• Summary
  • Contents
  • Subject index

This fully revised Second Edition of Other Cultures, Elder Years is not only the textbook on the anthropology of aging, but also the most comprehensive, comparative study available on worldwide patterns of ageing. `Provides an excellent summary of secondary sources, avoiding extensive review of primary research, complicated theory, and methodological issues' - Clinical Gerontologist

Status and Family
Status and family

Anthropological interest in gerontology did not really begin until Leo Simmons (actually a Yale University sociologist) published The Role of the Aged in Primitive Society in 1945. An earlier encyclopedic volume by J. Koty, Die Behandlung der Alten und Kranken bei den Naturvolkern, had been published in Stuttgart in 1933, but it had little or no impact on American research interests. Simmons's (1945a) book purported to be a “report on the status and treatment of the aged within a world-wide selection of primitive societies,” and it addressed itself to such questions as these: What in old age are the possible adjustments to different environments, both physical and social? What uniformities or general trends may be observed in such a broad cross-cultural analysis? Simmons's study was unique in its day, because it used elaborate and complicated statistical measurements; one reviewer described it as the “first systematic comparative analysis of the role of the aged in primitive society” (Kimball, 1946, p. 287).

It was Simmons's work that established the concept of status as an important focus in the study of the aged, and we begin this chapter with discussion of that work. Many other social scientists since that time have been interested in learning what factors contribute to or detract from the status of old people in different cultures. We will also see that, although the family takes a variety of forms throughout the world, it is essentially a primary source of support and care for the aged regardless of culture. Consideration of the nature of generational reciprocity and the implications of being childless conclude this chapter.

Simmons selected 71 widely distributed preindustrial societies and carefully analyzed the monographs in which they were described with an eye to differences in environment, level of technological development, and degree of cultural complexity. He correlated 109 cultural traits pertaining to (a) habitat and economy, (b) religious beliefs and practices, and (c) social and political organization with 112 traits dealing particularly with status and treatment of the elderly. Among the latter were traits pertaining to property rights, food sharing practices, community and family support, ceremonial roles, and political authority. Although some reviewers objected to some of Simmons's statistical procedures, they generally applauded his attempt to establish universals and variables of aging. Solon Kimball (1946) conceded that the book did have value as a “reference work,” but he criticized Simmons's methodology on the grounds that “there is the ever-present danger that the use of isolated cultural facts, called ‘traits,’ outside their context may produce distortion of meaning” (p. 287). Even though this pioneer work may have contained methodological problems, Simmons must be applauded for creating a great deal of interest in aging and for laying some important groundwork for future investigation. He established, for example, that old people the world over seek (a) to preserve life as long as possible, (b) to be released from wearisome exertion and to be protected from physical hazards, (c) to maintain active participation in group affairs, (d) to safeguard prerogatives—possessions, rights, prestige, and authority—and (e) to meet death honorably and comfortably.

Simmons further established that the status of the aged had a tendency to stem from the force of tradition and from the special skills and knowledge that they possessed. To a large extent, their security, he thought, was derived from their control of property, and in many cases food for the elderly was assured through communal sharing, through kinship obligations, or through food taboos from which the elderly were exempt. The general welfare of the aged was at least in part seen as resulting from the routine economic and personal services they perform for their family or community, and from their ability to wield civil and political power either because of individual ability or because of a combination of social and cultural factors. Simmons found that old people usually have high prestige in preindustrial societies, the only exceptions being in very rigorous climates that require great energy and stamina to survive.

Although Simmons was technically a sociologist, his methods of cross-cultural analysis in this study were certainly more anthropological than sociological. The same can be said for his earlier life history study of a Hopi Indian, Sun Chief (1942). Also of an anthropological nature was the work of Western Reserve University sociologist Irving Rosow, who in 1965 used much of Simmons's data in assessing the cross-cultural factors that seem to contribute positively to the treatment of the elderly. Rosow's analysis revealed that the position or status of the aged is higher (a) if they own or control property that younger people depend on; (b) if their experience gives them a vital command or monopoly of strategic knowledge of the culture, including the full range of occupational skills and techniques as well as healing, religion, ritual, warfare, lore, and the arts; (c) if they are links to the past and to the gods in tradition-oriented societies; (d) if the extended family is central to the social structure; (e) if the population clusters in relatively small, stable communities where the governing values are sacred rather than secular, where roles are formally age graded, and where contacts are face-to-face; (f) if the productivity of the economy is low and approaches the edge of starvation—the greater the poverty, the relatively better off old people are by the standards of their group—and (g) if there is high mutual dependence within the group—the greater the interdependence among members, the greater the reciprocal aid in meeting survival problems.

Following both Simmons's and Rosow's suggestion that the aged are generally revered in preindustrial society because of the traditional knowledge they command, Robert Maxwell and Phillip Silverman (1970) hypothesized that societies value their aged in varying degrees, depending upon the amount of useful information they control. In their study, which they described as using the “general rubric of system theory,” they analyzed data from 26 widely distributed societies, directing their attention to such aspects as (a) information control among the aged, (b) treatment of the aged, (c) rate of institutional change, and (d) ecological factors affecting the aged. Analysis of the key variable—information control—was directed at such aspects of social participation as roles in feasts and games, consulting, decision making, entertaining, arbitrating, and teaching.

As anticipated, Maxwell and Silverman found a strong correlation between control of useful information and good treatment and high status of the aged. They stated, however, that rapid institutional change (as found in industrialized societies) generates a high rate of information obsolescence and therefore leads to an eventual deterioration of prestige for the elderly.


Another study that assessed the impact of change and technological development on the status and roles of the elderly was Donald O. Cowgill and Lowell D. Holmes's Aging and Modernization (1972). Modernization in this study was equated with industrialization, urbanization, and Westernization and was analyzed as a major factor affecting the fortunes and activities of elderly men and women in 14 societies ranging from what traditionally have been called “primitive” to those of western Europe and the United States.

