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Josef Ehmer: Altersbilder und Konzeptionen des Alter(n)s im historisch-kulturellen Vergleich [2019]. [Abstract] [Article in German]

Images of aging and old age have been part of Europe’s written and visual cultural heritage for several millennia. Furthermore, aging and old age have been the objects of research in a wide range of academic disciplines across the humanities as well as in medicine and law for several centuries. From the nineteenth century onwards, they became important subjects for the social and behavioural sciences, and research from the last few decades indicates the strong influence of the “cultural turn.” The aim of this chapter is twofold: First, I use the rich research results from these disciplines to reconstruct the long-term history of images and perceptions of ageing and old age from Antiquity to the twentieth century, identifying changes and variations, as well as continuities or perhaps even “anthropological constants.” Second, I critically examine the contributions of these various disciplines to the study of ageing and old age in order to reveal differences and inconsistencies and particularly their role as participants and agents in age-related discourses. For both approaches, the notion of “ambivalence” proves to be most inspiring and productive: positive and negative evaluations of age co-exist and form a polarised structure with rich gradations; these, in turn, produce a resource that can be used for different purposes. Therefore, a further aim of this chapter is to go beyond cultural representation by bringing into play generational relations as manifested in different historical periods, modes of production, and social classes. While the focus of the chapter is on Europe, I include a comparative survey of the wider world – with a particular emphasis on East-Asia – to understand the significance of kinship systems and religious beliefs on interpretations of ageing.

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