The Legacies of Age: Some thoughts on Categories, Change and Continuity

Part of an ongoing blog series organized by the Lifecourse Collaborative Research Network (CRN_Lifecourse), a joint endeavor of ACYIG and the Association for Anthropology and Gerontology (AAGE).

by Jason Danely, PhD
Oxford Brookes University

On February 8, 1998, my grandfather, the only one I ever knew, died at the age of 79. My grandfather was one of the kindest, most generous people I ever knew. He was the man who made little puzzles in his workshop and handed them out to strangers, the man who donated gallons of his own blood to the Red Cross, the man who took me in his car to deliver meals-on-wheels. He was also the man who in his last years cared for his wife, even after she had forgotten who he was.

Many of us who do research on aging have had such people in our lives. Our work is a way of honoring that connection, giving it the narrative weight of a legacy. Who I am is in many ways the result of my retelling the lives of others: legacies, like my grandfather’s that live on in my self-narrative. For me then, this is a starting point for thinking about the endurance of age as a category of difference—the hierarchies and cultural constructions like generational divisions or kinship positions that make the force of life’s legacies legible.

Ancestral legacies can mature into narratives of one’s own old age, but where are the young people?

A legacy is both an inheritance and an offering: a form of memorial. During fieldwork in Japan, I found that older adults who felt strongly about the importance of memorializing the spirits of the ancestors were obaachan-ko, or “granny’s kids.” From a young age, they remembered spending time with their grandparents, often visiting the family graves or offering incense at the family altar. For them, rejoining the spirits in the other world beyond death, was something that lay ahead in the grander trajectory of the life cycle. At the same time, ancestors, by definition, are those who came before, and those to whom one owes one’s life. From this perspective, death was a kind of back to the future, a merging of one’s own life course narrative with that of the ancestors and descendants; it was a becoming oneself through the retelling of the other’s story.

Legacy is that silvery thread of that runs through the quiltwork of generations, allowing us to see the dreams of youth in age, and wisdom of age in youth. But today, in Japan and elsewhere, the divide between young and old seems greater than it has ever been. There are fewer children under 15 than adults over 65. Opportunities to nurture lifelong affinities between the young and old are rare. Longevity has, in some ways introduced expectations that pensioners can and should resist dependence, form their own, separate generational identity. This modern idea developed alongside changes in social welfare policies that erected further barriers between young and old, and older people would frequently comment on the fact that there is little to pass on, be it property, heirlooms, or knowledge of the ancestors. Houses, graves, and the elderly themselves are being abandoned; a haunting reminder of generational disjunction.

My favorite work on the disconnect between youth and age and the need for a new ways of retelling in the life course, is Margaret Mead’s Culture and Commitment (1970). In it, Mead cautioned against romanticizing cultures like the Australian Aborigines, where the importance of tradition kept elders in high regard, while at the same time, she warned of the consequences of abandoning the elders for the sake of progress. For Mead, generational harmony meant opening up a new dialogue where elders do not cling to an absolute authority based on their experience, and the young do not throw themselves into radical and rebellious ways at the cost of caring for older generations. Instead, Mead, saw the legacy of age as a kind of “love and trust, based on dependency and answering care,” a “sense of commitment” that would enable to the young to move into a yet uncharted future.

A life course perspective in anthropology does more than critique the ways modern social institutions still divide young and old, sometimes cruelly pitting them against one another in a competition for public resources. Age categories are not only cultural wedges driven between our young and old selves. They can also be a way of recognizing the links between generations and their embodied

Logan Quentin Danely, my grandfather, in his youth
Logan Quentin Danely, my grandfather, in his youth

histories, between past and future selves, along which lives are told and retold.

Would I have chosen to study the lives of older had it not been for my grandfather’s legacy? I don’t know. I know that I learned something about what it meant to be old by watching my grandfather, and I also like to think that he learned something about himself by being with me as well.


Jason Danely is Senior Lecturer of Anthropology at Oxford Brookes University and President Elect of the Association of Anthropology Gerontology and the Life Course (AAGE). He is author of Aging and Loss: Mourning and Maturity in Contemporary Japan (2014 Rutgers University Press). He is currently conducting cross-cultural research with the support of an award from the John Templeton Foundation on the lived experiences of family caregivers of older adults in Japan and the UK.


Aged Culture

This is the first in a new blog series organized by the Lifecourse Collaborative Research Network (CRN_Lifecourse), a joint endeavor of ACYIG and the Association for Anthropology and Gerontology (AAGE).

by Elise Berman, UNC Charlotte

“Childhood is a variable of social analysis. It can never be entirely divorced from other variables such as class, gender, or ethnicity.” ~Prout and James 1997:9

Prout and James’ account of what they called a new sociology of childhood has become a central paradigm for the growing interdisciplinary field of childhood studies. Given the popularity of the model, it is curious that (as far as I know) people have not pointed out the flaw in their approach. Childhood, a stage of life, is not analytically similar to class, gender, or ethnicity.

Rather, the correct comparison to overarching categories such as class, gender, or ethnicity would be another overarching category: age. But like Prout and James (or perhaps because of them), modern cultural and linguistic anthropology tends to erase age in favor of the study of specific life stages: childhood, youth, adulthood, and old age. The American Anthropological Association has interest groups for the study of childhood and youth as well as the elderly but not for the study of age and the life course as a whole. Similarly, within anthropology there are series and journals on either childhood or old age but again not on the life course. When people use the words “age” or “aging” they tend to be talking about the elderly as opposed to thinking about age like gender—as something relevant to everyone.