Although cross-cultural in its emphasis, the study differed from those of Simmons or Maxwell and Silverman in that aging was considered entirely in terms of complete cultural contexts. The contributors to this study—eight anthropologists, seven sociologists, two psychologists, and a social worker—had all conducted extended, in-depth studies in the societies on which they reported. Cowgill and Holmes had provided each with a list of topics to discuss to ensure uniformity and continuity in the several studies, but the contributors were totally ignorant of the general theoretical propositions that their data would be used to test. The theoretical orientation for the study consisted of a number of hypotheses on the way the aged would be affected along a societal continuum from primitive to modern. A general hypothesis was that there is an inverse relationship between status of the aged and the degree of modernization, but the study also set forth 30 propositions, 8 labeled as “universals” and 22 identified as “variations” (to be considered in terms of unique social and cultural contexts). The uniqueness of the contexts was in this case related to the society's place on the primitive-modern continuum.

Although the data generally supported the hypotheses, a few exceptions—Russia, Israel, and Ireland—provided an interesting and unexpected challenge to the hypothesis. In general, the researchers concluded:

The theory with which we began this study has survived the test for the most part. In some cases we did not get adequate or relevant evidence. A few of our propositions were found wanting and must now be deleted or modified. These were more than balanced by serendipitous findings which we have not anticipated and were not looking for. Thus our theory has been extended and strengthened and is now ready for further testing.

(Cowgill & Holmes, 1972, p. 321)

Further developments regarding this theory will be discussed in the final chapter.

Prestige-Generating Components

Status considerations were also paramount in the study of Middle-American aged carried out by Irwin Press and Mike McKool (1972). Here the investigators isolated four prestige-generating components in a select group of Meso-American and perhaps all societies. These components are advisory, contributory, controlling, and residual. The advisory component involves the extent to which the advice and opinions of the aged members of the society are heeded; the contributory component concerns the degree to which the aged are allowed to participate in and contribute to ritual and economic activities. The control component concerns the degree to which the aged have authority over the behavior of other persons, institutions, or ritual processes, and the residual component pertains to the degree to which the elderly continue to retain prestige from roles performed earlier in life.

Press and McKool concluded that at least in Meso-America the aged are disadvantaged in societies featuring economic heterogeneity, diversity, and discontinuity in father-son economic interests and occupations. Status of the aged was also found to be low where achieved rather than ascribed roles, nuclear families, and independence from larger kin structures are emphasized, and also where there is an early turnover of family resources. Status also declines for older persons in societies marked by ritual, political and judicial bureaucracies, and in which modernization forces are potent.

Personal Achievement

Status and modernization forces among the Baganda of East Africa were the subjects of a gerontological study by Nina Nahemow and Bert Adams in 1974. In this society 115 elders between the ages of 60 to 90 years were interviewed along with 1,699 secondary school students “to address the question of the salience of traditional roles for modern life and the position of the aged today” (Nahemow & Adams, 1974, p. 151). The Baganda are a particularly interesting society in which to conduct such a study, because the aged have no tradition of societal leadership, although it has been customary for them to give advice, serve as storytellers, and try to be “good grandparents” (p. 164). Nahemow and Adams relate that the Baganda system emphasizes individualism over familism, and personal achievement and change are viewed in a positive light. Rights over land are established through political affiliation and not through kinship. Interviews with secondary students indicated a general tendency toward negative stereotypes of the aged and they definitely rejected the idea that the aged should, merely because of their age, have any special position of authority.

The investigators discovered that even the traditional role of adviser-storyteller has lost its significance under the impact of modern education. Although Baganda elders appear to have lost their function as repositories of tradition, they continue to be honored and valued as good grandparents. This is possible because of the high degree of rapport between grandparents and grandchildren. This rapport results from their sharing a common traditional value system that has always revered individualism, personal achievement, neolocality, and minimal lineage ties. In other words, modern and traditional values are so much the same that grandparents and grandchildren agree on intergenerational relations and definitions of family obligations. For example, they generally agree “that it is legitimate to criticize parents and grandparents; that grandparents should not ‘spoil’ grandchildren; and that each individual has a responsibility to both descending and ascending generations in terms of providing for them” (Nahemow & Adams, 1974, p. 161).

The Baganda example should impress us with the value of approaching every situation in terms of the total cultural context. A superficial analysis of the Baganda situation might very well result in the conclusion that modernization has been highly detrimental to the aged, but a more holistic analysis (of values and social structure) would reveal that the present situation in which the Baganda aged find themselves is not particularly out of character with tradition.

Although the majority of the studies dealing with status and role of the aged have tended to dwell on societal conditions or cultural factors, Virginia Kerns (1980) reports on a society, the Black Carib of Belize, where elders through individual activity and appropriate interaction affect their own status. To begin with, Kerns found a great gap between the ideal and the manifest in regard to intergenerational relationships. Obligations to parents and affection for elders are values and sentiments universally espoused but not always realized, and there is a great range in societal observance. What is found is a great deal of pragmatic behavior on the part of elders to ensure their security within the kinship and village structure. Older women, for example, work at making themselves indispensable within kin relationships. Kerns (1980) explains: “The parent-child relationship is the central social bond” (p. 120), and what is significant about this relationship is its reciprocal nature. Therefore the quality of support of the elderly depends greatly on the quality of the parent-child relationship throughout life. Parents strive to establish themselves as someone to “bank on,” someone to call upon for help when it is needed. Elderly parents also control their security by using potential public opinion as a source of pressure on errant adult children.

In summarizing the significance for gerontology of her Black Carib experience, Kerns (1980) writes:

There is no denying that the ideal of filial responsibility is an important one to the Black Carib, but certainly the efforts that aged parents must make to enforce this ideal are equally worthy of attention. These efforts argue against the popular conception of the elderly as passive dependents.

(p. 124)
Societal Types

Another approach to the study of status in old age is that of Tom Sheehan (1976), who investigated the relationship between esteem for elders and the economic and political nature of the societies of which they were members. He studied 47 societies representing three levels of societal complexity to determine elders' decision-making authority in interpersonal relationships and over offices and material or intangible property. The types of societies compared were (a) geographically unstable, that is, semipermanent bands ranging from people who periodically relocate their villages to complete nomads; (b) various tribes inhabiting fairly large, permanent villages; and (c) nucleated peasant communities with an economic base of agriculture or animal husbandry.

