Anthropology Aging
by
Jason Danely
  • LAST MODIFIED: 31 July 2019
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199766567-0219

Introduction

Anthropological interest in age initially followed two strands that reflected the divide between structural functionalism in the United Kingdom and Europe, and culture and personality in the United States. The former was most interested in the ways societies accorded status based on age. If viewed vertically, age could be seen as a series of statuses one occupied over the life course, structuring the normative timing of events that were important for social reproduction, such as the transition from childhood to adulthood, marriage, and elder status. These statuses entailed ritual, political, and economic obligations between age classifications such as rights of property, ritual knowledge, or political authority. Viewed horizontally, however, age grades or sets formalized bonds between cohorts, stabilizing solidarity across territory or kinship boundaries. American anthropologists, on the other hand, saw the cultural mapping of life-course trajectories as a way of testing emerging psychological theories of human development derived from psychoanalysis and behaviorism. By collecting evidence on the norms and behaviors for different age categories, as well as the social and psychological dynamics within and between age categories, these anthropologists enriched our understanding of the malleability of relationships between age and personality. While culture and personality is most commonly associated with the study of child and adolescent development, anthropology was also vital in bringing attention to the continued developmental changes in adulthood and old age. In both of these strands, cross-cultural comparison yielded strong evidence that age was not only a fundamental axis on which social life revolved but also that the boundaries between groups and the meanings of age were socially rather than biologically determined in the same way that anthropologists now think about gender or race. These strands were further brought together by theories of ritual, wherein age-related status also entailed powerful symbolic reordering of subjective experiences. Other anthropologists pointed out the inequalities and tensions between age groups in ways that highlighted cultural attempts to mediate conflicts. From the 1960s, anthropologists began efforts to promote their perspective within the emerging fields of social gerontology and medical anthropology. Thus, the study of old age began to focus more on the ways health care and modern social welfare systems impacted lives. Anthropology continues to challenge universalizing biomedical reductionism of age though attention to cultural context, narrative, identity, and personhood. It has been further enriched by theories of care, mobility, globalization, and science and technology studies.

Overviews

There are few overviews of aging in anthropology. Cohen 1994 and Albert and Cattell 1994 provide excellent background to the emergence of the field, its relationship to other disciplines and domains of anthropology and possible directions for the field. They were published at a time when this topic was beginning to diversify its theoretical perspectives. Although not a comprehensive review of aging as a whole, Buch 2015 provides an exceptionally thorough review of aging and care. This is one of the largest subtopics in the study of aging and indicates a direction to the field that is less focused on age as a distinct and separate entity but rather as a time when new types of intergenerational and political relations emerge. With the rapid aging of populations across the world, forthcoming overviews are likely to continue to focus on care provision both as an intimate, often familial practice and the broader contexts of political-economy (including colonial and postcolonial dynamics) and mobility.

  • Albert, Steven M., and Maria G. Cattell. 1994. Old age in global perspective: Cross-cultural and cross-national Views. New York: G. K. Hall.

    E-mail Citation »

    Although written in a way meant to be accessible to gerontology or sociology students, Albert and Cattell (both accomplished anthropologists) maintain a strong anthropological perspective, looking at aging in its biological and social dimensions. Chapters on population aging provide a demographic context for the chapters on social norms around aging, health, and dying.

  • Buch, Elana D. 2015. Anthropology of aging and care. Annual Review of Anthropology 44.1: 277–293.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev-anthro-102214-014254E-mail Citation »

    Buch’s comprehensive review of a vast number of resources on formal and informal care of older people highlights the theoretical possibilities and challenges of different care approaches. Particularly compelling is the way care creates “connections and fissures” between global social change and intimate relational encounters. Sections include “Aging Bodies and the Call to Care,” “Everyday Care,” “Intergenerational Circulations of Care,” and “Transnational Circulations of Care.”

  • Cohen, Lawrence. 1994. Old age: Cultural and critical perspectives. Annual Review of Anthropology 23:137–158.

    DOI: 10.1146/annurev.an.23.100194.001033E-mail Citation »

    This review article begins by critiquing the assumptions implied in the heroic narratives of “geroanthropology” and reluctance to engage with complexity and reflexivity. It then attempts to move the field forward by rethinking earlier work before returning to the newest work where he finds the most promising directions for the future.

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