Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003


Stephen Conway (2003) 'Ageing and Imagined Community: Some Cultural Constructions and Reconstructions'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 8, no. 2, <>

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Received: 29/10/2001      Accepted: 7/5/2003      Published: 31/5/2003


This paper develops Anderson's (1983) concept of 'imagined community' to explore the social meaning of popular images of ageing and the beliefs of older people. Popular iconography and texts are examined in relation to the representation of 'normal' or 'positive' ageing in areas including the marketing of seaside towns as places for retirement through the emphasis upon heritage, British holiday brochures for old people, lifestyle magazines, and the general sites of death, dying, funerals and bereavement 'therapy'. These are seen as prescriptive representations that are sanitised and fictional. Emphasising communalism and homogeneity, they ignore the realities of history, and the differences and inequalities to be found amongst the old as a social group. This 'vocabulary of motive' (Mills 1940) of imagined community is found to be predominant within positive images of ageing, especially those found in 'consumer culture'. The paper also considers how ageing can become a theatre for the interpretation and performance of imagined community in autobiographical context.

Autobiography; Beliefs; Images Of Ageing; Imagined Community; Vocabulary Of Motive


Recent theoretical developments in the sociology of ageing should be applauded as this area has long been neglected. Thus the influence of more contemporary theorising, such as the sociologies of the body and consumption, is clear in a number of works on ageing (see Blaikie 1999; Hepworth 1996; Hepworth and Featherstone 1995). Indeed, the origins of the contemporary sociology of consumption has some links with the sociology of ageing. As Hepworth (1996: 20) explains: 'Mike Featherstone, who has done as much as anyone to open up the sociological debate', writes in the Preface to his 'Consumer Culture and Postmodernism' that his interest in consumer culture came from looking 'at an area which has long been under-theorised - at least in terms of attention directed at it by social and cultural theorists - the study of ageing' (1996: 20, citing Featherstone 1991: vii). Furthermore, other writers have taken a more Foucauldian approach, stressing the regulation of old age as a social body (Katz 1996; Winton 1999). Indeed, BSA annual conferences have included ageing as a sub-theme. However, despite the application of more innovative theorising, ageing has yet to become a central theme of the conference.

It is not the intention of this paper to go into a comprehensive analysis of recent sociological theories of ageing, but to explore and apply a selection of emergent ideas about the relevance of the concept of 'imagined community.' It is argued below that by thinking sociologically in terms of imagined community, it is possible to make sense of ageing in two particular ways. Firstly, in terms of how ageing is homogenised and sanitised in prescriptive representations in popular culture. Secondly, how ageing can be considered as a theatre for the reinterpretation and performance, and rejection of imagined community for the old themselves. For a number of writers, ideas about community or social reciprocity are crucial in understanding how ageing is constructed and experienced. For instance, consumer culture images of 'mythical' and 'imagined communities' in the marketing of retirement homes by the seaside simply exploit the rose tinted reminiscences of older adults themselves (Blaikie 1999). Alternatively, imagined community can serve as a coping resource for people who are dying (Seale 1998). In a related sense, therefore, as imagined community helps to sanitise death and dying, this may be conceived to reflect the fact that we live in a death denying society (Bauman 1992; Becker 1973). Much of these writings can be traced to Anderson's (1983) study of nationalism, where he develops his theory of imagined community. It is along these lines that this paper will explore the issue of ageing as a social process which can be considered at macro, meso and micro levels of analysis.

In analytical terms, the paper draws upon narrative analysis (see Lucas 1997) and the life course approach (see Hareven 1982). In using narrative analysis, Mills' (1940) notion of 'vocabularies of motive' is used as a central analytical idea. For Mills, motivation should be regarded as more a product of individuals drawing from repertoires of explanations in popular values and beliefs, rather than as something reflecting innate characteristics, set apart from the social world and dominant forms of understanding and explanation within language. Such vocabularies are generated by popular narratives which provide a means to make sense of human social life. Motives are 'typical vocabularies' which are put to use in delimited social situations (Mills 1940: 904). That is to say, individuals are likely to think and act in relation to the dominant narratives available to them in a given situation. Motives, therefore, are not 'inert springs of action', they are the products of a complex relationship between people and society. The central focus of the paper is an exploratory analysis of imagined community, as a vocabulary of motive.