Esteem for the aged, defined by Sheehan (1976) as “the intersection of decision-making role or resource control and quality of received behavior” (p. 433), was definitely found to correlate with societal type. For example, Sheehan found that the lowest esteem for the aged is found in societies with the simplest and smallest socioeconomic structures. He reasons that “they have the fewest material resources and human relationships available for control and are usually located in harsh environments favoring youth and vigor” (p. 436). The highest esteem for elders was enjoyed in large-landed peasantries with highly developed social organizations. Although Sheehan was not specifically interested in change and its effect on elders' status, he did comment that the decline in status or esteem often observed in societies involved in modernization may result from a weakening of the social structure, and it therefore represents, in effect, a return to a less complex societal level. The author explains:

The community turns away from extended family living or kin loyalties. With different emphases, both capitalist and socialist structures replace familial orientations with other-directed individualism on a mass level. A partial return is therefore made to the ideology of the nomadic band: old age and seniors are not accorded special status.

(p. 437)
Property Control

An important factor that frequently governs both status and treatment of the elderly has to do with how well they can control property. By holding and controlling property, the elderly both maintain their own independence and control the opportunities of the young. Property owners in most groups provide work and make work assignments, and therefore the community's security depends on their decisions and knowledge. This maintains the authority of the aged long after their capacity to actually work the land has ended. Leo Simmons (1962) suggests that the intergenerational process of property transfer that ensures old age security is like a game. The game involves progressively relinquishing just enough personal resources (land and other property) to make young people happy, while retaining enough to guarantee that family members will continue to render respect and personal care in exchange. He states: “Aging must be gamey up close to the end to remain good” (Simmons, 1962, p. 50).

Let us look at how successfully this game is played in a variety of cultures. The prime example of how not to play the game is King Lear, who divided up his kingdom among his daughters and found himself without support or security for his old age. As Goody (1976) suggests: “No longer able to command their obedience, he is dependent upon their love; yet their gratitude is of far less value than he anticipated” (p. 119).

Something of the King Lear situation can be observed among the Fulani of West Africa. Here middle-aged household heads give portions of their livestock to each of their children when they marry and keep only those animals that they themselves can watch after. While the father gradually experiences the depletion of his herd, the mother in like manner gives away her decorated calabashes and other household property to her daughters as they marry. When the last daughter has left the household, the mother is, in effect, out of business as a mother, as a housewife, and as a dairywoman. D. J. Stenning (1958) tells us that the old man and woman even must abandon their own homestead and reside as dependents. The mother is considered of some use in caring for infants, but

an old man is regarded as of little use. … Old people in this situation spend their last days on the periphery of the household, on the male and female sides respectively. This is where men and women are buried. They sleep, as it were over their own graves, for they are already socially dead.

(pp. 98–99)

Although this arrangement appears callous or even cruel, incidents in our own society occasionally occur that are not too different. In June 1981 the Eagle-Beacon (the Wichita, Kansas, daily newspaper) carried the story of a local elderly couple who were being evicted from their home by their son, who had acquired the deed to the house from his parents some six years earlier. Because of conflict over how the elderly couple should spend their Social Security income, the son was demanding their removal from his property (Connell, 1981).

The property game is played well in most cultures. For example, the Etalese of the Caroline Islands value land above all other property, and although most young men acquire some land from their parents, it is not until their parents are very old that the sons acquire full title. According to James Nason (1981):

Older people also gain or lose respect in the community by the way they administer their property. … It is thought foolish for an old person to dispose of all property—meaning here village and agricultural lands held with full title, individual trees … or important objects such as canoes—because it is almost an explicit statement of intent to withdraw from active social life in the community, an inappropriate form of behavior, and leaves one even more fully dependent on others than would otherwise be the case. The continued control of property is one way for an old person to remain somewhat independent and to exert some control over the way he or she is treated. An old person who has property need not fear neglect, since if kin fail others will soon appear, hopeful of receiving the remaining property as their due reward,

(pp. 167–168)

Nason found that people age 45 and older controlled 60% of all individually owned land, and approximately half the canoes on the island were owned by men over 45. Property control is for them not only a strategy for maintaining authority and respect in one's family but it is necessary for the retention of respect within the entire community. Only foolish persons give away all their property but, on the other hand, attempting to hang on to all of one's property and thereby preventing adult offspring from acquiring some measure of prestige through property ownership is equally reprehensible.

An example of this latter situation is found in Ireland, where it is reported that in the traditional rural peasant family the father would choose one of his sons to inherit the family farm. The sons were kept guessing as to which of them would be selected and often delayed marriage pending the father's decision, which not infrequently came late in life. “The ‘old man’ delayed both inheritance and dowry decisions for as long as possible in order to maintain control over his dependent and vulnerable sons and daughters for as long as possible” (Scheper-Hughes, 1983, p. 131). In recent decades the forces of modern change have undermined the authority of these patriarchs.

Few play the property game better than the Kirghiz, a nomadic pastoral group in Afghanistan. In this society, household heads own the yurt (felt tent) and its contents, the herds, and all other material wealth associated with the family. However, the property is used to ensure the aging household head and his wife that there will always be someone present to care for them. The Kirghiz social system provides economic and psychological security by passing the responsibility for the parents down the line of sons. As each son marries and moves out of the natal household to establish his own, the next oldest son assumes the responsibility for the parents. When only one son remains in the household, he must stay within the household until the father dies, whereupon he inherits the yurt, the herds, and the household material goods. While the youngest profits the most materially, the eldest son inherits the father's political influence and prestige. Throughout the parents' elder years all sons are expected to visit frequently and aid the parents in any way they can. This is especially true in regard to the eldest son, who must maintain a close relationship between his household and that of his father.

In the Samoan islands, chiefs not only are the heads of large extended families but their titles also guarantee their right to control family lands. These titles are held for life, and succession to a chief's title comes not through inheritance but through election by kinsmen. Candidates are judged on the basis of their record of service, hard work, loyalty, and respect rendered to the family, particularly to its head. Thus young men who wish to hold chiefly titles in the future are forced to show deference and obedience to their aging family leaders who control not only the family land but also the political future of the young men who work the land.

