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Unmasking Age: The Significance Of Age For Social Research [Bill Bytheway]

August 1, 2011

Let me start by saying in this Review that I’d urge absolutely everyone who has a professional concern for ageing to read this book. It offers fresh perspectives on and a very significant contribution to our understanding of difficult matters. Not only researchers (whether social or, e.g., medical) but also policy makers, practitioners, clinicians, journalists and many others will find their insights into this complex issue enriched by what Bill Bytheway, a social gerontologist and policy commentator of many years’ standing, has to tell us.

Complex issues
That said, the sheer richness of the seams Bytheway explores does not always make it easy for us to see where we’re being taken. To get my caveats over before we go to the plaudits, I am bemused by the ‘Questions’ at the end of each chapter – a practice often used in distance learning (Bytheway is a visiting Open University Research Fellow); for me these Questions somehow detract from the directness of the preceding text. I would rather each chapter had concluded, as some begin to do, with a few formal notes about what we have learnt, perhaps even with standard headings such as factors considered, implications and future directions for research on ageing, implications for policy about and provision for older people, and understanding the lived experience of ageing?

For it is the emphasis on real people’s ever-evolving, lived experience of ageing which marks this book out as in some ways quite remarkable. It is not always that an author tries to get into the skin of his or her subject by relating quite openly that writer’s own professional journey of discovery, whilst also using the outcomes of their research to make this a story about real people in all their fascinating detail and diversity.

Diversity, not homogeneity
And, perhaps to be picky, it’s on the subject of diversity that my other reservation hinges. Bytheway of course, as a professional statistician, points up very persuasively the evidence that older people, like those of great age, are not a homogenous group. They may (or may not) find with the advancing years that their networks are more constrained than before, but whilst the reality of ageing is universal, we all come from different places socially speaking. I’m therefore a little surprised that there is not more focus on the difficult question of what a person’s ‘community’ might be, not only (as is discussed) in socio-economic and urban-rural terms, but also in cultural respects.

The material in this book is taken from real research in parts of the UK, but for the future there will I’d think need to be more acknowledgement of the nuanced differences between, for instance, the extended family of a white British-through-the-ages working class family, and that, to give just one of very many possibilities, a UK family of Pakistani or Indian heritage.

Mutuality across age
Perhaps this is for Bytheway’s next book. The reality of exclusion, minority ethnicity and cultural influence in communities matters not only for elders now, but also for generations to come – as I discovered when examining Infant Mortality Rates, which in some small patches of our towns and cities are many times that of the birth-to-age-one population at large. Acknowledging the specific needs of ethnic minority seniors, and seeking ways more actively to include older people in these communities in our public life, could go a long way both to enhancing their lived experience and also, though these elders’ influence within their families, to reducing the tragedy of babies so needlessly lost.

None of these caveats however excuse anyone from reading and seeking to learn from what Bill Bytheway offers us. He starts half a century ago, in the tradition of Peter Townsend’s The Family Life of Old People (1957/63), and he leads us, totally engaged, towards the expectations of the Millennial decades to come.

Developing the research and policy agenda
We learn in Unmasking age about how research into ageing has developed and changed; we are introduced to a wide range of perspectives; we are persuaded that ‘old age research’ based simply on demography or morbidity and clinical needs can never be the whole story, as neither can be a simple focus on social care requirements; and, true to the title of this book, we end up realising that old age has a great deal more significance for research than we may have thought when we began to read.

But most of all Bytheway delivers, accessibly and cogently, a very important message which none of us can afford to ignore. We are asked to think what identity in later life actually is. The question of how we grow older and what happens to us all as we face the process of ageing is going to be something none of us, as practitioners, personally or politically, will be able to ignore.

Unmasking age: The significance of age for social research, Bill Bytheway (Policy Press, 2011) £24.99 / £65

A version of this review was first published in New Start, July/August 2011.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Bill Bytheway permalink
    December 21, 2011 15:05

    Thanks, Hilary, for this generous review. When the production process is over and the book finally available for purchase, it is really good to see it being reviewed only a short time thereafter!

    About your caveats, Policy Press asked me to include questions at the end of each chapter, and somewhat reluctantly I agreed. I think they want the book to appeal to the education and training market, and I hope the questions are helpful for group discussions. I’d be interested to know if this is the case.

    About diversity, again my inclination is to blame the publishers and, in particular, the word length they set for me. But that would be unfair; had there been no limit, I’d probably still be writing it! I tried to ensure that the cases I included in the book were reasonably diverse, but I agree that there are communities and cultures that are not included.

    More to the point, I wholeheartedly agree with you that the demographics and histories of many groups will generate very different individual biographies and personal age-related experiences. The case of May Nilewska (Chapter 7) is a good example: someone whose roots are in the Orkney Islands, who has lived all her long adult life in Edinburgh, marrying a Polish airman during the war, and who, in 2007 is living in a care home, eager to talk both with visitors from the Orkneys and with care staff from Poland. Had I had the space I might have included a comparable case that I had contact with through the RoAD project, someone from the Pakistani community in Bradford.

    My primary objective however, was to try to uncover the complex diversity of circumstance that characterises personal experience over the course of long lives, and how this can clash with social and cultural constructions relating to age (e.g. policies relating to ‘the elderly’ and their needs).

    • December 21, 2011 20:51

      I really appreciate your taking time to respond to my review, Bill.

      As I say, the book is incredibly valuable exactly because it does achieve the important objectives you set yourself.

      There’s always more to be done, but that’s the name of the game for us all, isn’t it?! And not least in the area of ageing I guess we’re not going to run out of things to say for a while yet.

      Thank you again, both for these helpful comments and of course for the book itself. I’m sure it’s made a big contribution to positioning the whole ‘ageing’ agenda very positively for future development.

      Very best,

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