For Anderson (1983), nation building involves the fictional abolition of internal diversity, in that inequality is present but simply ignored. For example, rather than recognising social and economic inequalities between the citizens of a nation, differences are emphasised between one nation and another. Such an emphasis upon allegiance and homogeneity within the 'community' of the nation is also imagined because most of its members will never know each other, they will never meet:

It is imagined because the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow members, meet them, or even hear of them, yet in the minds of each lives the images of their communion. (Anderson 1983: 15)

The imagined community becomes so deeply embedded in the public imagination that people are prepared to kill or die for its preservation. The nation is imagined as a 'deep horizontal comradeship' (Anderson 1983: 7) where such fraternity justifies death through acts of war and a general willingness to sacrifice life for the preservation of the nation which is deemed as both sovereign and limited. It is thus held to be morally virtuous. Consequently, membership of the community is restricted to the virtuous.

A sociological understanding of imagined community in images of ageing

What follows stems from the idea that ageing into the final stages of life, is a process involving a loss of autonomy in important respects (see Elias 1985). These vary in biographical and cultural contexts, but after allowing for differing circumstances, the commonality of ageing and death is the transition towards social, rather than chronological or biological categories (see Dant 1990; Hallam et al 1999). A dominant theme in a range of different cultural representations is the glorification of youth as synonymous with strength, efficiency and independence. Also, because of a strong association between youth and the 'body beautiful', being youthful is portrayed as something attractive and sexy. It therefore becomes a moral imperative, underpinned by a promise of sexual reward, to prolong this stage of the life course (Hepworth and Featherstone 1982) or at least to maintain a youthful outlook upon life in old age (Thompson et al 1992). However, both, ageing into the final stages of life, and the process of death, can be fraught with images and narratives that are the converse of being strong, independent, sexy, and so on. Thus in late modern societies driven by a market-led orthodoxy, one particular reason for positive images of ageing, is the recognition that the old are a large and potentially lucrative market who will appreciate positive representations of themselves (Sawchuck 1995)

For example, as mentioned above, Blaikie (1999: 151-2) describes how nostalgic representations of communities in Britain's seaside towns are more the product of commercial interests and the myth-making reminisces of older people themselves, rather than any overarching historical reality. This has resulted in a strong commercial emphasis upon 'heritage;' something which is not necessarily new, but it is certainly being promoted with a new gusto and vigour. Heritage is a way of creating fiction and exploiting the 'grey market:'

Heritage has a habit of creating symbols that render otherwise disparate phenomena self- evidently related. Indeed, some would aver that this is precisely its function: to invent a strong, shared sense of 'imagined community' where history reveals little concrete evidence. (Blaikie 1999: 151)

Indeed, the idea of imagined community can be applied to a whole range of cultural representations of ageing. For example, Chaney depicts how holiday brochures for the older person, 'honour a seniority which is probably absent from their lives', emphasising a commonality, glorifying tradition and togetherness with other old people. What this reveals is a one dimensional image which downplays difference and encourages a form of 'gemeinschaft' or an 'all embracing communalism of the holiday' (Chaney 1995: 214-5, 218). For Chaney, a range of symbolic meanings which reassure and ritualise community are evident in the brochures. Titles such as, Golden Times, Golden Circle, Golden Years; and Young at Heart, are all examples of how old age is being given honorary status. Brochures also reflect a harking back to a golden age where old people are represented as the link between past and present. In a similar argument to Blaikie, Chaney asserts how, in contrast to probable experience, the past is represented as a better place. 'Locals' in the brochures typically appear to be retired, as anything new or different would threaten the emphasis upon communalism and togetherness, even to the point of encouraging group bookings as desirable for other reasons than getting a cash discount. The models in the pictures, are slightly more attractive, slimmer, younger and in good health, but not in an exaggerated form, so to avoid making them unrealistic in an unattainable sense. Furthermore, Chaney notes how the brochures reflect the 'imagined' deceit of shopping centres, which make palatable urban homogeneity rather than difference (Graham et al 1991, cited in Chaney 1995: 222).