In 1979 Sonya Salamon and Vicki Lockhardt described research among corn-belt farm families on the effect of control of land on the quality of intergenerational relations. They found that in the tightly knit German community of Heartland the elderly held a high position. What seems to have created this situation was a kind of “carrot on a stick” arrangement in which some land was turned over to an owner's children at their marriage and there was a gradual increase in crop profit sharing, but the actual transfer of land ownership tended to be reserved for some future time. Of this modern American farm community, Salamon and Lockhardt (1979) write:

An elder has prerogatives because she or he owns land which allows control of timing of retirement, use of land, sharing of management, and disposal of holdings. Those maintaining a future orientation and who planned for transfer of holdings tended to be well integrated with rich and respectful family relationships.

(p. 21)

Not only were these parents successful in acquiring respect and establishing positive relations with their children, they also managed to exert a good deal of control over their children's future activities. The community as a whole has been described as extremely successful at binding children to families and keeping them in farming.

It has been pointed out that hunters and gatherers have a minimum of property, and this normally puts the elderly at a disadvantage. However, the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari have found a way to make the young dependent and responsive in spite of a lack of heritable property. According to Biesele and Howell (1981):

Economic accumulation as we know it is not a source of power for aging !Kung. This egalitarian society keeps individuals of all ages from hoarding goods, largely through the rules of generalized reciprocity and the hxaro, or gift-giving system, which militate against accumulation of wealth. Older people do not generally own more goods than people in other age groups.

(pp. 92–93)

These hunting and gathering people are, of course, nomadic and claim little in the way of property in the form of land. Water holes and the food resources surrounding them are owned by kin groups by virtue of tenure of use. The elderly are, in effect, the stewards of the water holes and the resource areas because the “old k'xausi (owners) and their spouses provide genealogical stability over time to each water hole and resource area. Kin ties to these old people—as their siblings, offspring, or cousins—are the basis for young people's camp membership” (Biesele & Howell, 1981, p. 85).

Therefore Bushmen elders do not have property that can be willed or turned over to heirs, for such ownership can only come through long-term use, but the elders do make possible the existence of community. While young people respect the wishes of the elders in regard to use of food and water resources, the old people never act without taking into consideration the wishes of the young.

Status and the Decrepit Elderly

In recent years discussions of factors that govern the status of elderly people have often raised the issue of the impact of declining physical and mental health. In other words, as long as a person is in good physical health and is mentally competent, his or her status in the family and community may be good, but will that be true if the person becomes decrepit (Foner, 1984; Glascock, 1990)? The question was investigated by Glascock and Feinman (1981) and Maxwell, Silverman, and Maxwell (1982) using a research methodology known as holocultural analysis, which draws upon previously collected ethnographic data found in a world sample of societies in the Human Relations Area Files. To analyze treatment of the elderly, Maxwell et al. (1982) used a sample of 95 preindustrial societies and Glascock and Feinman worked with a sample of 60. Both studies found that a considerable number of societies treat their elderly quite badly at a certain stage in their lives, but a key factor appeared to be whether the elderly were (a) the normal old, that is, intact, or (b) the “already dead,” that is, decrepit.

Simmons (1960) had observed that many societies have a special category of people who have become inactive and nonproductive and refer to them as being “living liabilities,” “the overaged,” “at the useless stage,” “the already dead,” or those belonging to the “sleeping period” (p. 87). Life for such individuals can be difficult indeed in many societies. Glascock and Feinman (1981) found that 51% of the societies they analyzed practiced what they referred to as “death-hastening” behavior. Of these, approximately two thirds engaged in killing the decrepit, 38% abandoned them, 19% denied them food, and 23% denied all support. On the other hand, nearly half of the societies that they surveyed were supportive of the very old. These were, by and large, the more economically complex, sedentary agricultural societies that were located in temperate climates, had systems of social stratification, and had a “belief in active high gods” (Glascock, 1990, p. 53). Societies that engaged in death-hastening behavior, on the other hand, tended to be located in harsh climates, practiced little or no agriculture, and lacked social stratification.

Maxwell et al. (1982), using a worldwide sample of 95 societies, found the existence of some sort of negative attitudes or mistreatment in 65 of them although deliberately killing the elderly was found in only 13 (14%). Reasons for mistreatment were found to include “physical weakness,” “senile deterioration,” “possession of obsolete skills,” “loss of wealth,” and “devalued appearance” (p. 70). They did not find mistreatment present in societies that were located in harsh climates, but they did find that nomadic hunting and gathering societies were more apt to deal harshly with the very old than were the more sedentary and socially complex agricultural ones. The major conclusion, which pretty much appears to have been reached by both sets of researchers, was summed up by Maxwell et al. (1982) as follows:

We have noted that ill and enfeebled old persons are not invariably killed or abandoned, even in those societies in which we would otherwise expect such practice to occur. Much seems to depend on circumstantial considerations, including whether or not the old person remains “useful” in some sense or other, despite his dependence on others.

(p. 80)

Holocultural analysis of phenomena such as death-hastening behavior provides some important cross-cultural insights into the range of elderly directed behavior, but because facts like “killing” or “abandonment” are taken out of cultural context, it is questionable whether or not we should conclude that this kind of treatment necessarily indicates contempt for the elderly or represents a decline in their status.

Judith Barker (1990), in describing the elders of Niue in western Polynesia, states: “Decrepit elders are frequently ignored, even neglected, by kin and community, left to fend for themselves without any longer having the physical or psychological means to succeed” (pp. 300–301). But she also warns that “such behaviors cannot be understood outside their proper cultural context” (p. 303).

While from the perspective of Western ethics and values death-hastening behavior might be considered reprehensible (although some of it does exist even in the United States), Barker asks us to be relativistic in our evaluation of this behavior and consider Niuean perspectives, particularly their ideas concerning death. She writes:

Niuean [language] uses the same word, mate, to encompass several states that we distinguish as delirium, unconsciousness, and death. Thus, there are no clear distinctions, linguistic or conceptual, between being incoherent, being comatose, being dying, or being dead—Decrepit elders, then, especially those who no longer look or behave like competent adults … are being actively courted by aitu, are mate, in transition.

