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ASSA Studies in Retirment

alex.clegg26 July 2022

Author: Daniel Miller

In June we held a very successful workshop with invited guest academics to discuss our contribution to comparative studies of ageing. Based on the very helpful comments we received we plan to submit a set of papers to the journal Anthropology and Aging. The next set of ASSA presentations will take place in Belfast on July 26th as part of the European Association of Social Anthropologists (EASA) conference.

Our main panel is called The Transformation of Hope in Retirement (P107a and P107b) taking place on Tuesday 26th July and will take a comparative perspective on the increasing significance of hope to older people when retired life may stretch to three decades. Retirement may create new possibilities for engagement and expanding experience, or represent a struggle based on diminishing resources and isolation.

The presentations include Shireen Walton talking about how older adults in a neighbourhood in Milan, Italy, variously envision and experience their lives in retirement; looking at digital forms of social participation, and how older age and retirement are seen as life stages to design together. Charlotte Hawkins is drawing upon her ethnography with older people working in a diverse neighbourhood in Kampala, Uganda, to question the assumption of old age as a time of rest and retirement. This presents an important counter perspective within this comparative panel on the possibilities of retirement. Pauline Garvey will present a paper that suggest that instead of seeing domestic transformation or downsizing as a road to decline, her participants who have transformed or replaced their home in their retirement do so as part of a hopeful investment in the future. My own paper takes a fairly extreme view of retirement as an historically unprecedented possibility of freedom, not just shorn of work and family responsibility but the freedoms that come with the capacities of affluence and smartphones. This is compared to the discussion of freedom by philosophers and comes from my forthcoming manuscript The Irish and the Philosophers.

The second half of the panel will be based on projects outside of ASSA coming from fieldwork in China, Brazil, England, New Zealand and a comparative paper across Europe by Katja Seidel, David Prendergast, Jamie Saris, Claudia Huang, Andrew Dawson and Matin Fossa.

The other presentation that derived from the ASSA project will be from Xinyuan Wang (p110a and p110b) on Wednesday 27th July convened by Xinyuan and Jolynna Sinanan. Wang’s paper drawing on her ethnography in Shanghai, unpacks the concept of ‘filial piety’ and argues that what matters most in kinship practice within China is not so much an issue of kin classification but a practical distinction between sentiment and obligation.

Individuals and inequality

Daniel Miller14 June 2021

I am currently writing a second book about Cuan, my fieldsite in Ireland. This will allow me to spend much more time presenting evidence for inequality, focusing on an area of social housing located in the middle of Cuan, that remains quite apart from most of this quite affluent middle-class town. Detailed study, however, reveals many nuances to any simple or dualistic presentation that just opposes these different segments of the same town. The overall rise in income and possibilities in Irish society over the last 50 years have impacted upon most of the population, though not all. Bob would never have expected to be able to live outside of social housing, having worked first as a butcher’s assistant and retired finally as a school caretaker, low paid work that precludes the ability to purchase a property. Yet in retirement, he found his true vocation as a poet and today is as comfortable at the opera as he in the betting shop.

The term class is quite a crude categorisation. I would argue that Ireland has a much stronger egalitarian ideology than here in England, laid across still evident inequalities. Many of the oral histories of individuals I recorded talk of the extreme poverty of their origins but alongside the love of literature and the arts. I didn’t feel that this film represented class mobility or a change in class identity, or even that actually Bob sees things in such terms. It seemed there was both something Irish about Bob and also much that was simply individual. This is an additional point. Bob doesn’t have to be typical of anything or anyone, but for the anthropologist, it is hugely important to acknowledge that he exists and that abstract discussions of class and inequality need to balanced by meeting people as individuals, in this case as Bob.

The film is included in the recent book I wrote with Pauline Garvey, Ageing with Smartphones in Ireland.