Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2003


Sharon Wray (2003) 'Connecting Ethnicity, Agency and Ageing'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 8, no. 4, <>

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Received: 17/11/2003      Accepted: 17/11/2003      Published: 28/11/2003


The experience of growing older in Britain is ethnically and culturally differentiated. Yet, mainstream gerontological and sociological approaches to ageing have failed to examine, in any detail, the interconnections between agency, ageing and ethnic diversity. This means that theories of ageing often exclude experiences outside the 'traditional' domain. Here, traditional includes those theories of ageing that have relied on western (British/American) concepts to measure personal power and fulfillment in later life. Yet, the meanings attached to agency, empowerment, autonomy and independence vary in relation to the specificities of time, space and culture. Despite this, western culturally specific concepts tend to underpin the notion of 'successful ageing'. This paper questions both the effect this has on how agency and empowerment are theorised and the extent to which some experiences are excluded by definition. It presents findings from an ESRC qualitative research project on womenís experiences of agency and dis/empowerment in later life across ethnic diversity. There were differences, for instance, in the timing of old age, what constituted control and agency and womenís relationship with their bodies, as they grew older. The paper considers the extent to which current gerontological and sociological theories and concepts of ageing adequately represent ethnic and cultural differences in what it means to grow older.

Ageing; Agency; Autonomy; Culture; Empowerment; Ethnicity; Independence


A defining feature of research into growing older is a focus on the conceptualisation and measurement of quality of life as an indicator of successful ageing. Women comprise the majority of the later life (aged 60 or above) population because they are more likely to live longer than men (Walker & Maltby, 1997). This has created an interest in gender issues and sparked debate about the progressive feminisation of later life and the prioritisation by policy makers of women's social and economic needs (Arber & Ginn, 1995; Maynard, 1999).

Ethnic and cultural diversity remains under-researched despite the growing numbers of women from minority ethnic groups who are now reaching old age (Walker & Maltby, 1997). There is a limited understanding of what constitutes agency, empowerment and a satisfactory quality of life for these groups (Wray, 2003). It is also evident that these conceptual indicators are based on western (British/American) theoretical frameworks that are often applied, uncritically, across ethnic and cultural diversity. This means that experiences of ageing are often universalised across ethnic boundaries. The effects of this are twofold. First, the underlying hegemonic values and beliefs of western society are reinforced. Second, different perceptions and experiences of agency and quality of life are excluded, by definition. Despite the significance of these issues, standard/dominant gerontological and sociological approaches have often ignored how agency and empowerment vary across ethnicity and culture. The aim of this paper is to provide an insight into perceptions and experiences of ageing across ethnic diversity and further, to problematise existing theorisations of ageing that reify western values and experiences (Wray, 2003).

The qualitative study on which this paper is based was funded by the ESRC as part of its Growing Older Research Programme on Extending Quality of Life. The research examined perceptions and experiences of women, between the ages of 60 and 80, from diverse ethnic backgrounds (Afshar et al., 2002a). Access to the participants was gained through local community and religious organisations and snowball sampling (Mason, 2002). Research methods employed included semi-structured interviews and focus groups with 170 women who defined themselves as African Caribbean or West Indian, Indian, Pakistani, British Muslim, British Irish, Hindu, British Polish, Bangladeshi and British white. As the interviewers did not speak the range of languages within the sample group, one of the focus groups and a few of the interviews were interpreted. This allowed women who might otherwise have been excluded to take part in the research. Methodological issues arising from the use of interpreters in this research were acknowledged but are not discussed in this paper (see, for example, Edwards, 1990; Temple, 1997; Wray, 2001). Concepts, such as quality of life, agency and empowerment, were loosely defined in order to acknowledge the numerous forms they might take across ethnic and cultural diversity.

There are four sections to the paper. The first section considers recent conceptualisations of agency, empowerment and ageing and questions the extent to which they are able to account for experiences that are culturally and ethnically differentiated. The second and third sections draw upon empirical data to illustrate and support the argument for a reworking of existing theoretical and conceptual frameworks of ageing. The fourth and final section considers how the concept of agency might be developed to make it more sensitive to the ethnically diverse experiences of women as they age.

