Experiences of Aging in Post-Socialist Poland


A review of Personhood in Places: Aging, Memory, and Relatedness in Postsocialist Poland by Jessica Choate Robbins

In both media discourses and quotidian conversations, aging and older people (perhaps especially older women) appear to be uncommonly highly politicized in Poland. Often, the personae evoked are idealistic: older people – especially grandparents – as the pride of Poland, brave and suffering, whilst garrisoning collective national memory. Elsewhere, however, older people are sometimes represented as outdated conservatives: moherowe berety (“the mohair berets” p. 17). Poland’s demography, history, and political economy make such a media interest in older people unsurprising. Poland has a falling birthrate and a well-documented large-scale recent wave of emigration.  The current ‘cohorts’ of older people in Poland are those who experienced World War Two and state socialism firsthand.

The question is, then, how might the subjectivities and practices of members of this interesting demographic be narrated in a non-essentialist manner? In the meticulously-researched and empathetically-composed Personhood in Places, Jessica Robbins calls upon 20 months of fieldwork in the Polish cities of Wrocław and Poznań in order to ask at once what aging is as domain of human experience and, as she puts it so evocatively, “the particularity of this story in this moment between this set of individuals” (p.7).

What are the “places” referred to in the title? First of all, there is Poland. As an anthropologist approaching aging not as biomedical reality but as an artifact of local ideas and practices, Robbins asks what being old means in Poland as opposed to in any other country. Robbins does this- and this brings us to the second meaning of “places”- by being with and listening to the predominantly female users of relevant educational and medical institutions. These are, in Wrocław, a rehabilitation centre and a social welfare home and, in Poznań, an Alzheimer’s centre. Robbins also carried out in-depth research with słuchacze (attendees, literally ‘auditors’) from Wrocław and Poznań’s respective Universities of the Third Age (Uniwersytet Trzeciego Wieku), “continuing-education institutions specifically for retirees” (p. 36).

With the project’s central research question and field sites identified we now arrive at third meaningful type of place: the spatio-temporal landscapes dotted sometimes with narrators’ trajectories through past Polands; at other times with sentiments about the location (in time and in space) of estranged, deceased, or overseas kin. Remembering in this way is practice and process. How does Robbins do this? It is certainly the case that, as a method, participant-observation engages first and foremost with the day-to-day details of participants’ situations. This way of constructing knowledge is paralleled by the “relatedness” literature that Robbins’ frequently draws upon. However, Robbins does this above all be maintaining the agency of those of whom she writes, as they sustain and protect their “moral personhood”, a key concept that runs throughout the thesis. Robbins puts this particularly nicely on page 15:

Through remembering, imagining, learning, and commensality, older people across these sites were forming new social relations of friendship and care. These meaningful social relations with non-kin have the power to shape the ways in which older people understand themselves and are understood by others through refashioning the connections between persons, places, and times.

Robbins’ apt field sites are, therefore, both places where personhood and kinship are reflected upon, and where they are made. The influence of Lawrence Cohen’s research on aging in India  (e.g. No Aging in India: Alzheimer’s, the Bad Family, & Other Modern Things. Berkeley: University of California, 1998) is particularly palpable here, as Robbins thoughtfully considers the epistemological and ethics that sometimes arise in research on aging. Robbins writes in the Introduction, ‘During my fieldwork and while writing the dissertation, I have tried to follow Cohen’s practice of “listen[ing] to the ways in which old age mattered to people” (1998: 36) in Poland, and to follow his and Kleinman’s question, “what is at stake in asking about old age?” (Cohen 1998: 37). That Robbins has followed this credo is evident on every page and Personhood in Places is an instructive example of politically engaged anthropology. In choosing such a subject matter and, in particular, by juxtaposing the socio-economic situations of those whom she meets in each field site, Robbins advocates, as she states in the very last paragraph of her thesis: “an ethnographically-grounded approach to ameliorating experiences of people negatively affected by conditions of structural inequality” (p. 307).