(p. 311)

Thus, according to Barker, abandonment or neglect of decrepit old people is actually a ritual activity designed to prevent contamination by spirit (aitu) forces from the afterworld. By treating the “nearly dead” in this way, the family and community are attempting to persuade them to go to the realm of the aitu, where they will no longer threaten the living but will become revered ancestors.

Defining Status

One of the criticisms of the modernization theory has been that Cowgill and Holmes (1972) did not adequately define what status is, although the authors did imply “high honor and prestige” (p. 10). While status can mean numerous things, most social scientists whose studies are described in this chapter, including Cowgill and Holmes, would no doubt tend to follow Roget's (1988) definitions in which status refers to “a person's high standing among others,” the “positioning of one individual vis-a-vis others,” the “level of respect at which one is regarded,” or “the established position from which to operate or deal with others” (p. 950). Some, like Glascock and Feinman (1981), would question whether or not high status would also include a guarantee of special or even humane treatment, but the Cowgill and Holmes concept assumes that treatment of the elderly is a reflection of their status, although there are documented exceptions. And if one is relativistic in the analysis of such things as gerontocide among such people as the Eskimo, the action of killing an elder is to be properly understood as being a way of respecting the wishes of highly honored individuals who no longer wish to participate in a rigorous and unrewarding environment.

In an attempt to better understand what status means and how it can be manifested, Silverman and Maxwell (1983) have developed the “Deference Index,” which is a device designed to measure “the degree of esteem enjoyed by the aged in a given society” (pp. 48–49). It includes the following items:

  • Spatial deference. Examples: Being given the best seat in the theater; in Japan, having “silver seats” reserved for the elderly on public transportation; being given a place at the head banquet table; or receiving a parking permit for the VIP lot.
  • Victual deference. Examples: Being served the choicest foods, being fed before others, or receiving a special part of game that is traditionally taboo for these of lower rank.
  • Linguistic deference. Examples: Being addressed by an honorific title like “Your Majesty,” “Your Honor,” or in West Africa as “Grandfather” even though the elder is not a kinsman; or being spoken to in the “chiefs' language,” which is the proper communication medium for people of high rank in Samoa.
  • Presentational deference. Examples: Special behavior required in the presence of high-ranking persons such as kneeling before them or making sure that one's head is not above theirs if they are seated, or the requirement that West Africans must lower their gaze when speaking to a superior.
  • Service deference. Example: Any work performed for the elderly out of respect and not just because that elder may be decrepit or handicapped.
  • Prestative (gift-giving) deference. Example: Gifts that are given out of respect and not as part of a reciprocal exchange.
  • Celebrative deference. Example: Where rituals are given to dramatize the worth of elders to the family or to the society; being knighted in England, or in the United States being voted into the Baseball Hall of Fame or receiving the Medal of Freedom.

In addition to the above, the anthropological literature has documented a variety of additional forms of deferential treatment extended to the elderly. They may be honored by having children named after them, by being given special ceremonial or religious roles, by being asked by the family or the community to give advice, by being asked to arbitrate conflicts, or by being given the freedom not to work if they so choose. Deferential treatment may also include being given the right of having idiosyncrasies tolerated or the right to scold or engage in improper behavior such as using foul language or vulgar gestures.

Family, Kinship, and the Aged

The family is humankind's most basic, most vital, and most influential institution. It is the foundation of society, the molder of character and personality, and the mentor of cultural values. Ideally, it is a group where people care about and support one another in times of triumph or times of failure. Family is what makes the difference between a “house” and a “home.” It is in the family where one first learns to walk, to talk, and to function as a human being. It is where one learns the values that will influence behavior throughout life in dealing with the greater society.

Leo Simmons (1945a) maintains that “throughout human history the family has been the safest haven for the aged. Its ties have been most intimate and longlasting, and on them the aged have relied for greatest security” (p. 177).

Although family is a universal institution, families exist in an almost unbelievable variety of forms. In the United States and in most of western Europe, kinship is reckoned bilaterally (or bilineally) and within that system one is equally related to the families of both parents, whereas in much of the Third World unilineal reckoning of kinship prevails. This system acknowledges dual biological descent but stresses a single line of kin affiliation. If a system is said to be matrilineal, the mother's line is stressed, and if patrilineal, the emphasis is placed on the father's line. Membership within such a line of descent is clear cut, and rights and obligations are carefully delineated. In such a system a man knows who it is proper for him to marry and what relationships might be considered incestuous; he knows what he will eventually inherit in regard to social position and material wealth; and he knows to whom he might look for care when he becomes old. In a matrilineal system, for example, mother's brother will play a much more important role in nurturing and educating a child than the biological father, who is technically not even related.

Unilineal systems trace descent through one parent and recognize kinship with the sum total of descendants from a common ancestor. This group constitutes a lineage and stresses consanguine (blood) bonds. The lineage head is often the eldest male in a three- or four-generation family and as family patriarch may have great prestige and power over the members of his kin group and their activities. Where kinship is reckoned bilaterally, the kindred is the significant social entity, and this involves recognition of all individuals to whom one is related through blood, marriage, or adoption. Barbara Myerhoff (1978) has suggested that lineage systems are more supportive of old people than kindred systems. She writes:

Kindreds are more often found in the changing, industrial, and Western societies that stress individuality, achievement and mobility. Where the lineage principle is used to generate the most important groups the older members of the society accumulate great authority and status.

(p. 160)

People who see themselves as kinsmen may thus be related through consanguine (blood) ties or conjugal (marriage) ties, and some systems (like those in the Western world) tend to stress marriage ties over blood ties while others (i.e., much of the rest of the world) stress lineage affiliation.

While kinship systems are important considerations for anthropologists with gerontological interests, what might be considered of greater importance is the nature of the actual domestic, or household, groups whose members live together and interact on a day-to-day basis. A household may be composed of a nuclear family, that is, a set of biological parents and their dependant offspring, or an extended family, that is, two or more nuclear families linked together through parent and child or siblings (Keesing, 1975). Biological parents are united through the bonds of marriage, but these unions may take several forms. The most common arrangement is monogamy (one husband, one wife) but some cultures opt for polygyny (one husband, more than one wife), or polyandry (one wife, more than one husband). The latter two arrangements are collectively classified as polygamy.

