Generation In Anthropology Research Paper

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In anthropology, the term generation has two primary meanings. In one of its senses, generation refers to a group of people who have lived through a time period together and have developed some kind of shared consciousness. Generation has been used even more commonly by anthropologists in its genealogical, kinship-related sense, to refer to the relationship between parents and their children, these children and their children, and so on. Using one or both of these senses of the term, anthropological interest in generation has focused on four primary topics, pertaining to the ways people across cultures organize and envision social relationships, identities, and the processes of human social-cultural life. This research paper will look at each approach in turn.

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1. The Cultural Construction Of Intergenerational Ties

Work on the cultural shaping of intergenerational ties focuses on generation in its genealogical sense as a descent relationship. Interest in intergenerational family relationships has existed since the beginnings of anthropology as a discipline, largely due to the analysis paid by anthropologists to kinship systems. Since about the 1970s, the majority of work on intergenerational ties has come out of the subfield of anthropology of aging, where one of the central research issues has surrounded the degree to which the elderly can expect to receive various forms of support from their younger relatives. Research on intergenerational ties, however, goes well beyond the (interesting and important) problem of how the elderly are cared for, to speak to broader conceptions about the nature of the family, the relationship between individuals, families and the state, and the social-moral order.

Lamb (2000) examines such problems through a focus on West Bengal, India. She finds that Bengalis perceive intergenerational family relations to entail long-term bonds of reciprocal indebtedness extending throughout life and even after death. Juniors provide care for their elderly parents, reconstruct relations with parents as ancestors after death, and ritually nourish these ancestors, as a means of repaying the tremendous ‘debts’ owed for producing and caring for them in infancy and childhood. What parents once gave their children to produce and raise them—such as a body in birth, food, material goods, money, a home, forms of love, the cleaning of urine and excrement— children are expected to provide in return for their parents years later in old age and after death. (Children, for instance, construct new spirit-bodies for their parents as ancestors, parallel to the bodies parents create for their children in birth). Other anthropologists have found that relationships of lifetime intergenerational reciprocity, conceptualized and practiced in varying ways, are not uncommon cross-culturally (see, e.g., Cattell 1990).

The shaping of intergenerational ties can bear significance beyond the family as well, to implicate the social-moral-political conditions of a broader society and nation. Indian discourses, for instance, present close, multigenerational families as signifying a ‘good’ and ‘Indian’ society; whereas disintegrating generational ties—the break-up of joint families, uncared-for old people, independent daughters-in-law—are held to be paradigmatic signs of a widely degenerate ‘modern,’ postcolonial, and urbanizing era (Cohen 1998, Lamb 2000).

Some anthropologists argue that the shaping of intergenerational ties can be understood through scrutinizing surrounding cultural values. Simic (1983) suggests links between an American model of intergenerational relations and a broader cultural orientation toward self-fulfillment and individualism. Children in middle-class, Anglo–American households maintain their own rooms and possessions, and by about age 18 are expected to move out and live separately from their parents. Though parents often extend financial aid to their children after they have left home, Simic observes, ‘it is almost always with the overt rationale of helping them get established as independent units, rather than creating a binding reciprocity of mutual dependence between the two generations.’ In later life, this same ideology prevails: among the aged economic independence is a fundamental value; dependency is ‘demeaning.’

In general, research has shown that in developing countries, intergenerational family relations tend to be closer and more mutually interdependent than in capitalist, industrial settings, although many important exceptions can be found (see Albert and Cattell 1994, Sokolovsky 1990). A wealth of careful, detailed, cross-cultural data on generational ties has been produced by anthropologists, revealing a profound variety in the ways intergenerational relationships are conceived, maintained, practiced, and given value.

