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Fare insieme: making and doing things together in Milan

ShireenWalton6 November 2018

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

In Italian, the word fare, means to do and to make. Doing and making appears to be a fundamental aspect of community life here in this inner-city neighbourhood in Milan’s zone 2, which constitutes the locus of my fieldwork. A number of activities, events and organisations I am involved in entail inter-generational and cross-cultural mixing, including retired Italians from Milan and the south of Italy, and foreign migrants and their children. These interactions centre around the sharing of skills and knowledge; from Italian language learning to a variety of artisanal crafts, and forms a subtle yet significant part of how social capital is shared and acquired here.

One particular hub for this is the Centro Multiculturale; part of a non-profit organisation, La Città del Sol: Amici del Parco Trotter, established in 2009 to support the wider community life of the state school in Parco Trotter, with which it is associated.

The school-community in Parco Trotter, Milano. Image: La Città del Sol: Amici del Parco Trotter

The Centro Multiculturale is run by community volunteers and teachers, envisioned and operating, year in year out, as a social space (‘spazio socialità’) for women, including mothers of children of the school and the broader neighbourhood. Housed in a small unassuming building in a corner of the park next to a main railway line, the Centro runs Italian classes for foreigners, a weekly sewing group, as well as a weekly open drop-in meeting where women of all ages and backgrounds participate in a range of activities, do exercise, drink tea, and learn about a range of bureaucratic aspects pertaining to life in Italy such as medical facilities and healthcare.

Centro Multiculturale, Parco Trotter. Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

The ethnographic make-up of the Centre sees a blend of ages, backgrounds and ethnicities (mostly Egyptian, as well as other nationalities such as Peruvian, Indonesian, Pakistani, and Tanzanian), including retired, middle-aged and more senior Italian women volunteering as Italian language teachers, sewing instructors and exercise class instructors, shifting between roles as facilitators, teachers and participants. The general spirit is one of fare insieme – making and doing things together.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Through the Centro, the different women experience a blend of social and personal purpose, including, notably the passing on and sharing of skills. Anna (70), Italian, retired, explained how the social make-up of the group and being around younger people in such a dynamic environment at her age ‘keeps me young and alive – it gives me a good feeling’. Coming to the Centro twice a week comforts Anna in her retirement, where she lives alone and her children are grown up and are busy with their own lives. Dahlia (35) from Egypt explains how the cucito (sewing) group at the Centro is a significant event in her week. ‘It means something for us to be together here. Many Mothers are at home all day with young children alone. It can get terribly lonely. Here there is the chance for us to meet and be together, practice a skill and share our time. Of course we are also here to get better at Italian!’ The issue of language learning and usage is a fundamental element underlying all the activities at the Centro.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

All this is not to paint either a rosy or otherwise picture of integration in Italy; in some instances this kind of cross-cultural social care flourishes despite challenges, while in others it struggles to contend with deep-rooted political resistance and paradoxical and problematic logics. Anthropologist Cristina Giordano addresses these kinds of tensions exquisitely in her 2014 monograph Migrants in Translation: Caring and the Logics of Difference in Contemporary Italy based on long-term ethnographic research in Turin[i]. Giordano’s work describes complex relationships of care between Catholic nuns and foreign female sex workers from Eastern Europe and Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa, accounting for the different womens’ personal alignments and institutional ideologies, caught between religion-inspired notions of altruism and social care, discourses of purity, and moral judgement.

At the Centro in Milan, older Italians share craft-based practices like needlework to younger people, who appreciated the care and attention involved.  This is especially pertinent given the current, xenophobic and populist political climate. What is most interesting here is how the different ages, life and technical experiences of the women work together, in the present context, while laying social and cultural foundations for the future.

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

Photo (CC BY) Shireen Walton

References

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

Experiences of ageing: as diverse as the experiences of using a smartphone

Alfonso ManuelOtaegui11 June 2018

Photo (CC BY) Garry Knight

Conducting an urban ethnography in Santiago, Chile,  has so far involved looking for opportunities in which to meet people who would agree to share their experiences on ageing and on the role of the smartphone in their everyday lives. As the coordinator of this project, Daniel Miller, once said, ‘Actually, as is often the case in ethnography, the best approach is through volunteering […], which has the clear upside that you are also contributing something’.