In common with the first, introductory chapter, Chapter 2 surveys contemporary debates about aging and older people in Poland. Robbins uses Polish broadsheet newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza’s 2008 series “Poland Is No Country for Old People” as a starting point for analyzing public discourses about what it means to be an older person in Poland and, consonant with Robbin’s concern with ‘moral personhood’, how they should live. The chapter compares viewpoints from Gazeta Wyborcza with the more conservative, Catholic publication Nasz Dziennik. While the newspapers seem to agree by number of references to old age, that being an older is some kind of exceptional state and of particular symbolic importance in Poland, the pictures they paint of being older differ. Gazeta Wyborcza presents an image of Poland as a bad place to grow old, where older people are overlooked and marginalized, granting that succor might be found in idealized, youthful, and crucially “active” (p. 111) pursuits such as ‘skiing, sex’ (p.112),  “the current prestigious ideology of aktywność” (p. 11) constituting a particularly fascinating theme, which appropriately enough courses through the thesis. In contrast, in Nasz Dziennik “old people are warmly described as the “treasure” (skarb) of the family and the nation, as those who (along with mothers) can best raise young children” (p. 89). Here, Robbins makes the particularly insightful observation that within Nasz Dziennik discourses, older people are painted as ‘providing care for grandchildren, [but] they are also positioned as receivers of care in illness—something that, in contrast to Gazeta Wyborcza, is not stigmatized, but rather treated as a valuable experience of suffering’ (p. 89). That ‘care’ and intergenerational familial reciprocity are at the centre of certain Polish ideologies of aging hints that the institutional care described in later chapters might be the subject of disapprobation.

The thesis is very well-structured, particularly in the way in which one chapter segues into the next is remarkable. I turned each chapter’s last page with a question on my lips, only to find the answer to such a question to be the focus of the next chapter. The flow between Chapter 2 and Chapter 3 exemplifies this intuitiveness. A move from media analysis from ethnography risks being disorienting in its change of scale. This is not the case here. The words of Polish social psychologist Wiesław Łukaszewski provide a thread between the two chapters. Łukaszewski’s reflections on ageism in Poland inspired the Gazeta Wyborcza series. In his appraisal, Łukaszewski was disparaging about the University of the Third Age (p. 116). These remarks did, of course, beg the question of what it is like to be part of the “group” he describes. As such, its słuchacze are the focus of Chapter 3, “’Seniors Are People Too!’ Transforming Moral Personhood” (p. 116).

This chapter tells of the stereotype-defying work that relatively elite older women engage in in order to stay active. Universities of the Third Age are considered “enlightening” (p. 119) by their attendees. This is attributed largely to the types of activity that they teach. Preferred activities are those which women (who make up the majority of Robbins’ informants) find novel: not embroidery, but computing; not singing but English (p. 119). An ‘international’ habitus that encourages – even expects – knowledge of certain European languages is not particularly new amongst elite Poles (here Robbins quotes Longina Jakubowska’s excellent book Patrons of History: Nobility, Capital and Political Transitions in Poland. Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing Company, 2012). However, the connections between aktywność, novelty, modernity, and forms of belonging in post-European Union accession Poland is evidenced by the popularity of classes where słuchacze learn how to use Skype and email and how to speak English. As Robbins points out, this reflects changing family configurations, which seen many słuchacze have children who live abroad, perhaps with partners who do not speak Polish. She tempers this by suggesting that such educational priorities should also be framed by Poland’s changing political economy (p. 119). What stands out, and strengthens the thesis’ overarching arguments about moral personhood, memory, and relatedness, is that these skills that seem so key are often to do with communication, with “being relevant”, and “staying connected”: whether with family, a general Polish public, or with the world.

Robbins’ thesis is particularly sensitive to the ways in which experiences of aging are influenced by physical health and by class-position. As a fascinating passage on “memory training” illustrates (p. 149), it is by no means that case that the mostly mobile “Euro-seniors” attending Universities of the Third Age are free from anxiety, and yet the routines and circumstances of research participants whom Robbins met in these spaces make the question of what ways there are to age while maintaining “moral personhood” (p. 155) other than in line with aktywność.

It is to this line of enquiry that Robbins turns in Chapter 4, focusing ‘on the social and relational aspects of institutional life as a way to describe the moral personhood of those who live in institutional care.’ (p.159): a Catholic rehabilitation centre and a social welfare home. The ethnography in this chapter is particularly finely-tuned. In recording and recounting the material culture of the centres: the gifts, the demarcation of auspicious points in the calendar with appropriate decorations, the ways in which as banal an object as a shoe-cover says something bigger about belonging to an institution (p. 167). Robbins discusses some of the quite considerable differences between these two sites. She describes a number of informants’ particular situations, and in doing so demonstrates that life in an institution is not homogenizing even when one steps into sync with an institution’s rules and routines. Making novel use of thought on kinship and relatedness, Robbins focuses on relationships, whether with kin, other residents, or care workers.

