Status and Role of the Elderly (Explaining Human Culture)

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Exercise ID: 1.44
Class size: Any
Level(s): I
Source: Produced by HRAF

Learning Objectives

Does the exercise compare 2 or more cultures? Yes
Subject selection: Multiple subjects specified by teacher
Subjects/OCMS, if applicable: 886; 887; 888
Region selection: pre-selected
Region, if applicable: Various
Culture selection: Set by teacher
Cultures/OWCs, if applicable:

Classroom Guide

Instructions for navigating eHRAF included? Yes
Assignments for students to complete in groups? No
Assignments for students to complete on their own? No
Instructions for Microfiche version? No

Jacob Kalodner, Carol R. Ember, Human Relations Area Files

These exercises are intended to be used in conjunction with the summary module, Status and Role of the Elderly that is part of Explaining Human Culture.  The ethnographic passages that are referred to are found in eHRAF World Cultures, a database of information, primarily collected by anthropologists, about the cultures of the world. Check here to see if your library has access.

It is important to keep in mind that until relatively recently, most anthropologists studied communities in nonindustrial societies, mostly leaving the study of industrialized societies and complex polities to other social scientists. As a consequence, eHRAF World Cultures is generally weighted towards less complex societies.

The value of studying societies very different from our own is that diversity provides a much better method of understanding broad relationships about human behavior.

I. What patterns generally describe the treatment of the elderly in the society you grew up in? Try your best to answer the questions based on patterns you observe or were told about. If you think that your subculture is quite different from the general pattern in your society or country, please discuss that subculture.  If you grew up in several different places, pick the place you know best.

a. What society or subculture are you describing?
b. How are the elderly recognized as a category?
c. What sort of roles do the elderly play in your society or subculture?
d. How are the elderly thought of in terms of value and status?
e. In general, how are the elderly treated?
f. What is the relationship between grandparents and grandchildren? Does this differ from the other relationships that the grandparents have?
g. How do you think that these answers will vary across different societies? What may predict cross-cultural differences in the status and role of the elderly?
h. Now read the module. How well do your expectations align with the cross-cultural findings?

II. For the four societies below, read the following passages about the treatment of elders. See instructions below. We have listed the degree of mobility of the given society (nomadic, semi-nomadic, sedentary). How well do these passages align with the findings about mobility discussed in the module? If a case does not fit, do you have any thoughts about what factors may be influencing the treatment of the elderly in these cases? Put your answers in the table below.

  • Turkana (FL17): Gulliver, P. H. 1951. “A Preliminary Survey of the Turkana: A Report Compiled for the Government of Kenya.” pg. 132-B, paragraph 1.
  • Chukchee (RY02): Bogoraz-Tan, Waldemar), Vladimir Germanovich (Bogoras. 1904 [Part 1] ; 1907 [Part 2] ; 1909 [Part 3]//. “The Chukchee: Material Culture [Part 1], Religion [Part 2], Social Organization [Part 3].” pg. 544-546.
  • Gros Ventre (NQ13): Flannery, Regina. 1953. “The Gros Ventres of Montana: Part 1, Social Life.” In Catholic University of America. Anthropological Series.  Washington: Catholic University of America Press. pg. 195-199
  • Ulithi (OR20): Lessa, William Armand. 1950. “The Ethnography of Ulithi Atoll.” In CIMA Report. Los Angeles: University of California. pg. 235.

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Culture Name Community Mobility Treatment of the Elderly
Turkana semi-nomadic  
Chukchee nomadic  
Gros Ventre nomadic  
Ulithi sedentary  
How well do these passages align with overall findings regarding community mobility? What factors may have an influence if it doesn’t fit the mobility prediction?



III. Subsistence strategy also may play a significant role in determining how the elderly are treated, based on their ability to contribute to the necessary work or play a knowledge role. In the table below you will find the subsistence strategies of four societies. How well do these passages on the elderly align with the general cross-cultural findings? What factors may be influencing the treatment of the elderly in these cases?

  • Ainu (AB06): Batchelor, John. 1927. Ainu Life and Lore: Echoes of a Departing Race. pg. 48, paragraph 2.
  • Kanuri (MS140): Cohen, Ronald. 1967. The Kanuri of Bornu. Pg. 70, paragraphs 2-3.  In Case Studies in Cultural Anthropology. New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc.
  • Navajo (NT13): Leighton, Dorothea (Cross), and Clyde Kluckhohn. 1947. “Children of the People: The Navaho Individual and His Development.” In Cambridge: Harvard University Press. pg. 89-90.
  • Bengali (AW69): Davis, Marvin. 1983. “Rank and Rivalry: The Politics of Inequality in Rural West Bengal.” In Cambridge Studies in Cultural Systems, p. 99.


Culture Name Subsistence Treatment of the Elderly
Ainu Hunter-Gatherers  
Kanuri Intensive Agriculturalists  
Navajo Agro-pastoralists  
Bengali Intensive Agriculturalists  
How well do these passages align with overall findings? What factors may have an influence if it doesn’t fit the subsistence predictions?


IV. One of the roles frequently played by the elderly across cultures is that of the grandparent. Read the following passages and describe the relationship between grandparents and their grandchildren. How do you think this compares to what you described in the first exercise (I.f)?

  • Javanese (OE05): Jay, Robert R. 1969. Javanese Villagers: Social Relations in Rural Modjokuto. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, section on grandparents and grandchildren, pg. 159-162.
  • Kurds (MA11): Masters, William Murray. 1953. Rowanduz: A Kurdish Administrative and Mercantile Center.  pg. 245, paragraph 1
  • Western Apache (NT21): Goodwin, Grenville, and Janice Thompson Goodwin. 1942. “The Social Organization of the Western Apache.” In Ethnological Series.  Chicago, Ill.: The University of Chicago Press. pg. 218-220

Cover image credit:

Elderly Women on Street Corner in Biertan, Romania © Adam Jones, CC BY 2.0 DEED. Attribution 2.0 Generic