Palgrave Macmillan Ltd, Basingstoke (2013)
ISBN: 9780230390935 (hb)
Reviewed by Julia Bennett, Manchester Metropolitan University
Ageing and the impending ‘crisis’ of an elderly population is a topical subject for research; by taking a fresh approach to cultural understandings of ageing this book succeeds in making a valuable contribution to this growing body of literature. The book presents the findings of the Fiction and the Cultural Mediation of Ageing Project (FCMAP) which looked at how the experience of ageing is shaped by cultural understandings, in particular narrative depictions of old age in fiction.
The authors argue that ‘people’s life experience is predominantly mediated by their narrative understanding of their individual position in the world in relation to greater social and global narratives of how that world functions’ (p. 2). This leads to the focus on individual and media narratives of ageing. The key theoretical argument that the authors make, largely in Chapter 2, is that narratives help to shape our understanding of both ourselves and others, thus contributing to a sense of identity. Mass Observation (MO), a longitudinal life-writing project which has been running in its present form since 1981, was used to trace respondents’ understandings of age and ageing. The authors have drawn on research from Mass Observation going back as far as 1992, as well as directives from 2006 and 2009. This part of the research is reported on in Part II of the book. Part III reports the researchers’ work with reading groups from the University of the Third Age (U3A), an association running a variety of courses for people over fifty, to discuss and analyse a variety of post-war, fictional representations of ageing. Part I of the book is taken up with a description of the project and methods together with a detailed theoretical examination of the use of narratives to understand ‘cultural, ideological and personal change over time’ (p. 31). I particularly like this ‘innovative methodological bricolage’ (p. 11) which attacks the subject from a variety of directions to build up a comprehensive understanding around narratives of ageing.
Of the three sections I found Part II on the Mass Observation data the most interesting and accessible. This draws on responses by the same MO writers over the course of 17 years and shows changes in their thoughts on ageing over that time. I found the third section on the reading group discussions more challenging simply because I am not familiar with the novels that were discussed. Although the texts were outlined in some detail I felt that really it is necessary to read the books in order to fully appreciate the group responses.
Chapter 1 begins a theoretical discussion on the use of narratives in social research which is continued into Chapter 2. This is an extensive and detailed look at a variety of texts on the importance of narrative in everyday life, ranging from Lefebvre and Gramsci, through Ricoeur, Berger and Luckmann to Elliott and Somers. It would have been helpful to break down such a broad body of work into discrete sections in order to make it more readily absorbed by anyone new to this literature. My key criticism of the book is the lack of sections within chapters, leading to a feeling of disorganisation at times. I also felt that a clear critical analysis of the data, particularly that of the U3A reading groups, was lacking. The conclusion focuses on the usefulness of novels as ‘a guide to life’ (p.201). The book makes a valid argument for this, in particular with reference to understanding ageing, but I felt that the conclusion could have pulled together the different strands of the research in a more systematic way first.
Overall, I enjoyed reading this book. I found the topic of ageing relevant to wider current debates but the principles behind the research and the methods could usefully be deployed equally well on other topics (for example ‘youth’). As a member of an Interdisciplinary Studies department I feel the mix of literature and social science provides a good example of how to break down disciplinary boundaries. This book could provide inspiration for anyone looking for new ways of researching narrative identities in any discipline, as well as those researching other aspects of ageing.