Imagined community is also something apparent in lifestyle magazines aimed at the old, such as, the UK publications People's Friend and Choice. Scholarly scrutiny of these magazines is exemplified by Blaikie (1999) and Featherstone and Hepworth (1995). People's Friend's and Choice both emphasise ageing in a positive way. They do not give the impression that a great deal of difference, diversity and inequality exists amongst older adults by class, gender, ethnicity, age, state of health, and so on (Phillipson 1998). To be sure, if many older adults live alone and in poverty (Vincent 1995), then the golden and rustic imagery of People's Friend, 'The Famous Story Magazine' which nearly always has happy endings, does not match reality for the majority. It can be considered as escapism for older women with less spending power. Also, the youthful and consumer orientated lifestyles emphasised in Choice hardly match the reality of everyday life for a significant number of older people without the spending power to afford the activity holidays it advertises. To all intents and purposes, then, the vocabularies of motive being represented in both publications are imagined, and they are offering a form of belonging or community that may be unachievable for many people in the later years of their lives.

Seale (1998) employs the concept of imagined community in his analysis of death. Imagined community, he argues, offers a defence mechanism against death by providing a resource to maintain a sense of meaning for dying and bereaved people. Thus individuals can feel that their own life or those of significant others are part of a greater whole which will continue after their deaths. Modern societies offer a range of small nationalistic communities which people can affiliate with:

it is possible to understand modern society as comprising a series of small nationalistic communities. Organisations, institutions, schools, firms, factories, businesses, are all microcosmic nations, competing with each other, demanding allegiance and a degree of self-sacrifice, and offering, in a small way, the promise of ordinary heroism, and a fictive immortality in their continuation beyond the limits of individual biography. (Seale 1998: 56-7)

Indeed, funerals and bereavement therapy can also be considered as sites of imagined community. Wernick's analysis of the funeral industry (Wernick 1995: 283) supports such a conclusion:

The persistence . . . of the 'sentimentalized death of the other' which . . . assimilated the monumentalizing aspect of early industrial attitudes to death to a romantic sensibility, has provided the funeral business with its principal opportunities for profit and growth . . . The genius of which is to perpetuate the memoralizing impulse . . . while simultaneously catering for the opposite wish to put death and the dead out of mind . . . Hence [American] burial grounds as huge but beautiful parks, with markers flush with the grass so that the eye of the visitor is not distracted by morbid signs. Hence too, the persuasive rhetoric of grief therapy, which rationalizes and shapes the memorial vocabulary as a controlled abreaction scientifically designed to get the grieving over their grief so that normal life can resume. Hence finally, embalming . . . temporarily preserving and beautifying the corpse and providing the bereaved with a 'memory picture' . . . of the deceased in pleasant repose, as both happy in death and irrevocably gone.

Following the idea of a modern aversion to death and dying, through their confinement to old age and sequestration to institutions such as hospitals, hospices and nursing homes (Mellor and Shilling 1993), Wernick's analysis may also be considered to indicate how funerals and grief (both tending to be restricted to old age) can be regarded as prescriptive sites for imagined communities, that provide affective comfort or therapy. Indeed, further support of this idea is available in Walter's text 'The Revival of Death' (Walter 1994). For Walter, hospices and bereavement groups represent themselves as listening communities, when in fact they may be considered to be telling people the correct way to die and grieve (Walter 1994: 121-131). To all intents and purposes, then, this reflects a social construction of a defined community which is imagined rather than the pre-existence of one which is formed on the basis of all of its members perceived wishes. Moreover, even in Walter's call for community, where he concludes that 'dying . . . is one form of suffering which will never go away, and it may be the surest base for community' (Walter 1994: 195-196) (other basis for community such as 'poverty, suffering and sickness [have] collapsed'), he raises another point which indicates how dying can induce imagined community.

Also revealed in the above discussion is the more general idea that the production of imagined community is a key feature of contemporary society (Calhoun 1991). As such, imagining community can be considered to provide solace against an out of control world - a world which more postructuralist forms of analysis conceive of as overwhelming, uncertain, uncontrollable and frightening (Bauman 1997). It is little wonder, then, that in areas were autonomy diminishes and ultimately stops (ageing and death), positive cultural images often incorporate a sense of community. At the same time, many such representations are imagined because they perpetuate myth and fiction. Therefore, in the above analysis of images of ageing and death, imagined community is a dominant narrative and central vocabulary of motive. Moving from the general to the particular, imagined community in the micro context of autobiography is considered below.


