Historians of ageing and the ‘cultural turn’

Authored by: Antje Kampf

Routledge Handbook of Cultural Gerontology

Print publication date:  June  2015
Online publication date:  June  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415631143
eBook ISBN: 9780203097090
Adobe ISBN: 9781136221033


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Historical scholarship can offer a contextual grounding for the recurrent sociological, anthropological, political and economic questions arising from the contingent and ambivalent meanings of ageing. Yet, while ageing studies have been providing a timely evaluation of contemporary trends in ageing, the history of ageing has, until recently, still been grappling with Simone de Beauvoir’s contention in her seminal 1972 book Coming of Age that there is more to the meaning and conceptualizations of old age than is found in mere statistical facts. Old age needs to be seen as a process, a last stage of life and a change of one’s own life (Beauvoir 1972). In the twenty-first century, historical studies have come broadly to embrace cultural approaches to the history of old age, evidenced in a growing range of articles and surveys on old age in Western history (for example, Johnson and Thane 1998, Troyansky 1996, Laslett 1984, Ehmer 2008, Blessing 2010). The vexed relation between the historian’s tool-kit (in the form of source material) and the way in which we interpret and weigh the meaning of old age, however, still dominates historical approaches to ageing: ‘But if there is no language, no discourse, no text, and no possibility of direct anthropological observation, then there can be no historical construction’ (Johnson 1998: 17), writes historian Paul Johnson on the intricacy of approaching the history of age(ing) from a post-modern perspective. As this chapter illustrates, however, historians have found ways of historical construction.

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