Another highly variable characteristic of family life has to do with residence. Where kinship reckoning is matrilineal, there is a pronounced tendency for residence after marriage to be with the wife's relatives (matrilocal or uxorilocal residence) whereas patrilineal kinship systems tend to favor living with the husband's people (patrilocal or virilocal residence). Bilateral kinship systems can feature either patrilocal or matrilocal residence but bilocal residence (having a choice or living alternately with both sides of the family) is also found. A common pattern in the Western world, which features small nuclear families and bilateral descent, is neolocal residence, where a newly married couple establishes a residence independent of either family. All of these systems can and do have ramifications for the elderly, particularly in regard to who will function as caregivers and what the role and status of widowed persons will be.

Anthropologists who study aging are very much interested in family structure and function as this can have a tremendous impact on what roles are assigned the elderly, what their authority and status might be, and how they will be cared for. In most preindustrial societies and a high percentage of developing Third World societies, kinship and family organization are much more important than in the West, and people's involvement with family determines everything they do, think, and value. A value system like this is referred to by social scientists as familism. Familistic values place family concerns over personal concerns, stress the centrality of family, and clearly delineate proper courses of action for all who identify with the kinship unit. Familism is primarily a characteristic of societies wherein kinship is stressed over other forms of relationship and affiliation is with larger groups such as clans, lineages, kindreds, or extended-family household groups. Familism may even have religious sanctions as in the case of prerevolutionary peasant China wherein filial piety was demanded by the teachings of Confucius.

Respect for the aged tends to be greater in societies in which the extended family is intact, particularly if it functions as the household unit. Rosow (1965) maintains that the position of the aged in a society is relatively higher when the extended family is central to the social structure because “a clan can and will act much more effectively to meet crisis and dependency of its members than a small family. Mutual obligations between blood relatives—specifically including the aged—are institutionalized as formal rights, not generous benefactions” (p. 22).

The literature provides us with abundant examples of the supportive nature of the extended family. Munsell (1972) observed that among the Pima Indians recent developments that have brought the nuclear family into prominence at the expense of the extended form have to a large extent deprived the elderly of decision-making functions and therefore resulted in loss of status and authority. Press and McKool (1972) found in Chinaulta, Guatemala, that

loss of extended family viability goes hand in hand with low, dependent status of the aged. … Where the economic unit is largely coterminous with the extended family, the elder members de facto remain economically active and may exert considerable control over the behavior of others.

(p. 303)

Frances M. Adams (1972), on the other hand, emphasizes the importance of the extended family as a socialization influence that provides family members with a positive attitude toward growing old. She writes:

Changes in behavior expectations as a person gets older … are understood in advance through close association with older people who have already made the transitions. For example, a person knows how to be an old person because he has observed first his grandfather and then his father in this role. The emotional security developed in childhood in the context of the extended family is not lost in old age.

(p. 110)

Shelton (1972) stresses still another aspect of extended-family organization that contributes to respect for the aged. This is the emphasis it puts on the cyclic flow of family members and spiritual forces. He notes that in West Africa:

The dead are not buried and forgotten, but are “returners” who reappear in the patriline. The aged persons in the family, accordingly, are not simply individuals who have served their brief span on earth and are soon due to disappear forever, but indeed are getting closer to the apogee of their cycle—they are soon to be ancestral spirits, in that most powerful condition in the endless cycle of existence.

(p. 35)

Samoan chief and grandchildren. (Photo by Lowell D. Holmes.)

Sheehan (1976) points out, however, that when a community turns away from an extended-family emphasis and kinship loyalties are replaced by structures that emphasize peer allegiance and other-directed individualism, there is, in effect, a return to the less binding ties associated with peoples practicing a nomadic life. In such societies, he maintains, “social and geographic mobility become goals; individual autonomy emerges as a value” (p. 437). This is not unlike what happens with increased modernization. “As urban-industrial society increasingly technologizes, seniors ever more lose their family ties along with accompanying status, decision-making power and security” (p. 437).

Generational Reciprocity

In all societies, the prevailing values prescribe some mutual responsibility within the family between generations. Leo Simmons (1945a) has observed that “social relationships have proved the strongest securities to the individual, especially in old age. With vitality declining, the aged person has had to rely more and more upon personal relations with others, and upon reciprocal rights and obligations involved” (p. 177).

Dependency is a reality of human life during both the beginning and the concluding years of the life cycle, and people in most societies think in terms of a kind of reciprocity where care received when one is young is paid back (with respect) when one's caretakers become old and need assistance and solicitude. Prevailing societal values can greatly affect this relationship, however. For example, in America (an extremely youth-oriented society) there tends to be an attitude that youth dependency (often extending as long as 25 years when offspring acquire professional education) does not carry a mandate for reciprocity when parents become elderly and in need of help. The more common pattern found around the world, however, is that there tends to be a balance between infant care and old age care. Furthermore, there is a tendency—so common that it might also be cited as a universal—that the way the members of a society treat their aged is a reflection of the nature of child-rearing practices. Societies with warm and loving relationships between parents and their small children appear to also promote warm and loving relationships between adult children and elderly parents. de Beauvoir (1972a) suggests:

If a child is kept short of food, protection, and loving kindness he will grow up full of resentment, fear and even hatred; as a grown man his relations with others will be aggressive—he will neglect his old parents when they are no longer able to look after themselves.

(p. 80)

de Beauvoir also relates that after doing thorough research on this issue she found only one example where happy children grew into adults who were cruel to their fathers and mothers. That group was the Ojibway. Numerous ethnographic examples support de Beauvoir's generalization, however. Marie Scott Brown (1978) tells us that the Kikuyu of Kenya are “noted for their warm and permissive child-rearing practices. There are particularly warm attachments between the grandparents and the grandchildren who … symbolically … belong to the same age group. There are, in fact, warm relations between all the generations” (p. 99).

