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Status of Older People: Tribal Societies - Status Of The Aged

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In tribal societies, older adults commonly function as a storehouse of knowledge about such things as family lineage, religious rituals, lore and myth that explain tribal origins and identity as well as in-depth knowledge about the environment and how to exploit it for survival. Among many African tribal peoples, older adults are the gatekeepers for the ritual management of life, from the naming of children to the planting songs chanted by West African village women to assure the younger female farmers that the harvest will be good.

Despite the respect that relative age often generates in tribal societies, many anthropologists find that chronological age itself is seldom the basis for respect or authority. Pamela Amoss and Steven Harrell have proposed that there are two key factors that determine how older adults fare in their particular cultural settings. The first is the relative balance between the contributions older persons make and the costs to society that they represent; the second is the control older persons have over resources that are important to younger members of the community. Amoss and Harrell sum this up succinctly by predicting that ‘‘the position of the aged in a given society can be expressed in terms of how much old people contribute to the resources of the group, balanced by the cost they exact, and compounded by the degree of control they have over valuable resources’’ (1981, p. 6).

While this formulation has not been cross-culturally tested through a large sampling of societies, the issue of control of resources has received a great deal of study in relation to status and treatment of older adults.

A series of global statistical studies have corroborated in many respects the association of status and deference with the control of informational and administrative roles, as well as with valued activities and extended family integration (Silverman). This research shows that, in terms of resource and information control, only certain types of control, particularly administration and consultation, correlate with beneficent treatment of the elderly. Some forms of supernatural information control, especially transformational powers are, in fact, a potential threat to the elderly. This fact is highly relevant to some historically known situations of massive societal change, such as in Europe during the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries, where the majority of persons burned at the stake for their transformational knowledge (witchcraft) were middle-aged and older females (Bever).

Some worldwide statistical studies have dealt with the darker side of aging, including various types of nonsupportive, and even harsh, treatment directed toward the elderly. This work makes it clear that being old in a small-scale, traditional, face-to-face community does not necessarily prevent cultural variants of death hastening from occurring. Anthony Glascock found that killing of the aged was found in about one-fifth of his global sample, and that 84 percent of the societies exhibited various forms of nonsupportive treatment. However, few societies enforce a single treatment of their elderly, and it was commonly found that both supportive behavior and death-hastening behavior coexisted in the same social setting. Glascock’s study demonstrates that cultural distinctions drawn between intact, fully functioning older adults and decrepit individuals who find it difficult to carry out even the most basic tasks are critical. It is persons placed in this latter category toward which geronticide or death hastening is most frequently applied.

JAY SOKOLOVSKY

BIBLIOGRAPHY

AGUILAR, M., ed. The Politics of Age and Gerontocracy in Africa: Ethnographies of the Past and Memories of the Present. Lawrenceville, N.J.: Africa World Press, 1998.

ALBERT, S., and CATTELL, M. Old Age in Global Perspective: Cross-Cultural and Cross-National Views. New York: G. K. Hall, 1994.

AMOSS, P., and HARRELL, S., eds. Other Ways of Growing Old: Anthropological Perspectives. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1981.

BARKER, J. ‘‘Between Humans and Ghosts: The Decrepit Elderly in a Polynesian Society.’’ In The Cultural Context of Aging: World-Wide Perspectives, 2d ed. Edited by J. Sokolovsky. Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, 1997. Pages 407–425.

BERNARDI, B. Age Class Systems. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

BEVER, E. ‘‘Witchcraft Fears and Psychosocial Factors in Disease.’’ Journal of Interdisciplinary History 30 (2000): 573–590.

CATTELL, M. ‘‘African Widows, Culture and Social Change: Case Studies from Kenya.’’ In The Cultural Context of Aging: World-Wide Perspectives, 2d ed. Edited by J. Sokolovsky. Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, 1997. Pages 71–98.

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COWGILL, D., and HOLMES, L. D., eds. Aging and Modernization. New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts, 1972.

GLASCOCK, A. ‘‘When Killing is Acceptable: The Moral Dilemma Surrounding Assisted Suicide in America and Other Societies.’’ In The Cultural Context of Aging: World-Wide Perspectives, 2d ed. Edited by J. Sokolovsky. Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, 1997. Pages 56–70.

GLASCOCK, A., and FEINMAN, S. ‘‘Social Asset or Social Burden: Treatment of the Aged in Non-Industrial Societies.’’ In Dimensions: Aging, Culture and Health. Edited by C. Fry. New York: Praeger, 1981.

GUTMANN, D. Reclaimed Powers: Toward a New Psychology of Men and Women in Later Life. New York: Basic Books, 1987.

HALPERIN, R. ‘‘Age in Cross-Cultural Perspective: An Evolutionary Approach.’’ In The Elderly as Modern Pioneers. Edited by P. Silverman. Bloomington, Ind.: Indiana University Press, 1987. Pages 283–311.

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KEITH, J.; FRY, C.; et al. The Aging Experience: Diversity and Commonality Across Cultures. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1994.

KERNS, V., and BROWN, J., eds. In Her Prime: New Views of Middle-Aged Women, 2d ed. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1992.

KERTZER, D., and MADISON, O. B. B. ‘‘Women’s Age-Set Systems in Africa: The Latuka of Southern Sudan.’’ In Dimensions: Aging, Culture and Health. Edited by C. Fry. Brooklyn, N.Y.: J. F. Bergin, 1981. Pages 109–130.

PUTNAM-DICKERSON, J., and BROWN, J., eds. Women Among Women: Anthropological Perspectives on Female Age Hierarchies. Champaign, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

RHOADS, E., and HOLMES, L. D. Other Cultures, Elder Years, 2d ed. Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Sage, 1995.

SANGREE, W. ‘‘The Childless Elderly in Tiriki, Keyna, and Iriqwe, Nigeria: A Comparative Analysis of the Relationship Between Beliefs about Childlessness and the Social Status of the Childless Elderly.’’ Journal of Cross-Cultural Gerontology 2 (2001): 201–223.

SILVERMAN, P., ed. ‘‘Comparative Studies.’’ In The Elderly as Modern Pioneers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987. Pages 312–344.

SIMIC, A. ‘‘Introduction: Aging and the Aged in Cultural Perspective.’’ In Life’s Career Aging: Cultural Variations on Growing Old. Edited by B. Myerhoff and A. Simic. Beverley Hills, Calif.: Sage, 1978. Pages 9–22.

SOKOLOVSKY, J., ed. The Cultural Context of Aging: World-Wide Perspectives, 2d ed. Westport, Conn.: Bergin and Garvey, 1997.

SPENCER, P. The Samburu: A Study of Gerontocracy in a Nomadic Tribe. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1965.

VAN ARSDALE, P. ‘‘The Elderly Asmat of New Guinea.’’ In Other Ways of Growing Old: Anthropological Perspectives. In P. Amoss and S. Harrell. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1981. Pages 111–123.

WARNER, L. A Black Civilization: A Social Study of an Australian Tribe, rev. ed. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1958.

WEISS, K. ‘‘Evolutionary Perspectives on Aging.’’ In Other Ways of Growing Old. Edited by P. Amoss and S. Harrell. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1981. Pages 25–58.

STEREOTYPES

See AGEISM; IMAGES OF AGING; SOCIAL COGNITION

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