country with the second (after Japan) oldest population in the world, active ageing receives much public policy and media attention. One avenue through which I came in to contact with these initiatives is through Auser, a nation-wide NGO in Italy founded in 1989. The organisation has branches all over the country, and the Lombardy region headquarters is in Milan – located in zone 2 where I am based for my research. Auser’s mission statement is ‘promoting the active ageing of the elderly and enhancing their role in society’ from  an inclsive perspective: ‘addressed primarily to the elderly, but open to relations of dialogue between generations, nationalities, different cultures.’

Auser website (English version)

Attending one of their meetings in Milan in December, I learnt about some of the main ways that ageing is being envisioned; towards skills-acquiring and sharing; a push towards enjoying life through ‘Active Welfare’, a concept the organisation defines as follows:

“Perhaps we will all have to work on building a model of “active welfare” based on financial resources adapted to social needs, built on an integrated system of subjects and public and private interventions, where through informal networks, the State, the Third Sector and individual citizens all work to build the social welfare of people, thus strengthening the concept of community and of social cohesion.”  [Auser mission statement, website]

Auser December meeting, Milan December 2018. Image (CC BY) Shireen Walton

I do not want to detract from these optimistic and significant attempts to combat ageism, but as ethnographer, I have to also investigate, specifically, what possibilities are/could be available to who – locally, regionally, nationally? From the middle-aged Italians in this fieldsite, I hear a great deal about the devastating economic situation in Italy since the 2008 economic crash, which makes the idea of retiring for many seem nigh on impossible, particularly if sufficient structures of in-family care are not in place due to transnational family lives and financial pressures. Active ageing is is also difficult to envisage amongst some of the individuals, families and groups I am working with from countries such as Egypt, Afghanistan and Peru, many of who currently imagine their futures as continuous work(ing). Noor, 45, a schoolteacher from Alexandria, explains how she “hopes my children will take care of me, as I take care of them…if we are together, Inshallah, we will all be fine.” How, I wonder, will her 15-year old daughter take care of her Mother in years to come? What might potential future Grandparenting be like for Noor, as an Egyptian single Mother living in Milan in her 60s?

Image (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Ali, Hazara (44), from west Kabul works a number of jobs, including as a night-time lorry driver. His wife and children are currently in another northern European country with his wife’s family. Ali explained the following: “Of course for the future having money is fundamental, but it is also important if you are a helpful person, and do good things for people; for your family, for your people (Hazara), and for humanity.”

Image (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Noor’s investment in Italy seems to be long-term; her ever-strengthening language proficiency, her children growing up in Italy, attending school and speaking fluent Italian, the death of her parents in recent years back in Alexandria and her own severance from the rest of the family in Egypt means that she feels she is here to stay, intent on growing old near her children. For Ali, currently working in Italy and visiting his family when he can, the geographies of his and his family’s future remains unknown.

My ongoing task then is to consider how people are ageing in – and away from – their homelands, aided by smartphone connections, but in many cases lacking public voice, and/or not involved in many of the dominant culture’s organisations and groups dedicated to ageing, health, and wellbeing. I am continuing to explore about these issues in line with broader conversations about contemporary citizenship, the role of technology, the state and NGO’s, migration trajectories & biographies, and the ongoing categorisation of peoples into strategic kinds of subjects (Giordano 2014). The approach reflects my commitment to studying ageing across cultural lines here in Milan.

References

Giordano, C. (2014). Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy. University of California Press.

The Age of Migration

XinyuanWang13 February 2018

A rural migrant checking his smartphone while peddling steamed buns for the Spring Festival meals in Shanghai (photo by Xinyuan Wang)

One week ago, when I finally arrived in Shanghai and started flat hunting, the estate agent urged me to make a decision within a few hours as “the Spring Festival (chun jie) is coming and everything will be closed very soon”. Chances were that he exaggerated things so that he could close the deal more quickly, but he did have a point.

With the approaching Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, every day I notice more businesses closing – from restaurants to express delivery services.  The 24/7 super convenient metropolis has become less efficient and fast-paced as more migrant workers embarked upon their journeys back to their home villages for the Spring Festival reunion. Many people in Shanghai only start to notice the massive contribution of migrant workers when a whole range of services fails – just as when they appreciate their dependence upon their smartphone the moment they realise they have left it behind.

The departing migrant workers are part of the largest annual human migration in the world – the number of passenger-journeys during the Spring Festival travel season, so called chun yun,  hit 2.9 billion in 2017. Shanghai, as the major destination of migrant workers in China, all of a sudden has become “an empty city” as one of my new neighbors Mr. Zhu put it. Mr. Zhu is in his late 60s, and was also packing, flying to the USA to celebrate New Year with his son’s family. A common traveling pattern here seems to be migrant workers moving inland to their home towns while local well-off Shanghainese flying overseas to have a New Year holiday.

Compared to physical migration, the ‘digital migration’ in China, taking place from offline to online, may cause much less tension in terms of domestic transportation pressure, however it is equally massive and significant. You may ask what is digital migration and in what ways it is possible? Hopefully, today’s (13/02/2018 London time 1:32pm) BBC world service radio documentary ‘Digital Migration’ will provide one of the answers. In this documentary, I re-visit factory workers who were my key contacts in my previous project, exploring how the use of social media has allowed Chinese migrant workers to live in a modern China.

It was because of my own observations of Chinese migrant workers, with whom I lived for 15 months in a small factory town, who saw Shanghai as the symbol of modern China, that I decided to pick Shanghai as my new field site to explore the impact of smartphones. As far as the new project is concerned it is definitely too early to draw any conclusions, but the first week’s exploration has shown me the ‘digital migration’ among urban Chinese is taking a different form.