* Connecting Ethnicity, Agency and Ageing

There are numerous ways of thinking about agency (see, for example, Barnes, 2000; Brah, 1996; Giddens, 1991; Kabeer, 1999; McNay, 1992). However, it is also clear that the themes of autonomy and independence are common features of these conceptualisations (Grimshaw, 1986; Harper, 2000). It is often assumed that self- determination, and the freedom to act independently against external constraints, are essential to agency. Yet, as measures of agency they are often applied uncritically. This is problematic on two accounts. First, traditional western accounts of autonomy are linked to detachment from others and to self-reliance. In this, dependency and social contact are positioned as oppositional to autonomy so that power is associated with independence and powerlessness with dependency. In contrast, Foucault (1978: 92-93) has argued that power is not simply located within one individual but is relational and 'pervades the entire social body.' As such it is possible to experience agency as simultaneously empowering and disempowering and to be dependent on others, without this endangering autonomous or independent action. Second, liberal western values' underlying notions of autonomy and independence are often taken as indicators/measures of agency. Yet, the significance attached to these changes across matters of ethnic and cultural difference. This becomes apparent when the extent to which individuals feel they have some control of their present and future is considered, as shown later in this paper. As this discussion indicates, there is a need to adjust concepts of agency and empowerment to make them sensitive to ethnic and cultural variation and interpretation (Wray, 2003). Yet, standard gerontological and sociological accounts of successful ageing have often applied western definitions of agency and empowerment uncritically. Further, there is a lack of research on ethnic and cultural differences in later life (Blakemore & Boneham, 1994; Markides, 1989), particularly amongst women (Afshar et al., 2002a).

It is important to consider how agency has been theorised within gerontological and sociological accounts of later life. Approaches that tend to focus on negative factors, such as decrepitude, poverty, care issues and loss of self- autonomy, include disengagement theory and structured dependency theory (see, for example, Cumming, 1963; Cumming and Henry, 1961; Townsend, 1981). According to disengagement theory, withdrawal from social life and a degree of detachment from previous roles characterise later life. Here, society withdraws from the individual and the individual from society. An effect of this mutual separation is a loss of agency for older people as their opportunity to act upon social structures diminishes. Similarly, structured dependency theory posits an increase in dependency as a distinctive feature of later life and emphasises the need for social welfare and care (Arber & Gilbert, 1989; Townsend, 1981; Vincent, 1995). This approach assumes that older people, with reduced income or requiring particular welfare services, will inevitably experience diminished social status and agency. The older person appears as passive, with any possibility of agency reduced by structural and material inequality. This overlooks the ability of individuals to resist and transform oppressive and potentially disempowering aspects of their environment. Although structural constraints undeniably impact upon quality of life, an approach that focuses exclusively on these is partial. It is unable to acknowledge, or account for, components of agency that are not simply linked to resources or the values of a specific (British/American) culture.

Other gerontological and sociological theorists have chosen to emphasise the more positive aspects of ageing, with an emphasis placed on managing the ageing process and resisting ageist stereotypes (see, for example, Bernard & Meade, 1993; Biggs, 1993; Bytheway, 1995; Laslett, 1987; 1989). Later life, or the third age, is regarded as a period of opportunity, consumerism and changes in lifestyle. Notably, it is argued that people entering into their third age have increased access to agency and power (Laslett, 1987; 1989). There is an assumption that financial planning and freedom from familial and paid work responsibilities increases autonomy and independence, thereby facilitating successful ageing. Different forms of agency and empowerment are lost in Laslett's conceptualisation of later life, which is underpinned by traditional western values. Such a position fails to problematise the western hegemonic doctrine that it is based upon and omits ethnic and cultural variation, by definition. This is not to suggest that experiences of autonomy and independence are specific to western culture. Rather, it is to argue the underpinning values that give these concepts meaning fluctuate across cultural and ethnic diversity.

A common feature of the aforementioned theories is a failure to consider how underlying concepts of agency and power might be contextualised across ethnic and cultural diversity. This means that 'successful' ageing is often theorised as synonymous with western accounts of agency, autonomy and empowerment. For instance, we are often told that it is linked to individual ability to adapt and cope with change (Baltes & Baltes, 1990, Baltes & Carstensen, 1996; Laslett, 1987; 1989), personality adaptation and coming to terms with the self (Andrews, 1999; Erickson, 1982). Yet, what it means to age successfully varies and fluctuates across time, space and culture.

