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Years in the making
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Seeking to better understand what it means to grow older in contemporary Britain from the perspective of older people themselves, this richly detailed ethnographic study engages in debates over selfhood and people’s relationships with time. Based on research conducted in an English former coal mining village, the book focuses on the everyday experiences of older people living there. It explores how the category of old age comes to be assigned and experienced in daily life through multiple registers of interaction. These include ‘memory work’ about people, places and webs of relations in a postindustrial setting that has undergone profound social transformation. Challenging both the notion of a homogenous relationship with time across generations and the idea of a universalised middle-aged self, the author argues that the complex interplay of social, cultural and physical attributes of ageing means that older people can come to occupy a different position in relation to time and to the self than younger people. This account provides fascinating insight into what is at stake for the ageing self in regards to how people come to know, experience and dwell in the world. It describes the ways in which these distinctive forms of temporality and narrativity also come to be used against older people, denigrated socially in some contexts as ‘less-than-fully adult’. This text will be of great interest to researchers and students in anthropology, sociology, human geography and social gerontology working on interests in selfhood, time, memory, the anthropology of Britain and the lived experience of social change.

Abstract only
Cathrine Degnen

This chapter outlines the aims of the book. It contextualises these aims within a thematic review of ageing studies in anthropology and cognate disciplines. It highlights the lack to date of an ethnographic account of the experiences of ageing in a non-institutionalised Western context and then lays out a new framework for the anthropology of ageing. The chapter focuses on the ways in which theoretical anthropological perspectives on selfhood, temporality and narrativity can inform a fuller account of experiences of ageing. Reciprocally, it also introduces the notion that such bodies of literature can be enriched by considering the distinctive positionality of older people themselves. The chapter concludes with a summary of the book’s chapters.

in Ageing selves and everyday life in the North of England
Abstract only
People and place
Cathrine Degnen

Based on the fundamental premise that experience and the self cannot be understood in a social vacuum, Chapter Two historicises the research locale, immersing the reader into the ethnographic setting. It introduces the specific research settings of public and private domains of everyday life, multiple sites that inform older people’s sense of self, and the various vantage points for considering social interactions that this affords. Rather than simply describing social activity, this chapter considers the subjective experiences of older age from the perspectives of the people with whom the ethnography is based. The chapter considers daily life, examining what are described as sources of pleasure as well as reasons for frustration. Not surprisingly, these experiences stem from a complicated mixture of factors. Whilst some of these are attributed specifically to ageing and older age by the people who participated in the research, many others are not. They arise instead from the experience of human life and are not at all specific to older age per se. Thus the experience of ‘old age’ as a social label and category is not equivalent to the experience of daily life as an older person. This underlying contradiction informs the chapters to come.

in Ageing selves and everyday life in the North of England
Temporal complexities and memory talk
Cathrine Degnen

Chapter Three puts forward a two-fold argument about temporality: firstly, that experiences of time and the significance of time may shift as a person ages; secondly, that temporality becomes important in older age because of the uses it is put to against older people in conjunction with narrative. It argues that both narrativity and temporality in ‘disrupted form’ are used against older people to mark a supposed decline into a lesser form of adult selfhood. Temporality has a further level of significance that is explored in this chapter, namely how it is linked to place and to belonging via ‘memory talk’.

in Ageing selves and everyday life in the North of England
Intra-generational perspectiveson ‘old age’
Cathrine Degnen

In this chapter, attention is turned to how the boundaries of ‘old age’ are delineated by older people intra-generationally amongst peers. Chapter Four brings into focus a cultural account of the boundaries surrounding older age as both a social category and as a lived experience. It argues that ‘old age’ is not a frontier whose edges, once breached, are irreversible. Instead, using detailed and rich descriptions from the ethnographic data, it shows the subtle pressures older people in this community put on themselves and on each other whilst they discriminate between ‘normal’ and ‘real’ old age. Of particular consideration are ideals of personal comportment, body talk and interpersonal monitoring for signs of ‘real’ old age. This material permits a closer consideration of the gap between pragmatics and epistemology in the way old age is conceptualised and experienced by older people.

in Ageing selves and everyday life in the North of England
Cathrine Degnen

Chapter Five turns to questions around the ageing self and the ways in which a normative middle-aged self does not necessarily accommodate experiences of body and of self in older age. For example, if ‘doing’ is an essential part of ‘being’ and of self, as the people who participated in this research continually stated and demonstrated, what then transpires to being and self if what one can do shifts over time? Put another way, what are the connections between temporality, embodiment and subjectivity in older age? Chapter Five considers what light the ageing self can shed on Western notions of self and subjectivity and considers what a theory of self might look like if it made room for lessons learned from older age such as ‘the remembered self’ versus ‘the inhabited self’.

in Ageing selves and everyday life in the North of England
Cathrine Degnen

Chapter Six extends these reflections on selfhood to narrativity, a crucial element of the construction of self. This chapter examines how narrativity was used, interpreted and experienced in the daily lives of the older people with whom this research was conducted. This chapter furthers the analysis of Chapter Four by demonstrating the distinctiveness of narrative styles at times employed by older people in comparison with younger adults. How such narrative activity and style are interpreted and responded to by their interlocutors forms a critical aspect of how oldness comes to be constructed and projected onto the older narrator, endangering the very work of building the self that narration seeks to accomplish.

in Ageing selves and everyday life in the North of England
Abstract only
Cathrine Degnen

Chapter Seven, the concluding chapter, ties the book’s themes together. It offers a series of reflections on the ethnographic method and older age by directly addressing this thematic strand that weaves throughout the volume. In particular, it considers the merits of ethnography, and the challenges ethnography presents, for grappling with everyday experiences, inter-generational assumptions and social interactions that forge the ageing self.

in Ageing selves and everyday life in the North of England