What happens when you introduce a 70 (ish) year old community radio host to a 25 (ish) year old sound artist and ask them to organize ten years worth of community radio interviews?
Wikipedia has become an indispensable source of online information for students and researchers because of its ease of use as well as its reputation as a user-generated encyclopaedia of shared knowledge. But is it? Our research suggests a much more complicated and twisted tale. Wikipedia is a space of negotiation, contestation and struggles over inclusion and exclusion into “encyclopedic” knowledge.
Dr. Ros Jennings is Head of Post-graduate Research at the University of Gloucestershire UK, looking after over 500 research students in their learning about research methods. Passionate about music, life stories, gender and ageing, Dr. Jennings is the founder of the Centre for Women, Ageing and Media (WAM) and a collaborator of the Ageing and Communication Technologies (ACT) project.
During a short visit to Montreal, Dr. Ros Jennings stopped by the ACT office and happily shared some of her current and forthcoming research, as well as her vision about ageing, media, and gender. “There is a tight connection between studying approaches to identities through music, memory, personal storytelling, and ageing; and I demonstrate it in my current research,” states Dr. Jennings. For her, music is a cherished topic for many people, because it can say a lot about their identity as it closely relates to personal taste and family histories (such as the passing on of values to future generations). Using soft-end qualitative research methods, Dr. Jennings prioritizes research that relates to participants’ experiences and emotions. In doing so, she gives priority to their personal voices and experiences. In addition, her research integrates feminist and activist perspectives, which, by tradition, aim to give voice to people who haven’t had the chance to speak up in society.
In 2007, Dr. Jennings, with a small group of academics from diverse disciplines, formed a research network called WAM – the Centre for Women, Ageing and Media – in the University of Gloucestershire. Interested in questions around media, film, television studies, and age, researchers started holding informal meetings to brainstorm the mission and scope of this network. WAM were awarded an Arts and Humanities research grant to run a series of workshops around the UK to raise awareness about the issue of women, media and ageing, through various themes such as visibility and invisibility, commodification, older non-heterosexual identities, media representation, and mediating the body. Given the major international interest in the topic, other experienced scholars in ageing studies joined the network, curious to learn about media and representation. This formed an even more interdisciplinary mix of academic researchers.
In 2013, WAM joined the ACT project. As one of its key research partners, it continues to share resources and interests with researchers throughout Europe and beyond. WAM has held international conferences and summer school every year, for the past three years. “It’s been so useful, pivotal in generating a set of resources of working in age studies,” shares Dr. Jennings. Focusing on the amalgamation of topics and methodologies around ageing and media, the summer school’s participants include students, scholars, and university professors who are interested in learning about implementing questions of ageing in their own research.
Dr. Jennings is currently finishing a research project on life stories related to the variety of ways people access music, including tunes they have not chosen (i.e. from a radio). Her research includes questions related to digital media, such as the (lack of) materiality in the new technologies related to music. Next year, through WAM, she is starting a major book project with her colleague Ab Gardner called EuroVision – Music and Ageing Across Cultures, which will cover personal stories of project participants from all over Europe. Stay tuned.
On February 27th and 28th, the University of Toronto’s Literature Department will bring together an interdisciplinary group of scholars to ask questions, tell stories, and initiate conversations about age and the processes involved in ageing. Playing Age is an interdisciplinary symposium that will provide scholars with the opportunity to discuss and flesh out concepts of play and age, and, of course, the connections between the two.
One of the foundational ideas of the symposium relates to the way in which the performing arts “perform or rehearse age.” The conference is also an opportunity to think about how different arts represent age and, at the same time, how they challenge conventional representations of age. Keynote speakers Elinor Fuchs and Margaret Morganroth Gullette will present on Saturday and Sunday, respectively.
Recently, I had the opportunity to chat with University of Toronto (U of T) faculty members and symposium organizers Marlene Goldman and Lawrence (Larry) Switzky about the upcoming gathering. Marlene is a Professor in the Department of English who specializes in contemporary Canadian literature. Most recently, her work has been exploring narratives of illness and the intersections that fall between storytelling and medicine. She’s recently been spending time speaking to clinicians and geriatricians, researching Alzheimer’s, from both a literature and a medical perspective. Larry is an Assistant Professor in the Department of English at the University of Toronto. He is currently completing a manuscript about the rise of theatre directing as an artistic profession from the 1880s through the 1950s. He has also been writing and presenting papers that focus on the capacity of video games, philosophical thought experiments, and live performances to help us differently imagine moral choice scenarios.
Our conversation, rambling in the way that good conversations are, covered a wide range of topics – we discussed the importance of interdisciplinary approaches, the chemistry that occurs at great conferences, the way in which people are always playing and performing age, the vulnerability of young and old bodies, among many other rich topics. Our lively conversation was surely foretelling of the exchanges that will happen at the University of Toronto at the end of the month.