The material that follows is from life history interviews held with twenty-six older adults aged fifty and over (most were at least sixty-five), with an average age of over sixty-seven. The interviewees lived in and around a city in Northern England and the research was concerned with their beliefs about ageing, illness and death. In this paper, data is examined with particular reference to the significance of imagined community. For this reason, most of the data is taken from a life history interview with Mrs Brown (her name has been changed), a seventy-eight year old woman who lives alone and is bereaved. Another four case studies (names also changed) are used more briefly for illustrative purposes. Therefore data cannot be thought to be empirically generalisable to all older adults. The nature of the generalisation is theoretical and it is asked: how imagined community is, as a representative, typical and characteristic cultural phenomenon (Mason 1996), reflected within the lives of the case studies.

Mrs Brown

The imagined community

The deaths of her close family had cast her off from the support network they provided and left her, feeling like, in her words: a 'lonely ship.' Her metaphor of a 'lonely ship' invokes images of somebody who is lost. Thus, she said: 'I am very lonely for a start . . . you miss the warmth [and] companionship . . . My Mother, my Husband . . . Aunty . . . We were a little world on our own...' Therefore her sense of community is being constituted within the context of her immediate family.

Mrs Brown told me how she had left work and nursed each of her relatives when they became unwell and cared for them when they were dying. After their deaths she felt like 'a lonely ship':

'I had looked after people for so long. I'd done a lot of caring for other people. Anyhow, I do a lot of charity work. I help people and I do charity work . . . I go to hospital [to befriend patients and families]…'

I wondered if leaving her job as a professional civil servant to look after her sick relatives had affected her. Perhaps she had lost confidence' after leaving a job - to look after her relatives - which may have given her public status and prestige? Her response indicates that she prioritised relationships with close family members and the charity events they shared in the past. The idea of belonging to a sovereign and limited community was prominent in her reply.

No, my mother used to run lots of charity events for people in need, and we used to have garden parties . . . We used to do all sorts of things. We used to have whist drives, bridge drives [sounded like] . . . You name it, we did it. As mother got older I took more and more control . . . fashion shows . . . Oh, we had wonderful things as a family. We raised about £15,000 [in 1943].

The actual communitarianism she refers to provides her with fond memories. This is her idea of community. Mrs Brown was brought up to believe in God and to do good work through charitable activities, and she still adheres to these values in the present. Thus her dead husband, a former District Commissioner for the Boy Scouts, would be 'very pleased' with the good work she does for the Scouts in the present as 'Chairman' of the 'Executive Committee.' Moralising and an essential sense of self are therefore prominent in her account. Such emotions have also been highlighted by many writers as a strong theme amongst the beliefs of older adults (Cole 1986; Hepworth 1995; Williams 1990). Thus Mrs Brown's positioning of herself within a moral community – albeit an imagined one, as it belongs in the past - can also be regarded as generationally situated (Mannheim 1952). The past is highlighted as a better time than the present. Her memories are a great comfort: she looks at old photographs and birthday cards, anniversary cards and Christmas cards from her husband that she keeps in a box. Looking through such symbolic representations of her memories serves as a release from the stresses of the present, when she looks at them she has a 'really good weep'.

Doing charity work appears to bolster her sense of self. In other words, helping other deserving 'people in need' is, by normative definition, a form of communalism for the worthy. Her sense of being a carer was clearly disrupted by the deaths of family members. Losing them made her feel vulnerable. She gave to her family as a carer. In return she received their gratitude and love which made her feel secure. Now, she gives as a charity worker for the misfortunate.

The data also reveal how the memory of her family is central to the way she typifies the nature of social relations within her sense of community. The 'little world' of her family is her key narrative. This also serves as a vocabulary of motive and is central to her imagined community.

The famous as peers in the imagined community

Aside from Mrs Brown's family, she has other role models. Thus, when I asked if she watched television to pass the time, she told me that, as the TV news reporter Martin Lewis had said, she wanted to see:
'…a bit of good news instead of all this bad news . . . it makes me so depressed . . . when I live on my own. When you have got somebody to talk to and you thresh it out. Well, THAT'S THAT. But, I mean, when you live on your own, it really affects you.'

In addition to Martin Lewis and 'good news', she also likes 'uplifting' books. She also likes biographies and autobiographies of 'marvellous' people. 'I have just been rereading, because I think she is marvellous, Dorothy Sayers . . . I also like that Dick Francis: Queen Mother's jockey. I really read books that give me a lift. You want something a bit uplifting, not like the news on TV.'