Moving to larger analyses of age and the life course would change the study not only of childhood but also anthropology. For example, consider something central to both fields: agency. Another main theme of childhood studies is that children actively shape both society and themselves. But most of the many recent studies that analyze children’s agency fall into the same trap as early analyses of Ruthrose and Lorita (p) (2)women’s agency—they assume that children are the same types of agents as adults (e.g., Markström and Halldén 2009; Porter 1996). Such an approach 1) assumes universal definitions of agency as either resistance or independent action, which gender scholars have already shown to be faulty (Mahmood 2005; Wardlow 2006); 2) overlooks the possibility that over the life course people move through different types of subject positions.

In a small village in the Republic of the Marshall Islands (RMI) where I work, children have agency not in spite of the fact that they are children but precisely because of it. In other words, children have a different type of agency than adults (Berman In Preparation). For example, among adults in the RMI it is inappropriate to carry ready-to-eat food in public without sharing it. This norm significantly constrains adults as it makes it difficult to share food with relatives. A woman cannot give fish to her mother on the other side of town if she has to share it with everyone she sees along the way. But children are not responsible for the food that they carry and thus are under no obligation to share it with others. Consequently, one small boy can carry a full plate of food past numerous adults. This boy is able to do something that his mother cannot because people do not see him as a moral person responsible for his behavior. He has what I call “non-person agency.”

Rather than simply noting that like adults children also have agency, childhood scholars need to analyze what is unique about children’s agency. If we do so, I suspect that we will realize that, just as in the RMI, agency is aged. Agency changes across the life course. Such an analysis not only affects the study of children’s agency but also challenges ideas about cultural reproduction and social change within anthropology as a whole. Path to likBy now everybody knows that culture is constantly changing. We tend to assume, however, that such change is historical. These differences between child and adult agency in the Marshall Islands, however, reveal not historical change but rather social change across the life course. Unlike historical change, moreover, life course change is a necessary feature of cultural continuity.

In other words, just as culture is gendered, culture is also aged. I suspect that my conclusions about agency could be applied to other issues such as race, gender, subjectivities, and religion. The only way to investigate the aged nature of culture is to closely examine the social construction, negotiation, and significance of age.

Works Cited

  • Berman, Elise. (In Preparation). Producing Age: Children, Deception, and Avoiding Giving in the Marshall islands.
  • Mahmood, Saba. 2005. Politics of Piety: The Islamic Revival and the Feminist Subject. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
  • Markström, Ann-Marie et al. 2009. “Children’s Strategies for Agency in Preschool.” Children & Society 23:112-122.
  • Porter, Karen. 1996. “The Agency of Children, Work, and Social Change in the South Pare Mountains, Tanzania.” Anthropology of Work Review 17(1-2):8-19.
  • Prout, Alanet al. 1997. “A New Paradigm for the Sociology of Childhood? Provenance, Promise and Problems.” In Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood. A. James and A. Prout, eds. London: RoutledgeFalmer.
  • Wardlow, Holly. 2006. Wayward Women: Sexuality and Agency in a New Guinea Society. Berkeley: University of California Press.



Youth Circulations – New Blog

This month, features a series of conversations between two migration scholars –  Heide Castaneda  (University of South Florida) and Kristin Yarris (University of Oregon) creatively and critically examine representations of the circulation of Central American and Mexican migrants through zones of transit in Western Mexico. Take a look!

New CRN_Lifecourse

The Association for Anthropology and Gerontology working together with the Anthropology of Aging and the Life Course Interest Group (AALCIG) and ACYIG have now established a joint Collaborative Research Network (CRN) for those interested in exploring connections (e.g., physical, political, developmental, symbolic, etc.) between childhood/youth and adulthood/old age.

The group has several potential project in mind (for those of you who like a few outputs to go with your intellectual exchange), including a blog share, a conference, organizing panels for other conferences, sharing teaching resources like syllabi, and developing opportunities for publishing and collaborative research projects.

The central communication hub for plotting and schemeing will be our CRN_Lifecourse listserv. If you are interested in joining, please visit and complete the registration form.

CRN_Lifecourse is interested in strengthening the intellectual exchange among scholars whose primary research focus has been on one stage of the life course but who are interested in inter-generational relationships, longitudinal studies, autobiographies, life course transitions, and the category of age itself in ways that require broader conceptual frameworks. At the moment, funding, publication, teaching curriculums, and the sections and subgroups of professional groups reinforce and naturalize divisions between scholars interested in the life course. Ages end up like fieldsites, where the anthropologist is encouraged, for example, to specialize on the internal workings of a single village, rather than looking at a the larger area of settlements with which it shares relationships and ecological context. In contrast, the CRN_Lifecourse encourages the development of concepts that problematize terms like ‘stages of life,’ ‘generations,’ and ‘age,’ and encourages the proliferation of specific methods and strategies to help us better conduct life-course research. Finally, the membership of CRN_Lifecourse will critically engage with the ways old age and youth are sometimes pitted against each other (e.g., in competition for humanitarian aid or organ transplants), while at other times, they are lumped together (e.g., as unproductive, naive, care-dependent, vulnerable, or sacred). We hope to examine how such connections impact the ways societies evaluate the life course.

If you have questions (especially technical ones best handled off the listserv) contact Jason Danely (

MSc Childhood Studies University of Edinburgh – online information session

Dear Colleagues

We are hoping to recruit excellent postgraduate students, for our MSc in Childhood Studies in 2016-17. We are trying out an online information session on Monday 29th February 2016 at 3.30-4.30 p.m. GMT. Interested people can sign up at

Would you be able to pass this email on to potential applicants? We have been running for over 10 years, brining together childhood theory, policy and research interests for an intensive interactive 1 year degree. Further information about the degree can be found at

Thank you for your consideration.

Yours sincerely

Kay Tisdall


See the MSc in Childhood Studies website at

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