‘Aging’ beyond borders: Challenges of cross-cultural comparison

by Anusmita Devi
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INCG, Critical Gerontology, Diaspora

The comparative method has been often regarded as the “holy grail” – or particular obsession – for modern sociological and anthropological inquiry. Noted Indian sociologist, Andre Beteille asserts that “the comparative method as a tool of investigation, [was] designed consciously to discover the general features of all societies (or cultures) without losing sight of the distinctive features of each…” (Beteille, 1998, p: 137). In this blog I discuss how the comparative method in sociology can be fruitfully used to understand the experiential, heterogeneous process of growing old in the diaspora, drawing from my qualitative study among the Indian (South Asian) older adults in the Greater Vancouver region, Canada. In the process, I highlight the spatial and temporal dimensions of the migration process and how diasporic subjectivities are constructed through a complex interplay of (life) histories, memories, and transnational boundaries.

Hautz and Kunkel (2014) state that “… the essence of comparative research on aging: (is) to discover patterns of similarity and difference in the experiences of aging across settings or circumstances” (p. 29). Cross-cultural research in gerontology has attempted to separate out the universal processes of aging from culture-specific processes in order to understand how culture influences aging (Palmore,1983). Though research in gerontology has employed the comparative method as a tool to bring together the macro (e.g. national origin, culture) and the micro-sociological aspects (acculturation, race/ethnicity), especially in life course perspective (Fry,1996; Riley et al.,1999), its application in understanding the perceptions and experiences of aging among the diasporic communities is lacking. While part of this can be attributed to the conceptual ambiguities that comparative gerontological scholarship entails, the lacunae in the conceptualization of the diasporic senior community is equally responsible.

Diasporic communities are often constructed as homogenous groups based on their national or ethnic identities. Several scholars have pointed out the shortfalls of such an understanding. The heterogeneous nature of diasporas from colonies, such as India, is particularly pronounced. Jayaram (2008) highlights the heterogeneous nature of Indian diaspora and classifies it into two broad categories: the colonial and the postcolonial migrants. He suggests that owing to the differences in the causes of and conditions for migration, background of the emigrants, process of emigration, social organization and cultural dynamics of the diasporic community, and several other such factors, the Indian diasporic communities within these two phases of migration resulted in various manifestations, challenging the notion of a homogenous diasporic community. This heterogeneity in composition is even more stark for the senior diaspora of Indian origin.

My study on the perception, experience and management of age and aging bodies among the Indian diaspora sheds further light on the multiple manifestations of the senior diasporic identities. Spread over a period of four months (August through November 2017), 27 older adults aged 55 years and above (13 males and 14 females), of Gujarati origin who had been living in Canada for ten years or more, were interviewed based on an open-ended semi-structured questionnaire. The interviews were conducted in the Greater Vancouver region (Vancouver, Burnaby, New West Minister and Surrey) where most of the Indian immigrants in British Columbia reside. The study was sponsored by the Shastri Indo-Canadian Institute and carried out in collaboration with the University of British Columbia. The Gujarati Society of British Columbia was crucial to my introduction to the Gujarati speaking community in the region. I also attended several communal celebrations (often religious) to familiarize with the population and recruit participants. Most of my participants were recruited through snowballing.

I identify four types of migrants in my study based on the reason of migration:

  1. The ‘twice removed’ or ‘twice migrated’ (Jayaram, 2008), comprising of the migrants from East African countries such as Fiji, Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, who came to Canada as political refugees in the 1970s.
  2. The first-generation migrants from India who migrated to Canada for education, employment and/or marriage.
  3. The later-life migrants or the ‘zero-generation’ migrants who followed their children who had migrated to Canada.
  4. The second-generation migrants who were born in Canada.

Mehta et al. (2008) in their anthology of senior Indian diasporic case-studies, recognize, Indian senior diaspora is not a homogenous group of elders. They succinctly put, “Experiencing old age is never an isolated phenomenon. The life histories of older people are intricately intertwined with the histories of their families, communities, nations as well as global trends” (p:1). Employing historical comparative analysis, I briefly illustrate one such factor, proximity with the host culture, to drive home the point that aging is experienced and perceived in various ways within the senior diasporic community.

As several scholars have suggested, immigrant identities emerge in response to a process of negotiation between the culture of origin and the culture of the host-land (Saffran,2004). Depending on the proximity with the host culture in terms of time spent in the host country and the level of interaction with the host community, the level of adaptation to and adoption of values and beliefs of host culture vary. For instance, one of my participants (all names have been changed to protect privacy), Kokila Shah (75 years), who is a ‘twice removed’ migrant from Uganda (and has spent more than 40 years in Canada), says that the ‘realization of being old’ hit her recently, in her late 60s, when she noticed decreased body functionality and vigour. Similarly, Poonam Dixit (62 years), a second-generation migrant, reports feeling old when she noticed reduced agility and increased fatigue after her menopause.

This materiality of the body in experiencing age in the western literature has been well documented (Twigg, 2004). Writing with regards to India, cultural anthropologist, Sarah Lamb (2000) notes, while the Euro-American idea assumes the body to be ‘local, tangible, bounded, stable, or individually experienced’, bodies (and persons) in India, it is assumed to be ‘open, composite and dividual.’ She points out that bodily changes associated with aging in India are often ‘as social-relational as somatic’. This socio-relational experience of aging is expressed by one of my participants, Induben (69 years), who had migrated from India 11 years ago to live with and extend domestic support to her son’s family. She reports that the realization of old age hit her after her son’s wedding (when she was in her early 50s) which marked the shift in her role as a ‘mother’ to that of a ‘mother-in-law’. She perceives ‘old age’ in terms of change in her social role rather than chronological age or physical/cognitive abilities.

In-depth interviews revealed that though all participants are from the Gujarati speaking community and identify themselves as Hindus, there are several other factors, such the country from which they had migrated, age at migration, reason for migration, socio-economic condition, educational and employment background, living arrangement, etc. which need to be considered while examining the questions of age, aging bodies and later life identities among the senior diaspora. Also, with the blurring of national boundaries in a transnational post-colonial world where the concept of nation-state has become increasingly fluid, defining the diaspora has become increasingly complicated. The emerging global ‘ethnoscapes’, which cultural theorist, Arjun Appadurai (1996) defines as the ‘landscapes of group identity’, has destabilized the notion of a territorially fixed, ahistorical, culturally homogenous ethnic identity, further complicating the notion of diaspora. With an increase in later life migration as well as ‘retirement migrants’ across the globe (see King, Warnes, and Williams 1998, 2000), the task of defining an aging diaspora has become even more daunting. I argue that a complex duality of contextual as well as historical comparative analysis is required in order to understand (diasporic) identities in late life, and the everyday construction of self among the senior Indian diaspora.


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