“The ethnographic self is not separable from the Self. Who we are and what we can be, what we can study, how we can write about that which we study are tied to how a knowledge system disciplines itself and its members and to its methods for claiming authority over both the subject matter and its members” (Richardson, 2005: 965).
In undertaking a doctoral project on ageism which would involve interviewing both older and younger adults, it was essential to uncover my own biases and assumptions about the aging process. Consequently, self-reflexivity is key to an examination of the complex processes and historical and sociopolitical contexts that have formed my own perceptions on age and aging (Richardson, 2005). But to do so means having the willingness to reveal openly and honestly the personal experiences that have shaped my perceptions – both negatively and positively.
My perceptions on age and aging to a large degree mirror the literature’s emphasis on the formation of attitudes about aging and older people through personal experience. Like most people today, my earliest perceptions of aging and older adults, which had both positive and negative aspects, were formed through my relationships with family members. As I grew older, I had personal interactions as a young person with older adults that were outside of my family. In addition, because I was very much a product of the historical and political climate that I grew up in, I also absorbed societally constructed ageism through: 1) the segregation of older and younger cohorts in North American society (Hagestad & Uhlenberg 2005; Gilleard & Higgs, 2016); 2) popular culture depictions of youth and older age (Blaikie, 1999; Chivers, 2011; Gullette, 2004, 2011); and 3); a North American fear of illness and death (Greenberg et al., 2002; Higgs & Gilleard, 2019). While fortunately I did not personally experience discrimination in the workplace or housing as I have grown older, in non-workplace settings (such as in theatres and stores, on public transportation, or even simply walking on a sidewalk) I have certainly felt the invisibility assigned to older people (particularly women), along with an assumption that I am incompetent and have nothing to contribute.
Additionally, I have come to realize that I certainly have not been immune from internalizing negative attitudes and ideas about aging and older adults presented and reinforced in popular culture. I became even more aware through the interviews with my participants of the mechanism of the internalization process, when I realized that while you may be aware of ageist images and ideology on the one hand, you can also easily absorb it at the same time due to its insidious and almost subliminal messages. In addition, because the internalization process begins in childhood (DePallo, et al., 1995; Gullette, 2004; Hurd Clark, 2010) and reinforced throughout our lives, it is in many ways, impossible to recall what the societal and/or popular culture messages of ageism were at that time in our lives. I understood through the interviews with my students that I had undoubtedly internalized many ageist ideas that I was still not aware of.