An Anthropology of Aging

Despite the early seminal book by Leo Simmons, The Role of the Aged in Primitive Society (1945), and articles by such luminaries as Gregory Bateson (1950), and Margaret Mead (1967), a concern for a worldwide, cross-cultural analysis of aging has developed late in anthropology. It was anthropologists such as Otto von Mering, Jules Henry, Margaret Clark, and Barbara Anderson who first turned the ethnographic approach into a valuable tool for understanding the relationship of aging, local culture, and well-being. In the late 1950s von Mering conducted fieldwork in the geriatric wards of psychiatric hospitals, illustrating how the cultural devaluing of old age led to a withdrawal of psychosocial care for older patients (von Mering, 1957). Jules Henry followed this (1963) with a disturbing ethnographic account of life in three American nursing homes. However, it was only with Margaret Clark's, "The Anthropology of Aging, A New Area for Studies of Culture and Personality (1967)" that a clear direction was offered for anthropological research on aging. This was followed up with Culture and Aging: An Anthropological Study of Older Americans co-authored with Barbara Anderson (Clark & Anderson, 1967). Their work examined the cultural dynamics of San Francisco's community-based care of mentally impaired older citizens. Since that time there has been a literal explosion of anthropological works dealing with aging and the aged.

Access to this rapidly expanding literature on aging can be found in several edited compilations and texts: The Politics of Age and Gerontocracy in Africa (Aguilar, 1998); The Cultural Context of Aging, 2nd edition (Sokolovsky, 1997); Other Cultures, Elder Years, 2nd edition (Rhodes & Holmes, 1995); Old Age in Global Perspective (Albert & Cattell, 1994); The Aging Experience (Keith et al., 1994); Anthropology and Aging: Comprehensive Reviews (Rubinstein, 1990); Aging and Its Transformations (Counts & Counts, 1985); Other Ways of Growing Old (Amoss & Harrell, 1981); Dimensions: Aging Culture and Health (Fry, 1981^; Aging in Culture and Society

(Fry, 1980); and Life's Career, Aging (Myerhoff & Simic, 1978). There has also been a proliferation of ethnographies illuminating the general cultural dynamics of old age in India (Cohen, 1998; Lamb, 2000; van Willigan & Chadha, 1999); China (Bossen, 2002; Davis-Friedman, 1991); Africa (Bledsoe, 2002; Rasmussen, 1997); Japan (Kinoshita & Keifer, 1992; Thang, 2001; Traphagan, 2003); and the United States (Freidenberg, 2000; Guo, 2000; Myerhoff, 1978; Savishinsky, 2000; Shenk, 1998; Vesperi, 1998). Of particular interest to medical anthropology has been books focusing on health issues and long-term care such as Becker (1980); Foner (1994); Hazan (1980); Henderson and Vesperi (1995); Kaufman (1986); Savishinsky (1991); and Woolfson (1997).1

Importantly, the maturing of an anthropological specialty in aging has unfolded through several works, New Methods for Old Age Research (Fry & Keith, 1986); Age and Anthropological Theory (Kertzer & Keith, 1984); Old Age in Global Perspective (Albert & Cattell, 1994); and The Aging Experience (Keith et al., 1994). These volumes have brought to bear the distinct realm of anthropological methods and theory on questions of aging and the aged. The last mentioned of these books reports on Project AGE, the first effort to combine long-term fieldwork with a precise and consistent research protocol to study aging in a variety of cultural settings. This was done in two American communities as well as among residents of Hong Kong, Botswana, and rural Ireland. The research shows how both "system wide" community features (such as social inequality) and "internal mechanisms" (such as values) create distinct contexts for conceptualizing the life cycle, establishing age norms, and influencing the perception of well-being in old age (Fry, 2000).2

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