THEORIZING AGE: CHALLENGING THE DISCIPLINES
7th International Symposium on Cultural Gerontology
Inaugural Conference of the European Network in Aging Studies (ENAS)
Maastricht University, the Netherlands, 6-9 October 2011
Convener: Dr. Aagje Swinnen, Center for Gender and Diversity, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences
This conference discussed the challenges that inter- and multidisciplinary research on aging and later life faces. Not only do disciplines such as gerontology, sociology, history, philosophy, and the arts vary in the way they question age-related matters and implement various methodologies to provide answers to these questions. They also use different sets of concepts and terminologies, or use the same concepts but define them differently. Discipline-challenging dialogues were generated at this conference along three paradigm shifts in the cross-disciplinary study of aging.
First, the critical turn in gerontology refers to the meta-reflection on the nature and practice of gerontology within gerontology itself. Critical gerontologists scrutinize how gerontology is affected by the quest of the natural sciences for the truth of old age. Instead, they focus on the way knowledge about old age is constructed and explain how age, as a salient identity marker next to gender, ethnicity, disability and class, causes inequalities between people. These inequalities based on chronological and biological age are to some extent institutionalized.
- How can critical gerontology be made more visible in Western public spheres (where the doom scenario of increasing health care costs due to the exponential growth of the older population reigns) and academia (e.g. European funding schemes)?
- How can critical gerontology improve the voicing of the problems that especially the oldest old or the frail elderly face nowadays?
Second, the narrative turn in gerontology refers to the interest in the way age identities are constituted in and through narratives. The word narrative, as a widespread travelling concept, helps to define aging as a development through time, negotiating between personal aspirations and the expectations of the master narratives we are inscribed in. Narrative gerontology, on the one hand, starts from the metaphor of life as story and aims to get a better understanding of aging through the stories older people use to express their experiences. Literary gerontology, on the other hand, studies the cultural representation of aging and old age in literature, and, by extension, other art forms.
- Which conceptual and methodological tools are shared by scholars from a social sciences and humanities background who are inspired by the narrative turn? How can we evaluate the implementation of travelling concepts in different disciplines? How does the concept of narrative for instance differ in narrative gerontology and the study of stories of aging from a narratological point of view and are there fruitful overlaps?
- How can insights into fictional accounts of aging support the politics of gerontology, i.e. the improvement of the quality of life of elderly people, particularly those in the fourth age? How can we prevent that storytelling projects with elderly uncritically repeat master narratives of aging?
Third, the performative turn in gerontology, which may be called the rise of age(ing) studies, refers to the defining of age both in terms of being and of doing. Theories of performativity claim that age identities are formed and perpetuated through the repetition of behavioural scripts connected to chronological ages and life stages. Since these repetitions can never be identical to the original scripts, there is room for subversion and change.
- How can theories of performativity help to bridge the body/mind gap that many studies of old age involuntarily sustain?
- How can differences between the philosophical, linguistic and artistic definitions of performance fully be accounted for? How can we critically adjust and elaborate on the notion of agency that is connected to theories of performativity?
Margaret Morganroth Gullette
International Journal of Ageing and Later Life Special Issue
Aging, narrative, and performance: essays from the humanities
The six essays included in this special issue, which have been developed from papers presented at the Maastricht conference, offer examples of humanities approaches to aging. We are glad that IJAL, an interdisciplinary journal with a social science focus, has, for the first time, agreed to cluster humanities essays resulting from a conference in a special issue.
We trust that the work included here furthers the communal project of encouraging the sharing of knowledge and approaches across disciplines, and helps to illuminate the many meanings of aging and their implications for some of the societal challenges that lie ahead. The texts considered in many of these articles happen to be films (documentaries and features) and plays, but the insights they offer, which are drawn from approaches to cultural age and age as narrative as well as the performativity of age, model the ways in which these categories can help highlight the interdisciplinary relevance of humanities research on aging.
The articles can be accessed via the following link:
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