The Tiv of Nigeria also have extremely warm and supportive acculturation and socialization patterns, and, as a result, even grown children are very close emotionally to parents and grandparents, and the elderly are in general treated with respect. Similarly, de Beauvoir (1972a) reports for the Yaghan of Tierra del Fuego:

The boys and girls are very well treated, they are deeply attached to their parents, and when they are in camp they always want to live in their parents' hut. This love persists when the parents are very old, and all the aged people are respected.

(p. 59)

In a number of societies where James W. Prescott (1975) found infants provided with a great deal of “tender loving care” (p. 67), it was established that attitudes toward old people were positive and supportive. Such societies are the Andamanese, the Chuckchee, the Maori, the Trobriand Islanders, the Jivaro, and the island people of Lesu. On the other hand, in societies where children are raised under austere enculturative situations, where there is little warmth, love, and affection displayed toward them, evidence indicates that the aged will also be treated badly. de Beauvoir (1972a) writes: “The Yakut and the Ainu, who are badly treated as children, neglect the old most brutally” (p. 80). Trostchansky (1908), who lived among the Yakut of Siberia for 20 years, reports that the aged were turned into slaves by their sons, who beat them and required very hard labor of them. Landor (1893), in Alone With the Hairy Ainu, describes the fate of a neglected, starving, and physically ill elderly woman he encountered in an Ainu home. He reports that the woman was not “taken care of by the village or by her son, who lived in the same hut; but she was something that had been thrown away, and that was how they treated her. A fish was occasionally flung to her” (p. 55).

It is conceivable that this correlation between ill treatment of children and devaluation of the aged may serve as an explanation of the less than enthusiastic respect and support extended to the elderly in the United States. A 1953 study by John Whiting and Irving Child of child-rearing practices in a variety of cultures discovered that in regard to warmth and affection (measured in terms of nursing, timing and severity of toilet training, severity of aggression training, and sexual training) Americans were among the least affectionate and warm parents investigated.

Some societies formalize reciprocal relationships between the generations in their family or kinship obligations. A good example of this is the concept of filial piety found in traditional Chinese culture.

The prerevolutionary Chinese family can be described as consisting of a family patriarch (the eldest male) and his wife living together with their sons and their families (and perhaps a few collateral relatives like uncles and aunts) in a common household on land that the family may have owned for many generations. The family unit shared both the work and the resources of the farm, although the family patriarch had final authority on all family economic and social matters. As the sons married they brought their brides to live in this extended-family household. Chinese marriages were usually arranged by the parents of the bride and groom, and much more importance was attached to a prospective daughter-in-law's thrift, industry, and potential compatibility than to her beauty, charm, or romantic attraction to the groom. Although there was bilateral reckoning of kinship, the family emphasis was consanguineous, in that the most important ties were those of blood rather than those of marriage. A father-son or a mother-son relationship, for example, was much more important than a husband-wife relationship. A wife had to defer to her mother-in-law during the older woman's lifetime, and she would acquire a measure of authority only when her son would bring home a wife to be her daughter-in-law.

As long as the family patriarch lived, his sons had to obey him and work the land according to his wishes. The respect and obedience that were required of sons was based on the Confucian teachings of the Hsiao Ching, which outlines the concept of filial piety. Within this tradition, support of one's aging parents is presented not as a matter of choice but as a moral duty. According to Francis Hsu (1971):

The son owes his father absolute obedience, support during his lifetime, mourning when he passes away, burial according to social station and financial ability, provision for the soul's needs in the other world, and glory for the father by doing well or even better than he.

(p. 68)

Although filial piety directly relates to father-son relationships, the status of the aging parent is also tied to the nature of the total kinship system. The Chinese family places emphasis on the paternal line through five degrees of kinship and a select number of close relatives on the mother's and wife's side. The extended-family emphasis involves mutual obligations and privileges. Unless a couple was unfortunate enough not to have children, aged Chinese had little to worry about concerning support in their declining years. As Hsu writes (1981):

The Chinese parent-child relationship is permanent. A father is always a father, whether or not he is loving or kind. A son is always a son; rarely is he disowned because he is not dutiful. … Chinese social organization is such that age, far from being a defect, is a blessing. Chinese parents have no reason to regret their children's maturity, for it assures not a lesser role but a more respected place for themselves. The Chinese pattern of mutual dependence thus forms the basis of a mutual psychological security for both the old and the young.

(p. 116)

The close father-son ties involved authority on the part of the parent and filial piety on the part of the son, and the mother was also guaranteed maximum security. By the time she reached 50 or 60, she could dominate the domestic operation of the household. At this age she was relatively free of male domination, although she had to depend on her sons for future support. When the patriarch died, the eldest son inherited the authority of the father as well as management of the family economic enterprise. Because the son was often middle aged by this time, he had long observed the manner in which the household must be run and merely took over the management of its material and human resources. Neither the efficiency nor the continuity of the family was disturbed. In the traditional Chinese family, individual action was discouraged. Personal considerations had to be subordinated to family considerations, and men had to take direction from their older relatives when they themselves were middle-aged adults.

Traditional China was an age-honoring culture. The average Chinese genuinely believed that old age, which was thought to begin about age 55, marked the beginning of a higher and more respected status. It was perceived as a blessing and a period of life when a person could sit back and enjoy the fruits of his or her labors.

While the above picture of Chinese society presents an ideal that operated in peasant China for many generations, modernization, urbanization, and demographic changes in recent years have resulted in modifications in the way that generations relate in contemporary China and particularly in a place like Hong Kong. This was the focus of Charlotte Ikels's (1980) study, “The Coming of Age in Chinese Society: Traditional Patterns and Contemporary Hong Kong.”

Ikels's research dealt with the ideal of filial piety and the realities of everyday family life in overcrowded Hong Kong. Here she found that the veneration of age, so often identified with Chinese culture, was mostly enjoyed by the well-to-do. One of the reasons the concept of filial piety is breaking down is that many of the supporting features—such as family property—do not exist in the urban setting. Also, the percentage of aged in Hong Kong is far greater than in rural areas. Because of increasing strain in intergenerational relations, Chinese elders have adopted a practice of carefully selecting and cultivating the child who will willingly respond when parents need support. Although Ikels's study confirms the fact that filial piety and respect for the wisdom of the aged remain paramount within the Chinese value system, she maintains that such ideas are difficult to carry out where population density approaches 400,000 per square mile.

