Playing with difference. Strategic essentialism amongst elderly people

Authors: Friederike Enssle*, Humboldt Universität zu Berlin, Ilse Helbrecht*, Humboldt University Berlin
Topics: Social Geography, Migration, Urban Geography
Keywords: Age(ing), diversity, strategic essentialism
Session Type: Paper
Day: 4/5/2019
Start / End Time: 3:05 PM / 4:45 PM
Room: Marriott Ballroom Salon 3, Marriott, Lobby Level
Presentation File: No File Uploaded

Along with demographic change, both the share of elderly people and their diversity are growing in Western Societies. However, diversity amongst elderly people is hardly ever a matter of debate. Our contribution explores the conditions for elders to advocate for their needs on the basis of social class, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexuality, or (dis-)ability.

Drawing on qualitative research on superdiversity and ageing in Berlin, we argue that groups of elderly people differ in their ability to successfully use their difference to gain visibility and articulate their interests. From our findings, we propose two different explanations: Firstly, the possibility to voluntarily showcase a difference marker impacts its strategic use. While some groups can choose to reveal a certain pattern of difference, such as sexuality, in the ‘right’ moment, other patterns like ethnicity are always apparent. Groups who are permanently exposed as ‘different’, are reluctant to emphasize what distinguishes them from the majority. Secondly, social discourses on diversity differ according to the respective marker of difference and determine if a particular need is heard or not. Discourses on elderly migrants tend to stress integration and assimilation, so the claim for special needs in later life on the basis of ethnicity is likely to be neglected. Groups of gay and lesbian elders are far more successful in playing out sexuality as supportable trait of difference. Our findings suggest the need to analyse the underlying processes that form these discourses in order to alter them.

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