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Age: The Pathway through Life

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Sarah Wuthrich

on 2 July 2013

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Transcript of Age: The Pathway through Life

Age: The Pathway through Life
Cultures worldwide measure the passage of time through their own means. For some cultures, strict calendars and time measurements are set in place. In other cultures, time is measured through the rising and setting of the sun. The passing of seasons, weather patterns, or even cycles of the moon may assist in these measurements of time. Through this passage of time comes the passage of lives. Each life is the same; each human being is born to live and grow and die. Just as these cultures measure their time, they measure their lives as well. This measurement of life is called age. The age of a human being can be measured in a myriad of ways. Four specific, commonly used methods for measuring age are: chronologically, biologically, by relativity, and by milestones. Chronological age denotes that the passing of a measured amount of time determines how old a person is. Biological age refers to the growth within the body as the primary determinate of age. Age by relativity implies that age is inferred by the correspondence with other factors (such as the order of births within a group of people). Finally, age by milestones measures age through the reaching of culturally significant events within a person’s life. Inconsistency in the ways of measuring age creates unique cultures worldwide; therefore age will be experienced, interpreted, and treated differently within each culture.

To deliver insight on ways of measuring age four cultures will be analyzed. Marjorie Shostak in her book Nisa: The Life and Words of a Kung Woman provides the information necessary to interpret how age is measured within the !Kung culture. DiGioia, in his film Afghanistan: Naim and Jabar, supplies insight to the measurement of age within the Afghanistan culture. Allison James and Alan Prout specifically interpret age within the Norwegian culture in their book Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Study of Childhood. Also, the culture of the United States in regards to measuring age will be considered from my viewpoint as a born and raised United States citizen.
Biological Age
Biological age is the measurement of age through changes and growth in the body. This method of measuring age relies on consistency within body growth of each individual of a culture. Landmarks that may indicate advancement in age are: losing baby teeth, sexual maturation, menopause, gray hair, etc. Biological age has little compensation for those that do not see typical growth, however it does allow for longer measurements of time if needed by an individual, to pass between age advancements.
Age by Milestones
The method of measuring age by milestones associates advancements in age with social, personal, and/or biological landmarks. Within a single culture a definitive list of expected milestones is usually present, based on what the culture views as significant. Measuring age by milestones allows for time to pass freely between milestones, providing the opportunity for each individual to age at a different pace. However, if an individual were to miss a milestone their age would be effected lifelong, which may cause them emotional suffering and social discomfort.
Chronological Age
Chronological age is the measurement of the passage of life through the passing of measured time. This method of determining age significantly reduces discrepancies in describing exactly how long (in time) someone has been alive. Therefore, this method creates a convenient standard through which people across cultural boundaries may describe their and other’s lives. Although this standardization is positive, the chronological method of measuring age does not allow for personalization. This means that if a person does not advance in social, biological, etc. aspects, they will continue to age regardless. The lack of personalization could create what would be viewed as a deprivation in their growth.
Age by Relativity
Age by relativity suggests that age is determined by an individual’s surroundings. Specifically, in most cases of age by relativity, the surroundings afore mentioned refer to other individuals. Those that were born before an individual are considered older, whereas those born afterward are considered younger. In this application, if a child were to never have an individual born after them they would always be young. Measuring age by relativity allows for the recognition of wisdom learned through living, and creates the opportunities for younger generations to acknowledge and honor the older generations.
As evidenced through the four cultures discussed, age, and the measurement thereof, may be influenced, determined, and advanced differently in every culture. These different methods of measuring age vary in their patterns of matching chronological time, corresponding to biological landmarks, meeting milestones, and comparison of an individual’s surroundings. The !Kung culture allows age to flow freely, advancing with milestones-no matter the individual’s chronological age-and changing based on the ages of company. Culturally, the United States regiments age to chronological advancement, as evidenced by the celebrating of yearly birthdays. The Afghanistan culture finds a middle-ground, allowing age to flow freely based on biological landmarks before a child receives their identity card. On the surface age is chronologically ordered in Norway, however the allotment of sub-groups within the chronological breakdown allows for the social perceptions of youth to be swayed. Although the concept of age-the measurement of life-is simple, cultures worldwide interpret it in countless ways, allowing for irreplaceable interpretations of what it means to “grow up”.
DiGioia, Herbert, prod. Afghanistan: Naim and Jabar. Documentary Educational Resources, 1974. Film. 09 Jun 2013.

James, Allison, and Alan Prout. Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Study of Childhood . New York, NY: Taylor & Francis Group, 1997. Print.