Childlessness and its Consequences

In a society that depends as much on generational reciprocity as did traditional China, the matter of childlessness posed a particularly serious problem. Andrea Sankar (1981) tells us that “failure to produce heirs was regarded as an affront to one's ancestors, as unfilial behavior toward one's parents, and as a serious spiritual and supernatural threat to one's own soul as well as one's family's future prosperity” (p. 66). The threat to one's soul was believed to be the danger of becoming a Hungry Ghost wandering alone in the Underworld. There were, however, ways in which childless couples or people who remained single could create special relationships that would ensure support for them in their elder years.

Childless, single women often acquired domestic employment in another household and became “free servants” and were considered somewhat like distant relatives. They were allowed to partake in the family's activities and after a lifetime of faithful service with little financial gain they were assured of a secure and comfortable old age. This is even true in modern China. There is a law in Hong Kong that states that any servant who has served more than 20 years is entitled to full support in his or her old age.

Childless spinsters and bachelors also had the option of joining Buddhist or Taoist religious orders and living in nunneries or monasteries where care in senior years was guaranteed and where the elderly were exempted from physical labor and other rigors of monastic life. There was also a secular sisterhood movement in the Canton Delta that promoted a spinster lifestyle and made provision for old age care.

Childless couples were sometimes cared for by affluent extended families, but this required considerable surplus income. Even couples who produced only girls were considered the same as childless. This was occasionally remedied by departing from the usual pattern of patrilocal residence and having a daughter remain at home and acquire a husband who would reside with her (because he was too poor to object) and serve her parents. Often he would remain only until the death of his wife's parents and then the couple would return to his natal household.

William Donner (1987) also studied the problem of childlessness in a small Polynesian community on Sikaiana atoll in the Solomon Islands. In this society, which featured patrilineal descent, lack of male offspring presented a situation that was described as “stopping up” (as in a clogged pipe) the family line. People who have no children or who only have female offspring are distrusted by other members of their patrilineage because it is assumed that, because they have no one to inherit family authority and property, they are not interested in the general welfare of the kin group.

The matter of reciprocal care obligations is solved in this society by a rather typical Polynesian pattern of fostering. Donner tells us that 48% of the children on Sikaiana at the time of his research were residing in the households of foster parents. He writes: “On Sikaiana, the social message of fosterage is that a person has many different people to whom he/she is emotionally attached, for whom he/she can expect support, and to whom he/she should feel obligation” (Donner, 1987, p. 49).

Foster children (known as tama too) and biological offspring were treated equally, although the former had inheritance rights only in their natal household. Foster children, however, had an obligation to support both their natural parents and their foster parents (called tupuna, or “grandparents”). It was considered a sign of generosity and kindness to take in a foster child, and no child was ever refused residence. Fosterage was practiced by both childless couples and couples with children but it often was the case that foster children showed more concern for elderly people than did biological offspring. This has become a particularly important fact today with the great mobility of young Sikaianans. Many elders have no children living on their atoll and must rely on their foster children.

By way of comparison, anthropology's avenue to insight, let us now turn to an analysis of childlessness in the United States by Robert L. Rubinstein (1987). He maintains that, in much of the world, care for the elderly is seen as properly a family responsibility, and children are seen as a kind of insurance against old age crises. Studies of the childless in America have revealed that such people also may ultimately turn to family for support, but development of strong kin ties tends to be with cousins, nieces, and nephews. We also know that childless unmarried individuals (never married, widowed, or divorced) differ from childless couples in that the former tend to enjoy a greater feeling of independence and a greater capacity for strategic planning for old age while the latter appear more dependent on each other and consequently more isolated and lonely.

Rubinstein believes that in the United States childlessness is generally viewed negatively, and cites studies that show that people perceive that childless people are unhappy, lonely, and unfulfilled. However, there is an increasing tendency for childlessness to be voluntary. In the United States and in many developing countries, women see childlessness as a trade-off in their desire for personal freedom and vocational success, but Rubinstein suggests that what these more liberated women gain by remaining childless must be balanced against the possible insecurity of later years. It must also be recognized that, with the protection of Social Security, adequate pensions, and Medicare, childlessness in modern America might be considered less undesirable than problems of “unwanted involvement in children's lives, lack of independence, mental aggravations of various sorts, continuing financial demands, and an inability to transcend undesired aspects of the parental role” (Rubinstein, 1987, p. 4).

Although the majority of studies of childlessness, both in the West and in non-Western cultures, have tended to deal with problems of care in old age, Rubinstein discusses a number of other studies that have dealt with lifestyle correlates of the childless situation such as low religiosity, marital disharmony, urban residence, desire to maintain a particular level of living standard, and what psychological characteristics and childhood experiences prompt people to remain childless.


A role may be defined as the traditional patterned behavior of an individual occupying a particular position (for example, elder, father, guru, chieftain) in a family or in a society while status refers to the level of respect conferred upon the individual who occupies that position. Beginning with Leo Simmons's study of role and status of the elderly in preindustrial societies in 1945, anthropologists have explored this topic with considerable interest, considering the relationship of role and status to such factors as control of useful information, ecological circumstances and subsistence patterns, family and societal structure, personal achievement, ritual participation, property management, and long-term value orientations such as filial piety. More recently investigators have assessed the influence of modernization and Westernization on senior status and have described the impact of migration, population aging, technological advance, urbanization, and education.

The family is humanity's most basic and important institution, but families are varied in form and function in various parts of the world. In some societies family controls and determines nearly every aspect of human existence, and this case social scientists refer to as familism. Respect for the elderly tends to be greater where familism obtains, and also where the extended family is central in the social structure.

Generational reciprocity is also a topic of research for scholars interested in status and treatment of the elderly. It has been discovered that, in societies where children are treated with kindness and respect, similar attitudes and actions will characterize their relationships with their parents when the latter become old. We have also learned that childlessness is disadvantageous to the elderly in a wide range of societies, but less so in societies where the extended family is dominant or where there is an institution of fostering.

  • aged
  • childlessness
  • filial piety
  • elderly
  • elders
  • kinship
  • familism
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