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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.

2021 round-up and happy new year!

Laura Haapio-Kirk31 December 2021

By Danny Miller and Laura Haapio-Kirk

Illustration by Laura Haapio-Kirk.

2021, despite its difficulties, has been a key year for the ASSA project. The high point for us was in May with the publication of the jointly-authored comparative book The Global Smartphone. The book presents a radically different understanding of what the smartphone is, based not on speculation but a huge amount of direct observation of its use and consequences around the world based on our 16-month ethnographies. The book is available to download for free from UCL Press, along with the two translations in Italian and Spanish  that have already been published, and it is currently being translated into the other languages of our fieldsites (Japanese, Chinese, French, Portuguese). The publication launch was well covered in the media including full-page discussions in newspapers such as the Guardian and Sunday Times, international press ranging from the World Economic Forum to local publications around the world, and BBC radio interviews.

Also published were the first two of our monographs: Ageing with Smartphones in Ireland by Pauline Garvey and Daniel Miller, and Ageing with Smartphones in Urban Italy by Shireen Walton. We are on track for more of our ethnographies to published as monographs in 2022. Once they are all published we will have a total of nine monographs documenting the ways in which experiences of ageing and the use of the smartphone are now inextricably interwoven in various ways for people around the world. Watch this space!

Comic based on research by Alfonso Otaegui, scripted by Laura Haapio-Kirk and Georgiana Murariu, and illustrated by John Cei Douglas.

Our website, designed to complement the book series, features videos, infographics, comics, and stories from the fieldsites, presented in a way that is intended to be accessible and engaging. For example, we took several of our key findings that appear in The Global Smartphone and created a ‘Discoveries’ section of the site that allows for a multi-media introduction to the central ideas emerging from the research. The website recently won the AVA 2021 Award for Best Visual Ethnographic Material Addressing Ageing and the Life Course in the Multimodal category. The AVA Award is a collaborative effort of the EASA’s Age and Generations NetworkAssociation for Gerontology, Aging and the Life Course and EASA’s Visual Anthropology Network.

We also launched our online course: An Anthropology of Smartphones: Communication, Ageing and Health on FutureLearn. We were very happy to meet many enthusiastic learners from around the world, and were delighted with their feedback on the course. The course features many videos and interactive elements that encourage participants to become ethnographers in their own right. We will announce future dates, so please do register here for updates if you would like to take part in the next round.

Feedback from FutureLearn learners on our course.

 

We are currently developing our mHealth agenda, including producing an edited book to be published by UCL Press, featuring chapters by the team about their various mHealth initiatives. We are also progressing applied projects around mental health and nutrition in Uganda and Trinidad respectively.

As you can see, it has been a busy year and we are delighted to be able to start sharing with you the results of our research.

We hope that you are keeping safe and well, and wish you a happy new year from the entire ASSA team!