Cross-cultural gerontology and sociology have sought to examine the experiences of older people from a diversity of ethnic backgrounds (see, for example, Blakemore & Boneham, 1994; Ikels et al., 1995; Keith et al., 1994; Markides & Mindel, 1987). Keith et al. (1994) analyse the cultural construction of well being in later life across seven locations. Their goal was the discovery of: '(...) different mechanisms through which attributes of different settings shaped pathways to well being in old age' (Keith et al., 1994:xi). The research concentrates upon health and functionality, life-course perceptions and political economy to uncover the meanings attached to well being in later life. However, although an attempt is made to consider how these issues differ across culture, the conceptual tools used to measure well being and other experiences of ageing are saturated with British/American values and meanings. As such, the sensitivity of this framework to cultural difference is questionable. In this respect, cross-cultural gerontology remains 'culturally oblivious', with the same measures and concepts used as indicators of happiness in later life uncritically applied across cultures (Torres, 1999:34).

Blakemore & Boneham (1994) question the dominant theories of ageing and suggest they be reconsidered to take account of ethnic diversity. They note how ethnicity and ageing intersect to create different experiences and problems in later life and, further, how these are often rendered invisible through lack of research and the universal application of theories on ageing:
[T]here is evidence that unless public attention is drawn to minority ageing, neither academic gerontology nor those who control resources and services will pay much heed to racial and ethnic diversity (Blakemore & Boneham, 1994: 137).

This is an important point that demonstrates why it is important for researchers to adjust their conceptual tools. Clearly, if these underpinning concepts are unadjusted it is unlikely they will identify what is empowering and disempowering for minority ethnic women, as they grow older. Despite this observation, Blakemore & Boneham (1994) do not specify or problematise the underlying concepts of dominant theories of ageing.

A further issue that is significant to understanding agency is the physicality of the body. Yet, the link between embodiment and agency is often ignored even though, 'routine control of the body is integral to the very nature both of agency and of being accepted (trusted) by others as competent (Giddens, 1991:57). Attention has been given to the appearance of the ageing body as a potential source of disempowerment. Significant here is the idea that as the body ages and its external appearance changes this masks the inner more youthful self (Featherstone & Hepworth, 1991). However, such an approach assumes that physical appearance is a threat to identity and agency in later life. Further, as Irwin (1999: 695) has argued, 'the idea of a mask hiding the 'true' younger self is advanced in the absence of any sustained empirical analysis of older people's experiences and perceptions as they are salient to identity and agency.'

Another way of thinking about this is to imagine the body as both a target and vehicle of power. As such, the ageing body may be experienced as simultaneously empowering and disempowering (Foucault, 1978). It is possible, for instance, to remain a powerful agent despite the threat or presence of potentially debilitating illness, a change in appearance or a loss of physical functionality.

Clearly, conceptualisations of agency are subject to dispute. If, as Foucault (1978) suggests, power is relational and overlapping, this has implications both for how agency is theorised and its application across the boundaries of ethnicity and culture, space and time (Brah, 1996). As such, it cannot be assumed that agency is somehow fixed and undifferentiated. Rather, agency is multi-dimensional: what generates and restricts it and how it is acted out, will always be subject to the dimensions of culture, time, and space. As such, there is a need to elucidate both what constitutes agency and empowerment in different settings and the extent to which western accounts of autonomy and in/dependency are universalised across culture. The next section of this paper draws on empirical examples to consider the link between culturally differentiated perceptions of ageing and control and what constitutes agency in later life.

* Culturally Differentiated Perceptions of Ageing, Control and Agency

Perceptions of ageing varied amongst participants and were influenced by cultural differences in the timing of major life course events, such as childbirth and familial responsibilities. An understanding of these cultural differences in perceptions of ageing is important for two reasons. First, it emphasises the centrality of cultural values and priorities throughout the life course on women's perception and experience of ageing. Second, it highlights the connection between ethnic life course inequalities and disempowerment in later life.

