1.18 Culture and Aging

Culture and Aging: A Research Project in Completed Fertility & Subsistence Practices, Productivity & Aging, and Social Networks & Aging

by Sara E. Johnson, Department of Anthropology, California State University, Fullerton

This assignment will allow you to explore a large database containing ethnographic information from many societies around the world. The Human Relations Area Files (HRAF) is an extensive record of the ways in which individuals live in a wide variety of ecological and social settings. The challenge in your study of the cultural context of aging will be to develop an understanding of how different ecological and social conditions are related to variation in the pattern and process of aging and passage through the lifecourse.

You will begin the project by formulating a research question. What is a research question? In general, a research question asks how or why two or more characteristics are related. For more information about research questions visit HRAF’s Basic Guide to Cross-Cultural Research.

To develop a research questions, look through the OCM subjects to find a topic that interests you, or in the eHRAF World Cultures home page click on Browse Subjects.  Think of a question that relates one of the subjects to social or ecological conditions as discussed in class. Try to develop a question you would like to pursue. Your research question MUST incorporate a cross-cultural approach, comparing across at least 5 different cultures.  

Your project write-up will have the following sections: 1. Introduction, 2. Methods, 3. Results, and 4. Discussion. Each section is discussed below:

1. Your paper will begin with an Introduction. Start with your research question, then devote the rest of the introduction to telling the reader why this question is important and interesting by providing some background information. You will locate the background information by doing a literature search using bibliographic databases available online through the library portal. Expanded Academic ASAP, Ageline, and Anthropology Plus are good search tools to locate pertinent articles.

2. Your Methods section will explain how you did your project. You will all use the eHRAF World Cultures database. This section should include a description of the database. Look at Chapter 3 in your text for an example of a methods section based on research conducted using HRAF.

3. Next you want to show the results of your research. In the Results section you will report your findings. Include a table or graph to summarize the findings for the reader.

4. The Discussion section is where you interpret your results for the reader. You should include a comparison with other studies. For example: do your findings agree with the background information you presented in the introduction, do your findings add new information, did you find what you expected?

Phrasing a question with variables that can be measured is often difficult. In class we discussed how an anthropologist would measure productivity as a person ages. Remember that productivity can be measured in many different currencies and that the contribution of aged to the household production unit may be direct or indirect.

Below are some sample research questions related to productivity and aging:

*How does subsistence pattern affect productivity of the elderly?
*How does the status of the elderly vary in relation to their productivity?
*How do the activities of the elderly affect the productivity of younger people?

Additional sample research questions related to topics discussed in class:

Sample research questions related to demography:
*Is subsistence activity associated with completed fertility?
*How do age-specific childhood activity patterns affect fertility?
*How does subsistence activity affect age-specific childhood activity patterns?
*Is there a difference between matrilineal and patrilineal societies in the age at first reproduction for women?

Sample research questions related to social networks and aging:
*Is there an association between subsistence pattern and residence pattern?
*Is there an association between residence pattern and productive activities of the aged?

Search Strategies in eHRAF

In a cross-cultural comparison each variable needs to be measured separately. There are two reasons for this. The most important is that a judgment about one variable should not affect the judgment of another variable. The second reason is that the two variables will rarely be discussed in the same passages. (Searches in eHRAF are usually looking for “results” in the same paragraph. If you ask for two very different concepts at one time, you will likely get no results.)

In searching eHRAF, keep in mind that word searches rarely are that fruitful. This is because many concepts are expressed by ethnographers in different ways and it is difficult to anticipate the exact phrasing that an ethnographer will use. For example, if you are interested in completed fertility and you put that exact phrase “completed fertility” in Basic Search as word search you will only get cultures where the ethnographer had that exact phrase in a paragraph. But an ethnographer could have said, “the average woman has 5 children in her reproductive career” and you wouldn’t find that information by typing in “completed fertility” in a word search. A word search in a paragraph is best used for concepts expressed by unique words that describe a unique state, action or object (e.g., tuberculosis, tattoo, evil eye). Of course, you can try a word search first, but if you don’t find enough information or you find too much irrelevant information, try using HRAF’s unique subject categories (OCMs). Anthropological indexers at HRAF have used over 770 subject categories (see Outline of Cultural Materials) and indexed every paragraph in every ethnography with the subjects found there.

To find an appropriate OCM Subject it is easiest to use the “Add Subject” function in eHRAF’s Advanced Search. If you look at the A-Z index under fertility, you will be referred to the subject “Birth Statistics” (OCM 163). It also helps to browse the whole subject category indexing system in with “Major Subjects” in the Advanced Search to get an idea of the subjects that are indexed. Once you select the OCM subject you might try to refine your search by also adding the word “fertility” to the Advanced Search, but of course, then you might miss some cases where the ethnographer did not use the word “fertility.”

There is one important caveat in looking for appropriate OCM subject categories. The most general categories that end in the number “0” (e.g., Demography 160) usually do not contain that much useful information because indexers are instructed to try to choose the most specific subcategory possible. If you want all the Demography categories, you must select the subcategories).

When you are trying to see how two variables are related, but you are rating them separately, it sometimes helps to first get information on the more “difficult” (that is, less often described) variable first. For example, if you are trying to see if agriculturalists have higher completed fertility than hunter-gatherers, it is probably better to find cases with good fertility information first because almost all ethnographers describe subsistence patterns, but not all have collected good information on demographic characteristics. So, in this case you should search on completed fertility and generate a list of cultural groups for which there are data available. Then you can choose your cases and start to look at subsistence practices.

HRAF has many subject categories pertaining to subsistence. A relatively simple way to get the information quickly about some cultural features is to look at the short culture summary which can be found in Browse Cultures. However, when you perform an Advanced Search the subsistence type will also be listed with each culture name in the intermediate “results page.”

After you do your research in eHRAF and obtain information on both variables you can begin to create a table with each row being a cultural group and one column containing completed fertility and a second column containing the type of subsistence, e.g. forager, pastoralist, etc. You will find yourself making several assumptions as you record your data. Always write down your assumptions because they should be included in your methods section and they may influence your results. In the above example you will want to keep male fertility separate from female fertility. Some sources, or matches, will list a range of values. Decide on a criterion for inclusion and stick to it throughout data collection. Your criterion could be to use the lower value of the range, the midpoint, or the upper value of the range.

The Practical Guide to Using eHRAF shows how to search in eHRAF.

Glascock, AP. 1997. When is killing acceptable: The moral dilemma surrounding assisted suicide in America and other societies.  In The Cultural Context of Aging. J. Sokolovsky, ed. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey

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