Mrs Brown is therefore aligning herself with TV presenters who promote a 'little world' view of good rather than bad news, and writers of books that give her 'a lift'. Such nice people belong to her imagined community. She has her heroes and they are virtuous people. Looking for heroes can be seen as an attempt to transcend routine, repetitive and mundane aspects of everyday life (Featherstone 1992). Mrs Brown finds her heroes 'uplifting'. They lift her out of her loneliness and depression, and help her return to the 'little world' of her community. However, her community is imagined because she has no face-to-face contact with those who people it: dead relatives and television characters (cf Blaikie 1999: 197), and 'marvellous' people who write inspiring books.

A custodian of the world we have lost

In parallel with positive imagery of older people, Mrs Brown represents herself as a custodian of social values from the past. Thus, just as the ageing characters in Britain's longest running soap opera 'Coronation Street' recreate the values of a world we have lost in a nostalgic sense (Blaikie 1999: 197), Mrs Brown feels her values are out of place in today's world.

Yes, the times in which we live. ((pause)) I am too old for the times in which we live. I was saying this to a fellow across the way the other day. He said: 'well, I can give you forty years my dear, and I'm too old for the times in which we live'. ((laughs)) No, not nice at all. I mean, you have to lock your doors as if you live in Fort Knox. Well, my next door neighbour [an older person] was burgled.

It was difficult to belong to the present because she was 'too old for the times in which we live', as was her neighbour and, by implication, other older adults. The metaphor of 'Fort Knox' also indicates her assertion of a tight limit around the imagined community. People from the past were more humane and nicer than people are today. By default, therefore, older adults are custodians of ageing social values that clash with those of the contemporary world. She also talked of 'old family doctors', comparing them to present day doctors who treat 'symptoms' rather than 'the patient:' Another 'sign of the times' in which she felt she had no place. The past is gone in that her family are dead and the good 'old family doctors' have been replaced by those who simply 'treat the symptoms.' However, she maintains a sense of continuity with her memories by positioning herself in an imagined community, largely from the past and by adherence to its principles.

Spiritual maturation

Mrs Brown associates her ageing with spiritual maturation because 'the veil' (the boundary between this world and the next) gradually opens: 'As we get more mature, the veil parts a little bit.'

…It's a spiritual thing. It's your spirit calling to another spirit . . . I had the most enormous experience. I mean, it was there and it was gone. The veil moved aside for a split second . . . It was a lovely summer's afternoon . . . and I just looked up and it was a wonderful experience . . . The feeling that I had seen a little bit behind the veil.

Her reward, therefore, for holding on to ageing social values that are out of time is spiritual maturation. This vindicates her notion the imagined community is sovereign and limited. Her narrative seems to represent the idea that ageing - involving the attainment of spiritual maturity - helps her maintain and build a moral sense of self.

I suggested that she might consider moving to sheltered accommodation, offering her independence and with the added comfort of extra security. Her response indicates that imagined community offers autonomy.

No, I don't need anybody else, thank you very much . . . I have got a wonderful book by Dr Clare Weeks on … self-help for your nerves; she was on TV. After her first talk on TV she received 1200 letters from sufferers . . . [these and the other books she reads are] wonderful; filled with such confidence and encouragement.

Even though she is 'lonely', she refuses to think of herself as being old in terms of the negative sense of being a burden. As she puts it, 'I don't need anybody else'. The imagined community is all she needs.

However, since her bereavements, she has suffered some attacks from youths. Also, her own deteriorating health led her to try 'alternative practitioners' but this had little impact. Both of these factors have added to her sense of loneliness and vulnerability. In effect, they are reluctant interactions with society that represent major threats to her autonomy. Such threats may have led her into an even more urgent pursuit of imagined community because it offers protection. The areas where she manages to achieve control in the inner world of her own beliefs. By contrast, the areas where she has little or no control, as powerful and external social forces are involved, serves to both illustrate, and provide evidence of, the sociological idea that modern society simultaneously makes people more independent, but also makes them more dependent on society (Durkheim 1984: 7).

Whilst the data from Mrs Brown reveals the negative consequences of bereavement and loss – her loneliness and vulnerability – and how this appears to have compelled her to imagine community, the following section reveals variation and shared elements by brief illustration to four other case studies.