It was more common for British Pakistani and Bangladeshi women to feel older at an earlier age in comparison to other participants.
'When do you start to get older?' (Interviewer)

'I have to think when I was younger I had too many responsibilities to feel young. I cared for my brothers and sisters and now my own children.' (Bangladeshi woman, aged 58)

'13-25 is young; 25-45 is middle-aged. Older is 45+.' (Bangladeshi participant, aged 61)

Feeling older at an earlier age may be due to cultural life course differences. It was more usual for Bangladeshi and Pakistani women to have children at a younger age than other groups. Some Pakistani participants had married and had children by the age of fourteen. This contrasted with other migrant and non-migrant women who did not regard themselves as old, until the functionality of their bodies changed dramatically. When did Hannah start feeling old?
'Oh not till I was in my late sixties. When I started being ill and then I felt it 'cause I was very active.' (Hannah, aged 80, British white)

A number of Dominican and African Caribbean women said they did not feel they were 'old' and this was often linked to appearance.
'I always say you are as old as you feel. (...) Sometimes I will look at myself and say 'Gosh girl, you are 60!' And then I'll go outside and I don't tell people my age because they don't believe me.' (Gaynor, aged 60, Dominican)

Signs of ageing are often stigmatised in British society and this process is gendered (Ginn & Arber, 1993; Goffman, 1963; Rich, 1984; Wolf, 1991). It has been argued that in western society 'a man is as old as he feels, a woman as old as she looks' (Rich, 1984:78). Yet this concern with appearance did not emerge as a significant issue for the majority of participants in this study. Only a minority of British white women cited appearance and being overweight as potentially disempowering.
'How do you feel about your body, as you get older?' (Interviewer)

'What can I say when I look in the mirror in the morning? I think "Uh." No, I think the main thing with me was I have got false teeth and that is...I hate that!' (Penny, aged 65)

'The wrinkles the wrinkles that are coming the grey hair.' (Pauline, in her sixties)

'Overweight! And I keep thinking I must cut down and I haven't the will power you know. No, I think I am a little bit overweight - well I know I am.' (Sarah, aged 65)

The fact that appearance was not a major cause of dissatisfaction and disempowerment for migrant women is important. British/American feminist theories of ageing have often overestimated the impact of changes in appearance on women's agency due to their failure to consider cultural difference (for example, Bordo, 1995; de Beauvoir, 1977; Freedman, 1988; Rich, 1984; Wolf, 1991). Gerontological and sociological accounts of ageing have similarly focused on physical appearance as a potential source of disempowerment (for example, Biggs, 1993; Featherstone & Hepworth, 1991; Oberg & Tornstam, 1999). However, the results of this research suggest such approaches are often limited in their applicability and relevance. Clearly, the significance of the 'mask of ageing' with its emphasis upon the tension between a subjective youthful inner self and a physically ageing body is questionable (Turner, 1995).

When asked if they felt in control of their lives most women responded positively and linked this to a variety of issues.
'Confidence to tell my family I need time off.' (Indian Sikh participant, aged 62 years)

'She (Rehana) say's you know that she does what she wants to do. She doesn't ...nobody stops her, nobody tells her or...she makes her own decisions. How she makes, when she makes. And if she wants to consult her kids she would, and if she doesn't want to, she won't.' (Rehana, a British Muslim, aged 64, interpreted)

'Oh the lot of them together - work, health, socializing.' (Mary, British/Irish, aged 66)

'My time now is my own. My time is my own now, so I can please myself, I can do what I want, what I like to do, you know? So this is the thing that makes me feel in control, you know.' (Lucy, African Caribbean, aged 73)

'Well I can't control me life, it's God who control it for me. You know, because He has to say when you can go, but if you have God in you and you feel that He can do what you ask Him, then you will get it. Because you have to believe, you know.' (Sonya, British Jamaican, aged 71,)

As these responses illustrate, there are many facets to agency and empowerment in later life. Experiences of autonomy and interdependency often overlap to the extent that they are inseparable. They also vary. For some, the ability to act independently is intimately linked to interdependency with family relations or friends whilst, for others it is connected to the deferment of personal control through religion. These types of experiences do not neatly map on to traditional western understandings of agency and control. Equally, they challenge the polarisation of autonomy/dependency and empowerment/disempowerment. The overlapping nature of these concepts is clear in Sonya's response. Empowerment and disempowerment appear as concurrent aspects of her religious belief and contribute towards her sense of agency and control. Yet, these experiences are often not linked to agency and successful ageing. Indeed, they are made invisible by the criteria used to measure them and the uncritical application of these across cultural and ethnic difference (Torres, 1999; Wray, 2003).