Origins of the conference
In March 2013, Marlene and Larry watched an experimental production of King Lear. The production, which featured prominent Canadian actor Clare Coulter as King Lear, bent ideas of age and gender. For Marlene and Larry, this production of Lear evoked thoughts about what it means to play age—both on and off the stage. Conversations they were having about the play blossomed into an idea for an event that could bring other people into their conversations. Marlene even divulged that her “secret way of learning things is to hold a conference.”
Larry explained that the “relationship between the performing arts and ageing, or how we rehearse age, was one of the entry points of the initial conversations about the conference” and Marlene expanded on this by suggesting the conference will involve a “broad investigation of play in both ritual and make believe spaces.” She explained that her conversations with Larry highlighted the fact that “play” can no longer be limited to conversations about Shakespeare or classical theatre. Through technology, through representation, and through avatars, play has moved, quite dramatically, into mass culture. With hopes of keeping these conversations going, Marlene and Larry decided to initiate the Playing Age symposium, which is one event among several working groups that will be taking place throughout 2015. The symposium has been built around framing questions (found here: https://playingage.wordpress.com/) that invite scholars to explore specific ideas and texts before the gathering in late February.
Why an interdisciplinary conference?
At different points throughout our conversation, Marlene and Larry used a variety of metaphors to talk about the interdisciplinary nature of the upcoming conference. Both of them initially described the conference as a big tent event: an opportunity for scholars from different disciplines to ask questions and pull apart concepts. Later, Marlene elaborated to say: “actually, I don’t think of it as a tent, I think of it as a chemical reaction.” Larry further emphasized the way in which scholars from different disciplines can challenge one another in ways scholars from the same discipline cannot. The symposium includes scholars from literature, theatre, communication studies, sociology, and public health, among other fields. A fruitful pushback happens when scholars from different disciplines are asked to define and explain the concepts they use. This pushback becomes increasingly beneficial when scholars from both the sciences and the humanities are welcomed into the conversation. A goal of this interdisciplinary conference will be to make tiny interjections across the disciplines. Not only will the outcomes of these “tiny interjections” shape future research, they will push the young and growing area of age studies forward.
Building from an understanding that age studies is a burgeoning area of study, Marlene and Larry both suggested that critical theory in ageing studies is at a forefront. Similar to the way in which critical theorists in feminism’s early days were working to carve out new concepts and theoretical territory, age studies theorists are currently establishing new concepts. In the past few years, new organizations have come to formation (NANAS, ACT, ENAS, for example). Journals dedicated to age studies are also opening up. Expanding on this, both Marlene and Larry emphasized the challenges of trying to build a critical discourse amidst a culture of repression: how do we best build a vocabulary for ageing within an age-phobic, youth obsessed society? Marlene referred to the work of Stephen Katz, Paul Higgs and Chris Gillard, among others who are contributing insightful critical work to the domain of age studies. In a field as complex and important as age studies, an interdisciplinary approach will contribute best to building a rich vocabulary and working through critical, creative methods.
Playing age – on and off the stage.
The concept of playing age is open to interpretation and these interpretations will be key to the upcoming symposium. In their conceptualization of the symposium, both Marlene and Larry agreed that the concept of play would have to move beyond classic representations of play that already exist in literature and theatre.
One way to understand the concept of playing age is to put the emphasis on play. An outcome of the growing dominance of mass digital culture is the shifting and redefinition of concepts of play. In fact Mary Flanagan, who recently was a guest speaker at a working group also called “Playing Age” that meets monthly at the University of Toronto, runs a gaming lab named Tiltfactor out of Dartmouth. Her work looks at the relationship between older adults and games. Larry’s work, particularly his work on gaming and ethics provides different angles into the ways we can think about playing age. Referencing the research of Mary Flanagan, Larry pointed out that the fastest growing population of ‘gamers’ is actually composed of older adults – not teenagers, as many might assume.
Themes around playing (or performing) age in our every day lives also appear. One of the fascinating areas Marlene explores in her research relates to the way in which we become strangers to our own bodies and our physical features as we age. Writers have discussed the phenomenon of “seeing the stranger in the mirror” which, Marlene explains, is a phenomenon that happens when we feel a certain age but look another. She expanded on this, saying that there is often a contradiction between how you feel and how others read your body and your chronology. In simple terms: “you feel 17 but you catch yourself in a shop window and you see a reflection of an old hag: you read yourself as a stranger.” To further expand, Marlene added that she is interested in further exploring the strange alliance between ageing and shaming: why do we have a sense of repulsion and disgust? Arguably, ageing studies scholars are carving out a space in critical discourse that can pull apart these socially bound feelings and reactions. Hopefully, to make room for conversations that can incorporate the complexities of ageing while also confronting the prejudice, stereotypes, and the processes of shaming mentioned by Marlene.
