One of the foci of our research project will be to assess the impact of social networking on elderly people and housebound individuals. Back in October of last year I spent a few days in the library undertaking a literature review on the theme to get an idea of what had been written so far.
Most of the studies came from psychology. These investigations were almost all based in Europe or North America, and used questionnaires to try and understand the impact of internet use on people who were alone in their homes. Some studies suggested that computers and internet could decrease sense of isolation for homebound elderly and disabled persons, whilst others pointed to a relationship between social anxiety and a preference for online computer interaction. So the findings from these kind of studies, were perhaps not entirely conclusive.
For anthropology, ageing represents a universal human phenomenon. But at the same time, I agree with Lawrence Cohen that we should not just reify old age as an object of study. Even our titling of this research focus as ‘impact of social networking on elderly people and housebound individuals‘ is somewhat unfortunate, as it lumps together two groups of people that would not always identify with each other!
Instead, I think that keeping an open mind on issues of ageing should be central to our ethnographic fieldwork. Ageing is a unique process which affects people in different cultures in vastly different ways, to the extent that some people in their seventies or eighties might not even identify as being ‘old’.
And social networking will undoubtedly be bringing it’s own effects to the way ageing is understood and occurs in society. In an article by Laviolette and Hanson they record the effects of assistive technology devices that formed a telecare package were placed into the homes of older people with chronic heart failure living in north England. These devices were supposed to ‘monitor’ the older people’s activities (i.e. heart rate, moving around room, etc.) to enable them to remain at home instead of having to be admitted to a care home. Here too, being housebound was not necessarily a bad thing, and the participants of the study typically deeply feared the possibility that they might lose their home. However, whilst some participants appreciated that the monitors were reporting their health back to the hospital, for others they feared that the sensors would be used to gather evidence that would allow social care services to argue that the patients were unable to look after themselves in their own home.
Our project will, of course, differ from all of the above. The data we gather will be through living with old people for 15 months in small towns of seven different countries. I will be fascinated to see how the findings of such in-depth, culturally diverse studies can contribute to our understanding of the way information technologies are shaping the lives of people in their older years.