Is there anything distinctly Polish about these sorts of ways of relating to others? Can ethnographic contexts be imagined in which memory does not factor so centrally in processes of generating relatedness and sustaining personhood? Personhood in Places possesses a quality that is surely common to a good deal of excellent ethnographies: the people described have situations that are the product of local political economy and history and yet they are dealing with questions and experiences that unite them with those who happen to exist in other quite different locations. What is suggestive, however, is that anthropologists carrying out research on quite different aspects of Polish culture and society underline memory as a particularly encompassing and complex entity (e.g. Longina Jakubowska, Frances Pine, Kinga Pozniak, and Erica Tucker). In Chapter 5, Robbins discusses the ways in which some older Poles give accounts of their lives in which their personal experiences, events that tell of who they are as individuals are almost one and the same as moments of national importance. A striking facet of this “embodiment and emplacement” (p. 201) is that the fusion of personal and national transcends firsthand memory. Pani Cecylia, for example, links her family to Polish history ‘from the Piast dynasty of the 10th century’ (p. 232). Crucially, in doing so, argues Robbins, she is saying something about her family in: their suffering and sacrifice, their ingenuity and intelligence, each of which perpetuates the family line. Robbins is careful with the word nostalgia throughout the thesis and her point is that these narrations are not ‘just’ contemplative but productive, forward-facing and speculative. They are, she writes, ‘deeply moral practices meant to extend personhood into the future’ (p.251).

All this contributes to why Alzheimer’s might constitute a diminishment of personhood. Chapter 6, “Rhythms of Memory in an Alzheimer’s Center”, shows this not to be the case. One of the reasons why Alzheimer’s is of anthropological interest is that it is perceived both as a biological and social condition, and with ramifications for the individual and his or her kin. Robbins includes in this chapter an extremely thorough and thoughtful review of Alzheimer’s and dementia literatures. Sometimes associated with ‘social death’ (p.256), when viewed from a cross-cultural perspective, concerns – even fears – about dementia give away a great deal about local tenets about care and kinship obligation. The chapters that precede Chapter 6 show the importance of being able to remember and to be able narrate for older people in Poland’s personhood. Without reading Robbins’ nuanced and careful research, one might assume Alzheimer’s to constitute an unassailable rupture in local practices and beliefs about aging and personhood. However, Robbins argues instead that the memory and relatedness practices in which research participants at the Alzheimer’s centre participate are not substantially different from those engaged in by informants in the other sites.

“[M]emory persists in this space where people are defined by their lack of memory” (p. 191), writes Robbins. What is more, memory at the Alzheimer’s centre blends together personal trajectory and national event in a similar manner to at the other sites detailed in previous chapters. This seems to be encouraged by the institution.  For example, a notable number of the memory exercises engaged in at the Alzheimer’s centre draw upon national memory, including things such as the names of Polish places and Polish politicians (p 289). What is key here, as at the other sites, is that speaking of state politics and of Poland’s history do not only tether and secure the narrator to their nation, but to their kin: their colleagues in the group, and both ascending and descending generations of their family. Perhaps most palpable in Chapter 6, the thesis is a treatise against ‘othering’ older people. While Alzheimer’s poses specific biomedical, social, and economic questions, it is not particularly analytically useful to present it as a discrete and distinct category of being.

Personhood in Places deserves to be read widely, and will be admired and influential when it is. While it obviously particularly contributes to, and weaves together, the areas of kinship and relatedness studies, gerontology and medical anthropology, the study of memory, and the anthropologies of Poland and post-socialism, I wish to stress that it would make a wonderful ethnography to be read cover to cover by students learning about what ethnography is and what anthropology can be. It is written with elegance and erudition. It is important in its sensitive considerations of the ethical and emotional challenges of doing long-term research in medical institutions. It makes an interesting point of comparison with Joanna Mishtal’s work on the place of institutions in the politics of reproduction in Poland, and as such bridges phenomenological and medical anthropology and anthropological work on memory that focuses mainly on the social rather than the cognitive. The dissertation exemplifies how ethnography can subvert stereotypes and binaries. Like the work of Michał Buchowski, Elizabeth Dunn, and Agnieszka Kościańska, and in common with the research on memory in Poland that I mentioned earlier in this review, it makes an intelligent contribution to the anthropologies of Poland and postsocialism by cautioning against oversimplistic ‘change and continuity’ and ‘before and after’ binaries, the types of binary that Robbins demonstrates to be equally inadequate in relation to aging.

Siobhan Magee
Postdoctoral Research Fellow
Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities
University of Edinburgh

Primary Sources
20 months of ethnographic fieldwork (September 2008 to April 2010, with follow-up research in 2012) encompassing participant-observation and in-depth interviews in the Polish cities of Wrocław and Poznań. The key medical sites where research was carried out were, in Wrocław, a rehabilitation centre and a social welfare home and, in Poznań, an Alzheimer’s centre. Educational research centred on both cities’ Universities of the Third Age (Uniwersytety Trzeciego Wieku), continuing-education institutions specifically for retirees.
Historical and media studies methods, including detailed analysis of aging-centred articles in Polish newspapers Gazeta Wyborcza and Nasz Dziennik.

Dissertation Information
University of Michigan. 2013. 325 pp. Primary advisor: Gillian Feeley-Harnik.

Image: Photograph by author.

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