2. Generation As An Element Of Social Organization

Anthropologists have also examined the ways social and cultural groups employ some concept of generation to organize social relationships beyond the family. Many cultures group people into generationdefined categories, taking some notion of genealogical succession within the family and extending it to think about broader social relations (Kertzer 1979). Examining generation in this sense, as a principle of social organization, has allowed especially social anthropologists and those concerned with social structure to address questions about the very ordering and continuity of societies (e.g., Baxter and Almagor 1978, Eisenstadt 1956, Fortes 1984).

In some societies, social generational ordering is highly formalized and elaborate. Rituals, variations in dress, forms of speech, permitted behaviors, specialized tasks, and places of residence may sharply distinguish persons of one generational group from another. The most highly institutionalized organizations of generations into social groupings, often referred to as generation-set systems, have been found among a number of East African groups (Baxter and Almagor 1978). In such groups, the generation model is extended so widely as to provide the basis for regulating social relationships in an entire society. Every male is a member of a named generation set, and the generation set a man is in is determined by the generation set his father is in.

The crucial rule in such generation-set systems is that successive genealogical generations of fathers and sons must be socially and politically separated. Some scholars suggest that this is a way of minimizing generational conflict and competition, for instance over wives, land, and political leadership, for members of different generation-sets generally cannot compete over the same resources and privileges. Generation-set systems have almost always been organized around males, and women may be tied to them peripherally as daughters, wives and mothers. Versions of such systems have also been found in Melanesia, among Australian aborigines, and among some Native American groups.

Even in societies where people are not organized into formal generation sets, some notion of generation as a principle of social organization is almost universally employed (see Kertzer 1979). For instance, the social roles or identities a person assumes may depend on whether he or she represents the junior or senior generation in a family. In many societies, a person’s transition to social adulthood is linked to the birth of his or her children; and in India, the transition to a ‘senior’ stage in life and society comes about not so much through reaching a particular chronological age but through the marriage of one’s children (Lamb 2000).

It is necessary to distinguish between generation and chronological age as principles of social organization and of cultural value. Most societies use some version of both in ordering social relations, but these categories are often confused or overlapping in social scientific analyses and among the people being studied (Kertzer 1979). Age, however, is distinct from generation: it has to do with the chronological passage of time, and rests on the formally isolated individual as the unit of reference whereas generation is family generated. There are many situations in which relationships by generation conflict with relationships by age. For instance, among the Tallensi, no man, even if very advanced in age, can achieve jural autonomy until his father dies (Fortes 1984). In the US, social criticism may ensue if a man marries a woman ‘young enough to be his daughter’ (the woman as wife becomes the man’s generation, but has the chronological age of his children’s generation).

Several anthropologists have been intrigued by the fact that what is essentially an intrafamily principle of genealogical generations has been used so widely by human groups to think about social relations outside the family. People of diverse cultures, it seems, find families ‘good to think with.’

3. Generational Identity As An Axis Of Social Difference

A third way that anthropologists have approached the study of generation relates to what is probably the most common usage of the term in English: generation as a cohort of people who have lived through a time period together and share a sense of identification with others of their era. Sociologist Mannheim’s classic essay, The Problem of Generations (1952), is often cited as the piece that popularized this sense of generational studies within the social sciences. To Mannheim, a generation is not simply a cohort—a group of people having a statistical factor, such as age or decade of birth, in common; a generation is made up of people who, born during the same time period, feel the impact of common historical events and cultural forces, and develop a shared consciousness or identity around these experiences. Anthropologists have expanded upon this sense of generation as a form of identity, using it to heed the multiple, competing perspectives, voices, and experiences that make up any culture. Along with gender, class, race, and ethnicity, generation can be a salient axis of social difference.

Newman’s work (e.g., 1996) highlights such a sense of generation as an important theoretical concept for anthropology. In one study, she collected life-history data from divorced mothers in the US who had been pushed into downward mobility. The study did not begin as a generational story, yet she found that the life history texts bifurcated strongly by generation. Women who were born during the Depression were invested in different versions of American culture than those who were raised amidst the plenty of the 1950s and 1960s. ‘It became clear,’ Newman reflects, ‘that the source of their views was a fairly tightly woven and self-conscious generational culture, or symbolic dialect,’ which formed a grid though which their life circumstances were interpreted (1996).

