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Status of Older People: Tribal Societies

Longevity, The Cultural Construction Of Elders And Older Adulthood, Gender And Age, Old Age In Myth And Folklore

To anthropologists, a tribal society is an uncentralized grouping of autonomous local communities linked by common cultural features and associations. These social entities are connected by kin-based organizations such as clan, or associations based on age grading or special activities such as ritual, which cross-cut kinship and territorial boundaries (Haviland). Households tend to be egalitarian, having relatively equal access to available material and social resources, although there can be significant differences based on gender and age. Community size tends to be small, ranging from one hundred to one thousand, but it varies over the annual cycle as the separate communities might come together to initiate a new age grouping or carry out some vital economic activity. Tribal communities typically have an economic base in horticulture or animal herding, although foraging and hunting in rich environments sometimes supports this kind of sociopolitical organization.

In such small scale, kin-focused societies, passage through the life span allows the accumulation of social debt and cultural knowledge that forms the basis of respect and support of older adults. In such cultural settings, the wide embrace of family frequently provides what Andrei Simic calls a life-term arena—a stable setting for the engagement of an entire life. The lack of economic specialization through a division of labor tends to enable people of all ages to link their changing abilities and knowledge to the varied tasks over the annual work cycle. There are two important effects from this that are common in tribal societies. First, work groups are often age heterogeneous, and second, these arrangements facilitate the learning of new work skills as one passes through the life cycle (Halperin).

There is now a large body of literature on the status of older people in tribal societies. Much of this material was written before the 1970s, and has had to be mined from disparate ethnographic reports, which in some cases gave tantalizingly short and often enigmic information about the situation of elders in tribal communities. The first major effort to make sense out of this literature was the seminal book by Leo Simmons, The Role of the Aged in Primitive Society (1945). His study examined the interrelation of 109 sociocultural traits, grouped under habitat and economy, political and social organization, and religious beliefs and ritual. Despite some serious methodological flaws, Simmons’s book remains a vital resource of anthropological knowledge on the elderly in tribal societies.

It was not until the publication of Aging and Modernization, edited by George Cowgill and Lowell Holmes, in 1972, that knowledge from modern ethnographic studies was employed to test gerontological theory. Here, detailed studies of fourteen different societies were compared to examine the impact of industrialization, urbanization, and Westernization on the status of the aged. The theoretical propositions developed by Cowgill and Holmes in this and later works have served as a most controversial stimulus to subsequent work on aging done around the world. Access to this rapidly expanding literature can be found in several edited compilations and texts: The Politics of Age and Gerontocracy in Africa (Aguilar); The Cultural Context of Aging, 2nd edition (Sokolovsky); Other Cultures, Elder Years, 2nd edition (Holmes and Rhodes); Old Age in Global Perspective (Albert and Cattell); The Aging Experience (Keith and Associates); Aging Around the World (Cowgill); and Aging and Its Transformations (Counts and Counts); Other Ways of Growing Old (Amoss and Harrel). Information about new and ongoing ethnographic aging research and related publications can be followed through the Cultural Context of Aging Web site at www.stpt.usf.edu/~jsokolov.

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