In summary, this section has examined how perceptions of ageing and health differ across ethnic and cultural diversity. Significantly, it highlights the unstable nature of what constitutes agency and empowerment for women across cultural difference. Equally, it reveals the extent to which western values and understandings of agency, autonomy and empowerment have defined what it means to 'age successfully'. These cultural variations in perceptions of ageing are crucial when conceptualising how agency and empowerment are generated in later life. What it means to be older cannot simply be based on western (British/American) chronologies of time across the life course. Rather, ethnic and cultural diversity significantly shape the experiences of older women. They influence perceptions of when old age actually begins, with British Pakistani and Bangladeshi women more likely to feel old at an earlier age. This may relate to variations in life course events and stages. Accordingly, an exploration of the impact of cultural values and norms on women's life course trajectories may identify why some women feel older at an earlier age.

This, in turn, has consequences for what actually constitutes agency and quality of life. Clearly, if a woman feels old at 46 years of age this does not 'fit' neatly into existing western theories that seek to expand middle age and postpone 'old age' (see, for example, Arber & Ginn, 1995; Featherstone & Hepworth, 1991). These types of approaches underplay or deny the effect of both cultural and structural inequalities on the timing of life course events for women. They also fail to contextualise agency within specific power relations. Consequently, the numerous strategies women use to transform or to actively resist the effects of power and to maintain control of their lives are ignored.

* Embodiment, Agency and Empowerment in Later Life

The majority of participants in the study agreed that good health was a priority in later life and was strongly linked to agency and empowerment. Other issues, such as income and housing, were secondary to health. As Simone, a 65-year- old African Caribbean participant, commented: 'Good health that's all I'm asking for because there is no point having a house full of money and the health is no good.' This is not to imply that health related problems prevented women from enjoying their lives. Rather, despite health issues such as diabetes, arthritis, asthma and heart problems, the majority of women felt in control of their lives. Good health was also associated with relationships with others, religious beliefs, mobility and being with others (Afshar et al., 2002a). As such, it was not based on physical criteria alone but also on 'keeping going' and being actively involved with others.

The types of activities participated in differed in relation to ethnic background and previous interests. Both Andrea and Lavinia, aged 61, enjoyed exercise and sport. It gave them a sense of achievement and was an essential element in maintaining health and quality of life.
'I have always liked exercise. I used to play a lot of sport. When I had to give that up I sort of went on to walking. I love being out in the fresh air. I like the achievement. Sometimes it is painful getting up the top of these hills, but it is a real sense of achievement(...) You feel so satisfied when you come back.' (Andrea, aged 61, British white)

'[M]y problems with my blood pressure, and my doctor used to say to me you should exercise and then I started going to the gym and it's [blood pressure] been a bit lower.' (Lavinia, aged 61, Dominican)

Finding space to exercise was a problem for some women. A number of African Caribbean participants, who met weekly at a community centre, spoke of their desire to exercise to retain the functionality of their bodies. Although they had organised an exercise class, the space in which this took place was too small and subject to disruption.
'As for the group, what I would really like is that we get this room for ourselves. (...) We have some times when we do physical exercise and if we come in here sometimes, it's a meeting we can't come...sometimes it's this we can't come. So why do we have to have that little box for so many of us to go into while this room is here?' (Focus group with African Caribbean participants)

A lack of facilities seriously hindered the opportunities the women had to participate in activities that promote agency and empowerment. This is a policy issue that requires attention. Policy makers should aim to support women's desire to retain their physical agility. There is a clear link between participation in activities that enable women to retain the functionality of their bodies, and agency in later life. Walking and dance were also cited as ways of resisting aches and pains and were instrumental to the agency of Mary, a 66-year-old British Irish woman. Mary had recently recovered from a broken knee and these activities enabled her to resist the threat of immobility.
'Oh, I go to line dancing, yes, and I think it does you better, I think it does you better, you know what I mean? The more moving you do. And I mean I do walk, everywhere I'm going, I do walk. (...) Line dancing is once a week, yes, Thursday night. I enjoy that and I go on my own. Well, a lot of them (friends) started but they gave it up they said she wasn't teaching it properly, she was going too fast. 'Cause it is fast at first (laughs). I am not going to achieve...I mean I'm not going for any medals or to go into competitions or anything. I'm going to keep myself fit.'