Mr Jones

Mr Jones is eighty-one. He lives alone, his health is frail and he is largely confined to his flat. However, this does not appear to dampen his spirit. He is still active, albeit within a reconceptualised or more limited view of activity. He has a home help but still does some of his own domestic chores, and he pops out to the local shops. He also plays indoor bowls regularly and is regularly taken out to lunch by the owner of a local garage, where he had worked for several years after retirement. [1] Whilst Mrs Brown family memories were most important to her, Mr Jones seemed to look back on his working life with a great sense of achievement and pride. Thus he was 'really chuffed' when he became 'Officer in Charge' of a residential home in his late fifties. He described starting work at fifteen, as a gardener, then working in various junior capacities in residential care, and he appeared to take great delight in describing his movement up his chosen career ladder. He put a lot of effort into his work and this appeared to provide a sense of having done something useful. Thus during his spare time from working as an 'Assistant Warden' in another job, he spent:

All me spare time, days off, even mornings off duties – I got stuck into the gardens, because I loved gardening. And I made a really good job of it. In fact, I was complimented two or three times from the offices about what a difference I had made to it . . . I was on top of the world. I couldn't have felt better.

Even after he retired the work ethic was still important. This is illustrated when he describes working in a garage and his sense of satisfaction from doing this.

Mr Jones: Well, you were meeting different people, coming up for MOT'S and that. Well, I just used to check the oil and the tyres, see if the lights were alright and, err, braking lights, you know? Generally messing about. Cleaning garage up, sweeping up and all that kind of thing. Anything to fill me time in . . . I really enjoyed it and I was there for nearly thirteen years.

SC: Thirteen years?

Mr Jones: Oh aye.

SC: Did you get paid for that, then?

Mr Jones: NO, NO, NO, NO . . . He offered, but it was . . . just something to do . . . I was meeting different people, mekin meself useful to someone and payment didn't enter into it.

A very clear sense of agency is revealed in the above extract. Keeping occupied and, making himself useful was what he had strived to do throughout his life. In realising these aims, the social contact with people and the way the owner of the garage befriended him was payment enough for him. He actively followed the 'busy ethic' (Eckerdt 1996) and his actions appear to highlight a sense of moral community between the work ethic and retirement. In overall terms, Mr Jones appears to have taken a realist position. He struck me as somebody who retained a sense of the positive and made the best of things as they were now. Thus his sense of community seemed most apparent in his communitarian approach to working in the garage. Imagined community is rejected in that it does not come into Mr Jones' beliefs at all.

Mr Collins

Mr Collins is seventy-one. He is married and lives with his wife in a council house. They have three grown-up children who all have children of their own. Like Mr Jones, Mr Collins emphasised the importance of his working life. For most of his life he worked in the stores of a local engineering firm. Work was very important to him 'Apart from my family [work] was my life.'

There are parallels with Mrs Brown, as demonstrated in the following extracts.

SC: Was it a big shock when you stopped work?

Mr Collins: No, it was a delight. I retired early [at sixty-three] because . . . these idiots . . . were telling me how to do a job that I had started thirty years earlier. I had the prospects of having a major barny by half past eight every morning. So I said on the Monday early retirement, and on the Friday I left. They were as glad to be shot of me, as I was to leave . . . the young idiots they brought in . . . this is industry today though, isn't it. This is why things are in such a state.

Like Mrs Brown, then, he is associating age with wisdom, albeit in much stronger terms: 'these idiots . . . the young idiots . . . telling me how to do a job I had started thirty years earlier.' He also asserts that the past is a better place than the present: 'this is industry today though, isn't it. This is why things are in such a state.' His beliefs also reveal a strong sense of agency. This was apparent in three main ways.

First, he questions authority, if he believes it to lack credibility. His condemnation of younger workers and the state of industry today is one example already given; another is his criticism of 'expert' advice on diet.

Mr Collins: The thing is you can't take any notice of expert advice about this sort of stuff because they are all contradictory. One bloke says do this, eat that, and another bloke says don't.

Second, he retains a sense of humour, despite his failing health – a recent heart attack had made him 'feel his age [he] had felt younger before.' His humour is revealed in the numerous jokes he made.

Mr Collins: The thing is if you tried to do a comparison with people our age then you can't because they are all dead. ((laughs)) You can't do that so we must be alright. ((laughs))

________________ SC: How would you like to die?

Mrs Collins: I wouldn't.