While the conference will certainly bring together a lively group of scholars, it will also become part of an important foundation for age studies – a foundation that is presently changing the way we think and talk about age.
On January 21st, 2015, the Centre for Research and Expertise in Social Gerontology (CREGÉS) and the Ageing, Communication, Technologies (ACT) project hosted a talk by Jiayin (Jaylene) Liang, currently a Canada Research Chair Post-Doctoral Fellow in Social Gerontology and Public Policy at Concordia University.
Liang’s qualitative research explores the experiences of older people living in urban China. More specifically, she asks questions about the ways in which cultural and political shifts in the past have shaped the retirement choices of older adults living in contemporary China.
Following her talk, I asked her a few questions about the origins of her research, her approach to interviewing older adults, and her thoughts on the importance of qualitative research.
Primarily, Liang’s research has emerged from her experience growing up as an only child, within a generation of only children. In China, Liang belongs to a unique generation: the first generation of people born within China’s one child policy (introduced in 1979). This means she belongs to a generation of children who will care for parents (and sometimes grandparents) without assistance from siblings. Liang explained that “the 1950s cohort of baby boomers in China grew up with siblings and it did not occur to them that their children would face challenges in the future, as a result of the one child policy.” As Jaylene’s parents began to age, she realized that she, alone, would be responsible for caring for them. At the same time, she was making observations about her peers’ experiences caring for their parents. In China, care for the elderly has traditionally been the responsibility of the family: “providing care to your ageing parents is a cultural norm in China and there is a lack of social support or programs for ageing adults.” In addition to the changed family dynamic inside Chinese households, large social changes are also shifting the relationships between children and their ageing parents.
Social factors such as rapid urbanization, social mobility, and unaffordable housing are further affecting the lives of older adults living in China. Liang emphasized that the rapid urbanization of China has meant many young people have migrated to urban centres. In many cases, this has left rurally situated older adults without any support at all. These already complex factors are further compounded by the fact that children of Liang’s generation are also going to school longer, starting their careers later, and postponing marriage. In many cases, students are studying abroad. Currently, “50% of homes in urban China can be characterized as empty nests.” Liang further emphasized that the free housing that was available for citizens up until the 1990s is no longer available and the lack of affordable housing is one of the biggest challenges faced by people living in urban China. Ageing adults in China are facing a complicated future that is compounded by various social factors that have been magnified by the one child policy.
While there are many macro level social and cultural factors that could be studied in relation to the ageing population in China, Liang was interested in exploring the personal, day-to-day details of older adults. She explained that her particular research milieu (social gerontology) is predominantly composed of quantitative research practices and that she is among only a small group of researchers who are engaging with qualitative research methodologies. She offered a gentle critique of some quantitative research, suggesting that quantitative theoretical models imposed from the top down often miss very interesting details and the nuances; in particular, culturally specific components. Doing “bottom up” research allows researchers to “really hear how older Chinese are living and constructing their own lives.” If statistical studies produce different results about the same subject, she explained, qualitative research may be able to better understand the differences and the nuances within those differences. The role of qualitative research is to understand the details that don’t necessarily fit the top down models. “The purpose of qualitative research is not to generalize; instead, the purpose of qualitative research is to rebuild the authenticity of daily life experiences and to hear people’s experiences from their own standpoints.”
In order to explore the stories surrounding people’s daily experiences, she set up interviews with small cohorts of older adults and asked them questions about their lives. Many of the people she interviewed were initially skeptical of her intentions and she often had to explain that her research was not to serve “the media” (of which they were often mistrustful) but, instead, to contribute to academic research. She describes the process as one of building trust and establishing a rapport. Two important ideas that emerge from Liang’s research include the concept of reminiscence and the importance of human agency. Reminiscence includes experiences of the past that contribute to people’s experiences and decisions, later in life. Liang uses the concept of reminiscence to describe the way in which past life experiences affect decisions for the future and present. Her research further emphasizes the importance that human agency has in shaping future life decisions. Even though most of the older adults she interviewed had experienced rigidly planned earlier lives, their own agency allowed them to shape the pathways of their retirement. Liang hopes her research methodologies will incorporate people’s stories in a way that builds connections across heterogenous experiences.
Qualitative researchers who place themselves reflexively in their research can establish methodologies that include their own experiences as researchers. In doing so, they must be aware that they are “mutually constructing the story, through the process [of research].” As a researcher, Liang is aware that the complexities of ageing are intergenerational and that methodological approaches to research on ageing must always take into account the complex, often subtle, details of families, not individuals, growing older together.
Dr. Murray Forman has been named an Inaugural Nasir Jones Fellow by the W. E. B. Du Bois Research Institute at the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University.