Dreaming Spires: reflections on the 42nd British Society of Gerontology conference at Oxford

John Miles, PhD candidate with the Centre for Social Gerontology at Keele University and researcher on the Social Care Workforce Research Unit’s Rebuilding Lives study, reports from the British Society of Gerontology conference held earlier this month.

Beginning on Wednesday 11 September around 500 people turned up for the three days of the 2013 British Society of Gerontology (BSG) conference, held this year at Keble College, Oxford, and hosted by the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing. A combination of the Institute’s unique international connections, the prestige of the university itself, and the growing diversity of age-related research, came close to doubling the BSG’s annual attendance. Three linked events drew in well over 100 people in advance on the Tuesday. The turnout required the continuous use of two sites with some occasional overspill on to a few more. Delegates either got an unusual amount of exercise or found themselves grappling with the painfully slow evolution of disability access in a great, listed, Victorian building!

Despite such challenges the conference inspired a great deal of warmth and enthusiasm and its eclectic programme was a constant source of surprise and intrigue. Gerontology is something of a conglomerate, and by its very nature often interdisciplinary. Sessions tended to be grouped by theme rather than discipline, so that a presentation about a survey of 1000 people could be followed by an ethnography of work with ten people in a nursing home. But therein lies some of the conference’s power: as a social gerontologist with sociological inclinations, for example, I found myself in a couple of rich, and productive, post-match discussions with social psychologists. At the ‘Emerging Researchers in Ageing’ event on the Tuesday, cellist Claire Garabedian’s account of her research into playing music to people with dementia was exemplary. She identified herself as a musician and not a therapist. She explained how she had filmed her encounters to supplement and contest her subjective experience of playing one-to-one to individuals in their rooms. She accounted for the complex processes to which her presence in the home gave rise through her dealings with the staff, and with other residents. And she reported a benign impact for many of her auditors.

The cross-currents of such an account with the second plenary at the main conference the following day were significant for me. Literary scholar Helen Small showed four clips from the award-winning documentary Room 335, where the then 19 year-old documentary film-maker Andrew Jencks recorded his stay in a huge Florida nursing home over a period of several weeks. Jencks’ approach might have its drawbacks but it radically demystified the boundaries that supposedly make institutional lives so inaccessible. Moreover, as Small pointed out in a compelling analysis, Jencks’ film established in sociological terms the existence of a robust form of mutual support operating among the residents themselves, none of whom showed any interest in being looked after by their families. Su Su Liu, alongside whom I presented a couple of days later, identified something similar in the outlook of the sixty people she interviewed who attend elders’ community centres in Hong Kong. Friendship among these resilient survivors is more a performance of rhetorical support and social engagement than a pursuit of intimacy or personal trust. In the same session the family sociologist Eric Widmer from Geneva drew on a Bourdieusian perspective to examine the distribution of personal resources within older people’s family networks. This, he argued with me later, is where the social capital that counts is to be found, rather than among the vaguer configurations of ‘community’ into which Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone has steered so many government-promoted behaviour change initiatives during the last decade. Bola Amaike and Funmi Bammeke from the University of Lagos presented papers about care and support in Nigeria. Their uncompromising demand for men to change their attitudes and expectations underpinned a bold if not quite credible attempt to reconcile the restoration of filial piety with the overthrow of patriarchy!

At the plenary sessions social gerontology itself was interrogated: in its distant relationship to the biological sciences by distinguished stem-cell researcher Paul Fairchild, and to the humanities by Small, and then for being insufficiently ecumenical in its inter-disciplinary relationships at policy level by the World Health Organisation’s John Beard. Whatever the objective justification for these critiques such challenges are welcome and appeared to be well-received. From my perspective, it is our too limited exchanges with economics and political science that remain of greatest concern. Gerontology needs to play a fuller part in challenging government inertia, and contesting destructive corporate agendas, as we plan for, and live in, our ageing society.

John Miles, who works on the Social Care Workforce Research Unit’s Rebuilding Lives study (funded by NIHR School for Social Care Research), has just completed six years on the BSG executive and is a PhD candidate with the Centre for Social Gerontology at Keele University.

Several Unit staff are members of BSG – we organised a symposium on dementia where our mental capacity study work was presented and Unit director Jill Manthorpe chaired a further symposium.

1 thought on “Dreaming Spires: reflections on the 42nd British Society of Gerontology conference at Oxford

  1. John’s reflections on BSG 2013 very accurately capture what was an intensive 3 days of very high quality papers and plenaries followed by equally interesting discussions! It was one of the best BSG’s I have ever been to.

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