Mr Collins: Not yet I think - with a smile on your face. ((laughs))

The above are a few examples of his humour. He made many other jokes. His agency is also revealed in a third sense where he talks of his upbringing and the influence this still has upon him.

SC: What do you think makes you the way you are now, then?

Mr Collins: Well, I had a good Victorian upbringing by me mother, which meant that when you met a lady on the street you tipped your hat, and said good morning . . . Now I wear a soft felt cap and I still tip my hat to the ladies. I get a right riling by certain people, and it doesn't bother me one haporth because my mother told me to do that; and please and thank you. She taught me to do all those sorts of things . . . I am still living under the good influence of my mother, you see.

His expression of preferred styles of adaptation to everyday life can be understood as moral practices and micro- polical acts of refusal towards the 'times-up' narrative (Conway and Hockey 1998). Even though he may get 'a right riling' he refuses to let this perturb him and he still tips his hat to the ladies. This also represents a harking back to the past as a better time, where people are were more polite to each other.

Mrs Billington

Mrs Billington is sixty-nine. For most of her life she ran a cafe and gift shop. Originally from a working class background, she lives with her husband, a retired quantity surveyor. In terms of her health, she had recently been hospitalised for a heart attack and this had a significant impact upon her. She told me that her husband and living relations were the most important people in her life. She used 'alternative' or 'complementary' medicine, and, in this context, the famous could be role models. Thus Mrs Billington is a great admirer of the Queen Mother and if 'homeopathy was good enough for her, then it was good enough for me.' Indeed, the imagined community was present in her beliefs. She liked the 'old times [and] old world [people who] have a sense of value.

Mrs Billington: I like Austria and I like Germany . . . That's were we go [for holidays] . . . and the people . . . I suppose again at my age, I like the old... I cling a bit to the old times . . . I like the values of the olden times better than I do today . . . in Austria and Germany . . . you could put your bag down and leave it for a week and come back and it would be there . . . and you just know what type of people they are . . . They are old world. They have a sense of value and . . . honesty which . . . we haven't got in this world today.

Further illustration of her notion of the past as a better place is revealed below.

Mrs Billington: I had a lot of boyfriends. But no hanky panky. That was the difference between us lot and you lot. There was never any hanky panky with any of us. And that to me is where today's people slip up.

Although history tells us otherwise, Mrs Billington imagines there was an absence of non-marital sexual relations ('hanky panky') for her generation. She could also be snobbish and disliked outsiders; these included 'the incomers' (people who had just moved into the area), young people and students. The latter two were associated with promiscuous life styles, taking drugs, being dirty and unkempt. Indeed, she had stopped using the public library because of some of the 'filthy people' from 'estates' who fingered the books. A likely understanding of her view of outsiders, then, is that they are not part of her imagined community with the values of the old times were there was no 'hanky panky.' Mrs Brown also liked 'old fashioned doctors' who are 'much kinder people than the other ones.'

Mrs Wells

Mrs Wells is sixty-eight and she talked mostly of suffering from ME. This left her 'with no energy or will to live.' After unhelpful experiences with conventional medicine, she started to 'pick up' after she had joined the ME society.

There are many parallels between Mrs Wells and Mrs Brown. Most especially, Mrs Wells' illness had been 'overwhelming', and despite living on her own all of her life, she now got 'desperately lonely.' She said that the ME had 'made' her look for a 'kindred spirit' and she found this in several sources. The ME society was helpful and talking to members when she had been particularly ill had been a comfort.

She could also be considered as someone who could take a realist position. She had always been quiet and shy, and suffered from mild depression. Thus to her retirement was not the golden period that could be imagined or portrayed.

Take retirement, that's another thing that isn't a bit like you imagined. Everybody says: 'well that will be wonderful.' IT'S NOT WONDERFUL AT ALL, because you take yourself with you.

Famous people and writers of inspiring books are role models. For example, she found comfort in the idea that 'a lady of [the] degree, drive and ability [of] Claire Francis [was] President' of the ME society. [She] wasn't going to loll around.' Biographies are her favourite reading material, particularly those that demonstrate strength of mind and courage in the face of adversity; she jotted down extracts from these in notebooks. They were 'an inspiration' to her and 'just struck a chord somehow.'