Comaroff and Comaroff (1999) take a powerful look at generation as one of the dominant idioms through which youths in postcolonial South Africa frame their identities and place in the world. Widespread anxiety over the hardening materialities of life in an era of global capital translates frequently into bitter generational opposition. Many young black men blame their current incapacity to ensure a viable future for themselves on a perceived sinister, all-consuming aged elite, referred to as ‘witches’ or ‘old ladies’ (even when they are men). The Comaroffs cite one example of a group of youths pelting an old woman with sticks and stones. ‘Why are you killing me, my grandchildren?’ she wailed. Her assailants responded, ‘Die, die you witch. We can’t get work because of you!’ The major lines of opposition in contemporary South Africa, the Comaroffs find, are not race or class, but generation, mediated by gender. Such work reveals the potential salience of generation as a category of social experience and analysis. A society at any given moment may be perceived, by the people within it, and/or by the anthropologists studying it, as being crosscut by generations representing powerfully divergent values, beliefs, perspectives, and agendas.

4. Generation And Social Change

Finally, anthropologists have used generation as a means to explore social change, history, and time. Just as generation is one of the key images people around the world use to represent social change (for instance, by telling of how children are growing up in a world vastly different from that of their parents or grandparents), social theorists often think about processes of social or cultural change in generational terms. Mannheim speculated in the 1920s that cultural transformation comes about through the continuous emergence of new generations: as each generation comes into ‘fresh contact’ with its social and cultural heritage, it remodels what is found (1952). Anthropologist Fortes mused several decades later that such a generational model is an ‘apt imagery by means of which to depict continuities and discontinuities in a community’s social and cultural life over a stretch of time’ (1984). It is within the framework of the succession of generations, Fortes explains, that all people acquire their cultural heritage. ‘Mediated from earliest infancy by the natal family, the society readily takes on a generational form to the individual.’ The concept of culture has always been defined by anthropologists as something that is ‘transgenerational’ at the same time that it is open to creative revision and change.

In the contemporary era of globalization and rapid social transformation, perceived ‘gaps’ between the life-ways of senior and junior generations may become, for many, ever more profound. Generation will be a provocative place for anthropologists to look to apprehend the ways global processes of change take shape in particular places and lives.

5. The Importance Of Generation In Future Work

Generation in anthropology has been a key topic in the study of aging, kinship and social organization, but it has otherwise remained rather undeveloped. That is, conceived as a form of subcultural identity, axis of social difference, or dimension of social change, generation has not taken center stage. The category of generation can be fruitfully exploded, however, to explore problems of current critical interest to the discipline—such as the ways processes of globalization play out in local lives, and diverse voices and identities make up particular cultural worlds.


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  2. Baxter P T W, Almagor U (eds.) 1978 Age, Generation and Time: Some Features of East African Age Organisations. Hurst, London
  3. Cattell M G 1990 Models of old age among the Samia of Kenya: Family support of the elderly. Journal of Cross-cultural Gerontology 5: 375–94
  4. Cohen L 1998 No Aging in India: Alzheimer’s, the Bad Family, and Other Modern Things. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
  5. Comaroff J, Comaroff J L 1999 Occult economies and the violence of abstraction: Notes from the South African postcolony. American Ethnologist 26: 279–303
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  8. Kertzer D I 1979 Generation and age in cross-cultural perspective. In: Riley M W, Abeles R P, Teitelbaum M S (eds.) Proc. AAAS Selected Symposium 1979. Aging from Birth to Death: Volume II: Sociotemporal Perspectives. Westview Press, Boulder, CO
  9. Lamb S 2000 White Saris and Sweet Mangoes: Aging, Gender and Body in North India. University of California Press, Berkeley, CA
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