I started, then, to volunteer as a teacher assistant at a cultural center for the elderly, helping out in two workshops on the usage of smartphones. This experience has been as rewarding as it is interesting. In four weekly meetings the students are taught the basics of smartphone usage: general settings (connecting to Wi-Fi networks, setting screen brightness, etc.), using the camera, WhatsApp and Google Maps. These very enthusiastic and engaged students do not represent the whole spectrum of relationships that the elderly have with the digital world.

In a recent study in the UK by the Centre for Aging Better and the Good Things Foundation on the usage of internet by people aged between 55 and 93, the researchers aimed at including three key groups: resistant non-users (people who do not use the internet and do not intend to do so), lapsed users (former users of the internet who had stopped going online) and current users (experienced users and also beginners). If we used the same categories in my field site, we could say that the students of the workshop would be in the third group.

Even though I am working with a limited sample of people and am in the early stages of fieldwork, it is remarkable how ethnography has already allowed me to perceive the complexity of the practices surrounding the smartphone and to question several taken for granted assumptions on the life experiences of the elderly.

One of the first things to notice here is the lack of homogeneity in the expectations of usage of smartphone: one lady wants to take HDR pictures to post later on Instagram, a man wants an app to scan QR codes he comes across in flyers, others want to use an app to measure glucose levels. In the same vein, the difficulties they encounter are also diverse: some might find it difficult to understand the difference between (paid) mobile data and (free) WiFi, or to understand the notion of ‘the cloud’, some others might have trouble with the touch interface. This diversity in the usage of the smartphone echoes the general diversity in the experience of ageing.

As a psychologist specialised in pyschogerontology, Daniel Thumala, points out: ‘no hay una vejez, hay ‘vejeces’’ (2017). The contrast between the singular and the plural applied to ‘vejez’ (‘old age’) could be translated as ‘there is not one [standard] experience of ageing, there are [several] experiences of ageing”. Several factors play a role in every particular experience of ageing: family (as child and as parent), education, work, eating habits, exercise, toxic habits, etc. (Villalobos 2017). This is also true of the diversity of factors that play a role in the adoption and usage of smartphones by the elderly, which can be shaped by the following:

  • the usage of previous technologies (e.g. familiarity with a keyboard, or with playback icons),
  • family support (e.g. tech assistance provided by grandchildren),
  • education,
  • fine motor skills and general expectations on the usage of the device (e.g. to gain independence, to stay in contact with family, to track bodily functions, etc.).

It will be interesting to go beyond the context of the workshop and to learn how the smartphone is integrated in the diverse experiences of everyday life of these engaged students. Media reports on the smartphone usually focus on the capacities it might bring to the user. If we take that perspective for a moment, even though it is by no means the only possible one, we could ask ourselves to what extent, if at all, the smartphone might be helpful for the elderly to gain higher autonomy. According to Thumala (2017) –and this goes against ageist preconceptions on the dependency of elderly people–, 76% of elderly people in Chile are autonomous. It would be interesting to see if the smartphone plays any role at all in this autonomy.

References

Miller, Daniel (@DannyAnth). “Actually, as is often the case in ethnography, the best approach is through volunteering (I am pretty good at making tea), which has the clear upside that you are also contributing something.” 19 April 2018, 12:18 a.m. Tweet.
Richardson, James. 2018. I Am Connected: new approaches to supporting people in later life online. Centre for Ageing Better and the Good Things Foundation. [free download at https://www.goodthingsfoundation.org/research-publications/i-am-connected-new-approaches-supporting-people-later-life-online]
Thumala, Daniela. 2017. Imágenes sociales del envejecimiento. Material del curso “Cómo envejecemos: una mirada transdisciplinaria”, impartido en UAbierta, Universidad de Chile
Villalobos C., Alicia. 2017. Conceptos básicos acerca del autocuidado. Material del curso “Cómo envejecemos: una mirada transdisciplinaria”, impartido en UAbierta, Universidad de Chile.