Looking back to previous 'friendship[s] and camaraderie' was a comfort to her. Today people did not have the same close friendships she had experienced; these gave her a sense of belonging to a 'community.' She felt there was 'too much of this casual attitude now.' Also, she was a very tidy person and things had to be in their right place. Doctors of 'today' were unhelpful, all they did was administer drugs and they would 'not explain anything.' The implication being that doctors of the past were more helpful and therefore belonged in her ideal of community. Sometimes, however, despite her efforts to find help and protection within her ideal of community, it was the present which - because she felt there was much less altruism and community about - made her feel vulnerable.

Conclusion: The Struggle of Memory against Forgetting?[2]

The five case studies show difference and variation in the significance of imagined community. The more similar the circumstances to Mrs Brown, the more likely imagining community is practised. For example, Mrs Wells, feeling alone in the face of 'overwhelming' illness, uses inspiring writers as role models. However, she does not stress strong family ties because this is not relevant to her. Mrs Billington seems to reflect another interpretation of imagined community: the past is regarded as a better place than the present, although what she says about the past – especially 'hanky panky' - can be called into question on empirical grounds. What makes Mrs Billington different is her circumstances. Her beliefs, seem to reflect a more general harking back to the past as a better place with 'old world' people with superior or sovereign values, not to specific family members who are deceased. She still has significant others in the present: her husband and relatives. Mr Collins has shades of imagined community in his beliefs, such as when he talks about still tipping his hat like his mother taught him in the face of getting a 'right riling', and the problems with young workers and industry today. Overall, however, his beliefs show a strong sense of human agency as revealed, for example, in his use of humour on quite serious issues such as death and dying. Mr Jones' beliefs stand in contradistinction to everybody else; imagined community does not seem relevant to what he has to say at all. However, there are still parallels with the others. His talk reveals a continuity with life history, as it does for the others. In his case, this involves independence and wanting to feel useful. His sense of community is mostly with the work ethic rather than identikit characters he has no direct contact with or 'values' of the 'olden times.'

As Anderson notes in passing, because we cannot remember, our conception of identity has to be 'narrated'. Therefore, at least in terms of cultural narrations of imagined community in later life, they can be seen to involve 'the struggle of memory against forgetting' (Blaikie 1999: 198). This paper has shown that this struggle represents a form of denial in the cultural construction of being older. At the level of autobiographical context, it is posited that imagined community is reworked or rejected (ie, not included) and its degree of significance relates to individual circumstances. Even where imagined community was strongest amongst the case studies, as it was for Mrs Brown, it is not imagined in the sense that it is mythical. Her memories of actual communitarianism are real enough to her. However, she has to rely on memories of people and others with whom she cannot have daily contact.

For Anderson (1983), an imagined community is limited and sovereign; the former because it helps nations to have finite boundaries which marks them off from others; the latter as it serves to legitimate its preservation (1983: 7). As the analysis shows, these ideas help to make sense of popular images of ageing, and some of the beliefs of older adults in a creative and imaginative sense, rather than as passive recipients of mythical representations. The beliefs examined also reflect the idea that identity is constructed, reproduced, sustained, and subject to change by the interplay of biography/society. Some of the data also reveal that, because of rapid and accelerating social change, some cultural artefacts with generational associations rapidly become suitable as museum items (Turner 1995: 253). Thus for Mrs Brown, Mrs Wells and others, the vocabulary of motive of community is regarded as a cultural artefact that belongs to their generation, but also in a museum.

Concentrating largely upon the development of print, Anderson does not use his analysis to consider the dramatic acceleration of the production of imagined community by the development of consumer culture. This paper has shown that imagined community is produced in consumer culture in areas such as holidays brochures and lifestyle magazines to sell products and associated lifestyles to older people, and this can be reflected in the beliefs of older adults themselves. This is not to imply the old are 'cultural dopes' and passive recipients of mythical categories of identity. Within the case studies examined in this paper, their sense of belonging and social identity may be regarded as continuous with autobiographical context. The more alone the person was, the more creative they became in identifying members of their community. They were real enough to them, however, and sadly, because it was not possible to have a direct relationship with some of the members of their community – dead relatives, famous people, and others – they may be considered as imagined.


1Mr Jones also spoke of how the owner of the garage befriended him and took him out for regular lunch time meals and 'a pint', and invited him to share Christmas with his wife and children.

2 The conclusion and its sub-title are inspired by Blaikie's (1999) imaginative use of Kundera (1989).


I am very grateful to the editors of this journal and the three anonymous referees for their support and advice.


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