This ethnography was set up to look at the construction of older people as a stereotype by looking at the thoughts of an older individual in relation to their travels around the world. One person was used in an open interview to see if we could evaluate the ways in which ethnicity and cultural identity played a significant part in the construction of older people as a type. Accounts were taken in relation to the cultural significance of certain facets of their lives and the interviewee was asked to expand upon any differences and other essential qualities they thought existed. Specific accounts were taken from the interview, which was done via an interview. These detailed the interviewee’s thoughts on stereotypes, older people and older people across cultures (Devine, 1989). Open conversation was employed. This was done so that we could gain a general bulk of information relating to the topic. After sieving through the bulk of accounts given, three extracts in relation to the three topics were extracted and looked at with respect to some relevant theory. A conclusion was made and a reflection was given about the whole process of the ethnography.
The Interviewer, Interviewee and the Interview Itself
This interview was conducted to investigate the nature and extent of the construction of stereotypes of older people. It was conducted with a lady who had agreed to perform the interview. She was sixty five years old and had worked as a teacher most of her life before setting up her own freelance business in journalism. As a writer she had worked in documentary script writing and researching, but had not enjoyed it. She quickly made it clear that these things merely acted in defining what she had been in her life rather than provide her with the source of her own identity. She suggested that she had enjoyed wandering round from culture to culture and did not like to settle down in any place for too long. In her experience she said that she had come across many older people from many different countries in an equal number of situations. This proved ideal. During many years of transit she had lived for three years in Amsterdam, two years in both Montreal and New York and for a lengthy period in Paris. In her travels, she had also been around the world in various capacities, from taking a time out to travel to working for a significant period in one location. She suggested that she had found this lifestyle exciting and interesting and was subsequently keen to detail her account of the various older people that she had encountered on her travels. This seemed very conducive for this ethnography, as it showed some genuine experience with an array of people and so should have proved as a good source of information and discussion.
The ethnography was originally meant to be a piece of investigation concerned with the stereotypes of older people. However, after coming across Brenda and a little of her worldly multi cultural experiences, it was decided that she would make a perfect subject for the evaluation of the stereotypes of older people. This was primarily due to the enthusiasm that she seemed to have for the issue of stereotypes with regards to her experiences around the world. As well as this, I had also experienced many different stereotypes and perceptions of old people in my travels. So we decided that a discussion could take place in an interview to bring about the issue of older people and see the various stereotypes that would emerge. As the research topic of stereotypes of older people seemed to interest Brenda, we had no difficulty in establishing what was to be the general context and thread of the conversation. Although it took some time to establish a period in which we could have a regular and consistent line of undisturbed contact, we finally established a time to conduct the exercise. We began with an overview and exchange of views regarding general stereotypes before progressing to the main topic of older people and different cultures as we both felt that this was a good basis from which we could establish a common form of communication and understanding.
Brenda began by giving her overview on stereotypes. She detailed, quite rationally, what she believed to be a stereotype and highlighted what she thought its functional value was. She ultimately believed that they existed and that there was a good reason for that. She indicated to me that they constituted an ‘essential part of the world that we live in’, especially as the world was ‘getting smaller’. Although she was quick to point out that they could be false, she stated that there use could be described as,
”They’re to make everyday life easier for us. When you meet people who don’t conform to stereotypes you notice their uniqueness. Nobody does conform in full. You see parts that are similar and others that are different. It all depends really”
Compared with research done by Tajfel on the rationalising of social stereotypes, we can see that Brenda’s point is certainly vindicated. It would appear from the outset that Brenda had established a socialised stereotype. Tajfel suggested that the process of such social stereotyping was due to forming identities with groups or communities. He stated that,
‘Stereotypes are certain generalizations reached by individuals. They derive in large measure from, or are an instance of, the general cognitive process of categorizing. The main function of the process is to simplify or systematize, for purposes of cognitive and behavioural adaptation, the abundance and complexity of the information received from its environment by the human organism…. But such stereotypes can become social only when they are shared by large numbers of people within social groups.’ (Tajfel, 1982, p.146-147).
From this I established that Brenda had adopted a view of stereotypes that she felt versatile, but useful in his travels and practical for meeting various ‘types’ of people that he came in contact with.