Maureen, a 67-year-old white British participant, described good health as 'the most important thing in life'. She had recently suffered a deep vein thrombosis in her leg and used dance as a medium for improving her health: 'I enjoy dancing and I go dancing every week. It is my form of exercise you see and I enjoy it.' Dance was linked to feelings of agency because it offered opportunities for women, despite ailment, to move and exert their bodies in embodied interaction with others (Shilling, 1997; 1999). This sense of agency fluctuated in relation to bodily functionality and performance, as the following focus group extract highlights:
'I go dancing a lot, so I don't feel old when I'm dancing because I love it. So that helps to keep me feeling young.' (Freda)

'I felt old last week at the friendship club dinner. I did a dance with F who goes dancing every week. And the second time round my legs ached something shocking. I thought, "I can't go on much longer, I shall have to sit down." Not being used to it. I thought, "I feel old and F seems so sprightly."' (Hillary)

Here, women's bodies are neither ageless nor in a constant state of decline as some gerontologists and sociologists have tended to assume (see for example, Markides, 1989; Posner, 1995). Instead, it is possible, through the interplay of acceptance and resistance, to be simultaneously empowered and disempowered despite the in/capabilities of the body (Foucault, 1978).

Similarly, Marie, a 74-year- old African Caribbean participant negotiated an active role at her local church despite health problems. Being with others and having an important role to play were central to her sense of agency and well being:
'Last night I was making some display for the church charity and I thought all after the summer I hadn't been to scripture class. My shoulder was hurting and I didn't feel like socializing, so I thought: 'I'm stopping at home.' I was poorly for three weeks...and I made four displays, which I'll take down to them tomorrow. Things like that. I'm a happy person within myself, I'm happy with what life has got to offer.'

Perceptions of health were closely associated, for some of the participants, with family and friendship relations:
'If you feel happy you feel healthy as well. What she is trying to say is the relationship as well. The family. If you've got a good relationship you feel healthy as well. Yes, it's relationship, actually. That does make health.' (Focus group with Indian women, interpreted)

Previous research has highlighted the connection between general well being and family and friendship networks (Jerrome, 1981; Jocelyn-Armstrong, 2000). Here, the emphasis is on interdependency and reciprocity rather than independence and self-sufficiency as likely sources of agency and empowerment.

Importantly, British Pakistani and Muslim women were more likely to report feeling disempowered through poor health than any other group. A combination of poor health and lack of transport sometimes meant they could not get out of the house and this led to feelings of dependency, isolation and unhappiness. These feelings were articulated during a focus group discussion on quality of life.
'Yes, all ladies, sometimes they get depressed because they don't get outside.' (Zareena, aged 63)

'Most of them (participants) are saying they would like to improve their health. Also they would like to have enough money to afford to get out more for trips. The most important things to them are their health and getting out more often.' (Focus group with British Pakistani Muslim women, interpreted).

A few of the women in this group spoke angrily about their problematic and disempowering encounters with medical doctors, who often insisted their illnesses were 'due to old age'.
'She's saying she went to the doctor to see him about the arthritis and she explained that she got pain and he said, "Well at your age it's not going to go. There's no cure for it it's only going to get worse."'(Focus group with British Pakistani Muslim women, interpreted)

Negative stereotypes held by health professionals about older people impact upon both social policy and services (Victor, 1991). Yet, the extent of this problem and the impact it has on women's access to services remains under-researched. This type of experience is potentially disempowering for women on two accounts. First, women's strong desire to maintain the functionality of their bodies is threatened by such encounters. The medical professions use of negative stereotypes of ageing as a starting point for diagnosis needs to be questioned. Second, it means that older women's voices are not being heard adequately within the arena of health policy and provision.

