Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Unlikely bedfellows - Arab, German, Japanese social constructions and ageing

At first glance, nothing obvious ties these things together. And yet, a single thread does connect distinct geographies, across seemingly inconsistent time frames, to the overarching reality of an ageing world.

Last week, I was on a panel at the UCL (University College London) Festival of Ageing. This panel included Aaron Parkhurst, PhD candidate/Research Fellow in Anthropology and expert on skin-whitening practices across the Emirates, Ulrike Neundorf, PhD candidate in Medical Anthropology, expert on surveillance techniques of the Stasi secret police in the GDR(German Democratic Republic) through its abolishment in 1989, Jesse Bia, MPhil/PhD candidate in Medical Anthropology, expert on organ transplantation practices in Japan, and myself on longevity in the 21st century. So what's the connective tissue?

It's the link to our identity. On a superficial but ultimately defining level, each topic is or was reliant on the suppression and masking of identity. More specifically, in the case of Japan, the very essence of self as it relates to the complicated definition of "brain death" was explained. Plumbing the deepest reaches of ourselves is fiendishly visceral!

So, I googled skin whitening in the Emirates  and got 11,200,000 results. When I limited it to "in the Emirates", I got 290,000 results. Apparently when using products like "Fair and Lovely" (58,400,000 results in .4 seconds), increased attractiveness to the opposite sex, maximized virility and a pathway to life successes can be yours. Out of curiosity, I next googled fake tanning and got 6,860,000 results and a whopping 14,100,000 for Fake Bake. The opposite desirability is playing out in the west. And we know, this equates to big business, $170B annually of which $48B gets spent in the UK alone. The malleability of identity is laid bare.

The Stasi exploration probes the exacting, seemingly emotionless and institutionalized investigation of persons deemed to have been a threat to the GDR. The very finest minds, including those of PhD students at the time, were directed toward refining techniques of intimidation and sublimation to ensure conformity. Notably, there are faint echoes in the recent NSA breaches of friendliness, between allies. The fragility of identity is exposed.

In Japan, strong cultural views about life and death and a tacit distrust of western medicine is central to this countries skepticism and relatively lower rates of organ donation. Conversely, Japan is a major, world class player in stem cell research, with a permissive regulatory framework and highly experimental environment. The dichotomy is unmistakable and underscores that the socio-cultural construction of identity is fundamental.

Add ageing to this mix, a period of life that so many people have never experienced, at the same time, ever before and personal identity is the linchpin. Given that not a single one of us can know our ageing fate, the unpredictability is real. For those of us who survive into old age the physical is stripped away. In time, we will accept that along with our outer image, every other element of life we have invested in, does not last either. All that remains is the inner self, the elemental identity.

Unsurprisingly, in the 21st C, it may turn out that our instinct for life will allow us to ascribe value to our ageing identity, and the positive acknowledgment of this as a different, rather than a less than time.

Deborah Gale