The Stereotype of Older People
Turning to Brenda’s examples of stereotypes of older people, she quickly focused on the stereotypes of her home region. She explained that,
”I don’t think anyone in my hometown is offended by the stereotypes of older people and it usually gets classed as fun. No one takes it seriously, certainly not me. This could be that older people are embraced as part of the community and they we generally very expressive characters. The stereotypes you have mentioned are generally applied to people you haven’t interacted with. They’re based upon ignorance. But I know other elderly people in my town and we are all included. You kinda get to know everyone personally though, so it’s not really all that much of a stereotype. I don’t really know, I’d always talk to people at the bus stop and they always seem friendly, bar a few. Is that a stereotype…ha ha?”
This raised some interesting points. For instance, although we may well have pre-conceived notions about certain stereotypes concerning older people, we, as individuals, may be the only ones that perceive them in this way. Due to our experiences that reinforce such traits, this stereotype may diminish or grow regardless of our former social group. This was put forward by Gudykunst, who suggested that,
“Some of our stereotypes are unique and based on our individual experiences, but some are shared with other members of our in-groups. The stereotypes we share with others are our social stereotypes. We may know what the social stereotype of a group is, but still hold a different view of the group.” (Gudykunst, 1997)
However, what we can also see from this is that, from the positive experiences of the elderly stereotype in her own town, she has merely drawn a greater classification around the majority of old people so that she can apply her own traits, such as them having character, having a penchant for standing at bus stops and them instinctively seeing stereotypes as fun. She also seems oblivious to any detrimental effect that a negative stereotype may have on any one individual.
Older People from Other Regions
Turning to older people from other regions, we can see that a degree of stereotypes came into effect in Brenda’s descriptions. On detailing the way in which the elderly of Paris were generally miserable, whilst those in Amsterdam were generally helpful, she tried to explain the reasons for this. He said that,
”I think that stereotypes in mainland Europe tend to conform to the environment more. Their stereotyping seems to centre on the fact that they are in competition with other neighbouring countries. The cultural aspect seems to be massive and accepted. The Dutch are known to be friendly and inclusive of families, and the elderly are given great status. This makes them very friendly, I found. But in Paris it was different. They seem to be ignored more and generally stick to themselves. A bit like at home, but without the, term, social acceptance. Integration. They seemed to be unhappy at their lot.”
It was quite interesting that Brenda generalised her actual experiences to conform to her own stereotypes of the nation. She seemed to hold a fluid view of the elderly and a set view of a nation that she allowed to come to define the elderly of that nation. However, although this sounds appreciative of another’s culture, it has been pointed out that if someone were to hold a polarised rather than fluid view of a person from a nation then the actual experience with the person from that country would most probably change the perception (Bhabha, 1994). As this would invariably change the perspective of the people of that nation, then to be able to put these stereotypes onto a specific type of person, rather than all people, the person would have to be a certain type i.e. older people (Hofstede, 2001). This perhaps explains Brenda’s stereotype of the two strains of elderly and why she was quick to apply such nationalistic characteristics onto the elderly people of those regions so as to stop it damaging her own identity to being elderly.
We can see in summary that Brenda stereotyped the elderly and herself across a range of categorical stereotypes that seemed to be reinforced by her experiences. Her hometown stereotypes of older people seemed to conform to her socialisation. Her stereotypes of older people in other parts of the world seemed to lend themselves to national characteristics rather than have anything to do with her relation to them based upon age. However, the factor of age itself could well have been a reason for her applying such a nationalistic stereotype in the first place.
On reflection of the ideas that had been started with, I cannot say that there has been much change. I was aware of the role that stereotypes played in the conceptualisation of older people and the identity that they would take from this. However, I did find the way in which Brenda applied stereotypes to the different nationalities of other older people quite interesting. It would appear that older people are not just perceived as one whole category, but applied to a great deal of certain qualities and prejudices that can be presumed on description. Of course, much of this could be due to Brenda’s rather uncommon worldly experiences, which when looking across some of the remarks made by theorists, would seem to be conducive to combining types and forming new more discerning categories. It has nonetheless been an interesting learning experience, combining many of the cultural concepts and social theories with an analysis of one persons account. It has turned out to be a valuable exercise, which has broadened my cultural awareness and highlighted the significance of both nationalistic stereotypes and the stereotypes of older people.