To summarise: this section has examined health and activity as sources of agency and empowerment for older women. Their accounts indicate that older bodies are both sources of pleasure and discomfort, agency and resistance. Having a body that was able to 'keep going' was important to the maintenance of agency and quality of life across all ethnic groups. Good health is influenced by both social and physical factors. Social factors include family and friendship networks, religious belief, being with others, getting out and about and having a defined role and social position. Participation in dance, exercise and charity work enabled some of the women to maintain the physical agility, movement and functionality of their bodies. However, there are differences between the groups in the significance attached to the body as a source of agency and well being. In contrast to others, British Indian and Pakistani women are more likely to associate good health and happiness with family relations and general sociability.

* Connecting Ethnicity, Agency and Ageing

Women use different strategies to remain in control of their lives and to overcome the potentially disempowering features of ageing. The empirical accounts discussed in the previous sections illustrate the multi-dimensional and relational character of agency. Further, the extent to which it is embedded within the specificities of culture, time and space (Brah, 1996). This means that aging successfully and quality of life are linked to diverse cultural codes and priorities, which are mapped out across the life course. In contrast, previous accounts have focused on autonomy, independence and detachment as indicators of agency and successful ageing, with little attention given to the different meanings they concur across culture.

This raises questions about the applicability of current theories of ageing across cultural and ethnic difference. If, for instance, what it means to be independent and act autonomously is theorised as social rather than individual this changes how agency and successful ageing are understood. Instead, interdependence and involvement with others become important indicators of agency and fulfillment. This becomes more complex when issues of embodiment are considered. The relationship women have with their bodies as they age, as the prior accounts show, is not inevitably problematic as some gerontologists and sociologists have assumed (see Biggs, 1993; Featherstone & Hepworth, 1991; Rich, 1984). Rather, the experience of embodiment is linked to different ethnic and cultural codes and life trajectories. In some cultures, growing older concurs status and standing and women are less likely to be concerned with the appearance of their bodies. Further, the construction of 'youth' may differ across culture. For instance, it might confer less power and status than 'old age'.

Although a minority of British white participants did express concern over their changing appearance, the functionality of their bodies was far more important to them. These examples suggest some theorists exaggerate the impact of appearance on agency in later life. This is not to argue that negative stereotypes based on appearance do not exist but to question their impact on women's agency. Such questioning is difficult when ageing and embodiment are discussed solely in relation to western (British/American) experiences and lifestyles. The mask of ageing is an example of a theory that is universalised across ethnicity. Yet, the degree to which women experience an ageing appearance as potentially disempowering is linked to ethnic and cultural values. As such, the extent to which a changing physical appearance masks a more youthful self and the impact of this on agency needs to be contextualised to culture.

If existing conceptualisations of agency and successful ageing are to avoid reifying western individualism, they need to be sensitive to the nuances of culture. This could be achieved by examining the cultural meanings attached to value-laden concepts of autonomy, control and independence. This is important, because collective cultural identities have both positive and negative consequences for women's agency. On the one hand, affiliation to collective ethnic and cultural identity may provide space and opportunity for the enactment of agency (Brah, 1996). Yet on the other, it may impinge on women's ability to make choices and feel in control of their future. Both of these have the potential to shape older women's opportunities to exercise agency throughout the life course.

This paper has questioned the value of theoretical approaches to ageing and the, often uncritical, use of western value-specific conceptual indicators. As such, it is proposed that concepts of agency, independence and autonomy be recognised as culturally specific. This means exploring two issues. First, the meanings attached to these concepts and their legitimacy as indicators or measures of successful ageing within ethnic groups. Second the extent to which dominant theories of ageing provide an insight into the connections between agency, age and ethnicity.

Exploring these two areas both focuses attention on ethnic and cultural diversity in later life and problematises/challenges dominant accounts of successful ageing. It would also facilitate the development of policies that do not concentrate solely on individualistic notions of independence, autonomy and self-reliance. This research indicates different priorities and desires shape the lives of women, as they grow older (Afshar et al., 2002b). As such, there is a need for policy makers to consider two key issues. First, the potential of particular resources to empower women changes within the context of culture. Second, the extent to which a policy evidence base relying on western indicators and measures of agency and successful ageing is able to support the numerous strategies women actually use to pursue fulfilling lives.


The research team included Mary Maynard, Haleh Afshar, Myfanwy Franks and Sharon Wray and was based in the Department of Social Policy and Social Work, at the University of York. ESRC grant L480 25 4047.


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