Shostak, Marjorie. Nisa: The Life and Words of a !Kung Woman. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1981. Print.
Within the !Kung culture, Shostak explains that “the !Kung do not think of themselves in terms of chronological age” (Shostak 321). Therefore the !Kung tribe do not recognize their age through the passage of time. Although Nisa herself may never consider her age as a number, Shostak, in her work, often estimates numerical ages, based on the measurement of the year, in which the events Nisa is explaining most likely took place. For example, in the notes section, which provides insight and brief explanations for stories told by Nisa in all of the chapters, Shostak provides estimates such as “The memories in this chapter probably reflect Nisa between the ages of twelve and fifteen” (Shostak 378) for most chapters. This evidences the idea that chronological age provides a standard of comparability across cultural divides.
The culture within Afghanistan relies on chronological age beyond a certain biological marker. In short, as viewed in DiGioia’s film, children receive an identity card when they enter school. Before the identity card is created for the child, their age is determined otherwise, however after the identity card is created their age is measured chronologically from that point on-measured in years (DiGioia).
Norwegian culture, as described by James and Prout, measures the age of its members primarily in chronological age in years throughout each member’s life. The concept investigated by James and Prout examines if the chronological age accurately represents children. The terms used are ‘big’ and ‘little.’ If a child is ‘big’ they have cognitively advanced, taken on individuality, and independence. However, if a child is ‘little’ they have remained young in their demeanor and are dependent on caretakers (James and Prout). The fact that children with the same chronological age may be described with these two different terms brings acute attention to the lack of personalization within the chronological method of measuring age.
The United States reflects the Norwegian culture, in that age is primarily measured chronologically through years. Again, children are often referred to as ‘mature’ or ‘young’ for their ages, and programs and reputations (mostly negative) are developed for those that do not meet chronological standards.
The !Kung culture recognizes large biological landmarks from the day of birth through the day of death. Combined with the method of measuring age by milestones, the !Kung see their lives “as an orderly progression of biological and social events” (Shostak 321). Since the !Kung celebrate biological landmarks as milestones, this will be revisited in a later section.
Previous to receiving their identity card, Afghanistan children are measured in age by biological landmarks. As seen in DiGioia’s movie, when Jabar’s younger brother was applying to enter school, his age was determined by his physical growth and his retention of his baby teeth. The school administrator says that the boy appears to be seven, however the father insists that the boy is six, because he still has his baby teeth. It is understood then, that up until this point, this boy’s life was determined by his biological landmarks, most likely including walking, eating solid foods, etc.
There is no reference of biological age within James’ and Prout’s article, leading to the conclusion that biological landmarks are irrelevant to measuring age in Norway.
The United States does not measure age in terms of biological landmarks; instead biological landmarks are expected at certain chronological ages. Estimations of typical chronological ages are prevalent for most biological landmarks. This leads to alarm if biological landmarks are ‘late’, or happen outside of the estimated chronological age range. For example, a young girl who does not start menstruating until the age of 15 may have distress over her late blooming; doctors may be consulted, and medication may be administered to ensure other biological landmarks fall within their chronological estimations.
The !Kung tribe recognizes age primarily through milestones. Highly celebrated milestones, such as marriages, sexual maturation, first kills in a hunt, childbirth, even social smiling as an infant, each advance the age of an individual (Shostak 321). Large ceremonies and dances are held when a milestone is reached, indicating the tribe’s acknowledgment of this advancement in age. !Kung tribe members may take any time necessary before reaching milestones; tailoring the aging experience to the individual. For example, a young man may take many years to attempt his first large game kill in a hunt, based on his experiences tracking, practice aiming, etc. However, his first kill will be just as celebrated as a young man who completed his first kill at a younger chronological age (Shostak 83-86).
Measuring age by milestones within the Afghanistan tribe is not referenced in the video by DiGioia. However, it can be implied that schooling provides milestones through which age is determined. Also, the biological landmarks that determine biological age may also be seen as milestones in an individual’s life and advance the perception of their age.
Having established that age is primarily determined chronologically within the Norwegian culture, James and Prout do acknowledge certain milestones that enhance the perceptions of a child as ‘big’ or ‘little’. Among these are the children’s abilities to contribute to household duties such as cleaning, cooking, running errands, etc., as well being able to care for themselves without an adult present (James and Prout). These milestones, when reached earlier than expected may cause a child to appear ‘big’. The reverse is true as well, a child may appear ‘little’ if they do not reach these milestones by a certain estimated chronological age.
Similarly to biological age, milestones are often estimated within chronological age ranges in the United States. Instead of allowing these milestones to influence the determination of age, the US culture frowns on reaching milestones outside of chronological cultural norms. For example, in tribes such as the !Kung a marriage would advance the age of the bride and groom, however in the United States if the bride and groom are chronologically young they are considered ‘destined to doom’ or ‘too young to make such a decision.’
“!Kung are acutely aware of relative age. Since age is associated with status, “who is older”-be it a few years or a few days-is extremely important and effects all relationships” (Shostak 321). This quote from Shostak’s work explains that age by relativity is just as important to the !Kung as age by milestones and biological age. The relative age of those around an individual in the !Kung tribe can and will affect their actions and behavior in various situations. !Kung go as far as to have words within their language that denote respect for elders (Shostak 321).
Measuring age by relativity is not referenced with DiGioia’s film. However, it is implied that age is influenced by the amount of schooling completed. If this is the case, those that are more accomplished in their education will be seen as older by those who have completed lesser amounts of education.
Within James’ and Prout’s concept of ‘big’ and ‘little’ relativity is used as a basis for all assumptions. If a child who was capable of doing housework, running errands, caring for themselves, etc. were only capable of doing so at a later chronological age then their peers, than that child would be considered ‘little.’ However, if that child has reached these milestones earlier than their peers chronologically, then that child would be considered ‘big’ (James and Prout). Although the Norwegian culture may not recognize the consistent comparisons to determine where individuals are relative to other individuals, the use of this concept allows for sub-grouping within chronological ages.
The United States recognized broadly the concept of age by relativity, however this concept does not affect the determination of chronological age, nor does it allow for advancement in age. Just as seen in the Norwegian culture, ‘young’ and ‘mature’ sub-groupings within chronological ages can be determined by comparing individuals. Also prevalent within the US culture is the idea of “generations.” Terms such as “Generation X” or “Baby Boomers” allow for relative comparison of ages which influence social perceptions of individuals.
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