Ageing, Ritual and Social Change: Comparing the Secular and Religious in Eastern and Western Europe. Ed. Peter Coleman, Daniela Koleva, and Joanna Bornat. Farnham: Ashgate. AHRC/ESCR Religion and Society Series, 2013. Pp. 302. $149.95 (hardback) $49.95 (paperback and electronic).
The authors of Aging, Ritual and Social Change have clearly been transfixed by the experiences of a “unique generation” (248) of Western and Eastern Europeans: people who have lived through a world war, followed by extraordinary social changes and deep transformations in public values. The book, which contrasts narratives by individuals who live in Romania, Bulgaria, and the United Kingdom, covers a period marked by the coming and going of Communism, developments in Orthodox and other forms of Christianity, and the presence or absence of the welfare state. As the editors explain, in Bulgaria, religious allegiance has been closely connected to nationalism and “a communal source of identity,” whereas in Romania “a strong spiritual renewal movement took place in the late 1950s” (6). Monasteries functioned throughout the regime of Ceaușescu, and state officials incorporated religious rituals into their operations, particularly in connection with funerals. This does not mean that the Romanians interviewed here have been free from persecution, the threat of death, or the forced torture of prisoners by other prisoners in Romanian jails (104); despite this, some have produced narratives recalling Ricoeur’s phrase, “la mémoire heureuse” (96). Thus, as Simina Bādicā explains in chapter three, secularization under communism meant very different things in different countries, conducing to settings dissimilar also from the individualization noted in parts of Western Europe and the UK.
It is bizarre that Eastern Europe is so often ignored in contemporary commentaries, and this volume is a welcome change. But from the point of view of aging studies, its most striking facet is its complete and exemplary lack of ageism. It deals with people over the age of seventy-five, but because the authors are so interested in their subjects, they do not make the speakers sound stereotypically old. The “oral history” approach helps, since, from the outset, it assumes that what people have done in the past will be fascinating. The authors’ methodological reflections are subtle and instructive: they give practical recognition to the ways theory, method, and content all help to constitute each other. Their overall aim—reminiscent of C. Wright Mills’s words on the “sociological imagination”—is to explore “interactions between the personal and the social, between life course and historical change” (8). Their intent is to bring shifts in the observance and meaning of ritual to bear on change, and conversely to use social change as a lens through which to see ritual—even if, in the end, their interlocutors describe ritual in less detail than the researchers may have expected (an issue successfully thematized in chapter six). If rituals can in some ways communicate more forcefully and more subtly than individual interactions can, perhaps the point for adherents is to practice them, not to talk about them. Yet the rituals explored here have special significance for gerontologists, who cannot evade the challenge of trying to understand them.
In the first chapter, the editors refute the common assumption that people become increasingly religious as they get older. Instead, they assert, the extent to which people are religious in their later years usually follows from their beliefs earlier in life. In chapter eleven, Coleman, Grama, and Petrov stress that their subjects were socialized before the twentieth-century transitions to secularism; they are not necessarily more religious in later life, but it is, rather, how they enact religious practice that differs from younger people. Ritual practices, such as prayer, have particular significance for them at this time (219). For this chapter’s interviewees, in their late eighties, religious practice definitely offers consolation, though there are contrasts between Eastern and Western European participants (239-40). Nonetheless, the topic of religion itself, the editors argue, is much less often studied than it should be, given its past and present importance for individuals, organizations, and societies, and given that patterns of religious observance are not developing in the ways that have been predicted. The rituals they examine are personal as well as public ones: they include, for instance, the “three big signs of the cross” that a Romanian prisoner’s wife made when visiting her emaciated husband during his incarceration—a gesture that sustained them both as “a living religious symbol” (100).
The authors, sensitive to the multivalent meanings of “religion,” do not impose their own interpretations of it on either readers or interviewees. People adhere to religions in different ways and for different reasons; one of the main virtues of the authors’ concentration on ritual is that it allows them to touch on these subtleties without demanding that interlocutors pin themselves down to explicit theories about their own beliefs. A subject may belong formally to one religion, take part in the public rituals of another, and think of herself as belonging to a third, as Simina Bādicā’s interviewee does in chapter three (45-46). Throughout this book, accounts and recollections of allegiance come and go, shaped and reshaped during people’s lives by political circumstances that prescribe, permit, or prohibit particular kinds of narrative form and content. Several chapters illustrate the importance of taking a cultural approach to interpreting what interlocutors say and do. Whereas decontextualized readings (which are all too common in social and behavioral science texts) might construe highly fragmented accounts in terms of forgetfulness tout court, these authors trace ways in which formally inconsistent sections of narratives can become intelligible if we understand their places in different fields of cultural meaning.
The implications of this approach are explored exhaustively in chapter six, where, to approach the significance of religious rituals, Daniela Koleva shifts her interpretation to the character of rituals as practices (117). Koleva pays special attention to cases in which people who define themselves as non-religious nonetheless take active roles in religious ceremonies, particularly in those that mark life transitions. Koleva explores aspects of the “social normativity” involved, rejecting the dichotomy of seeing such participation as evidence either of belief or of deceit (130). She suggests three other interpretations of such actions: as expressing an unreflected moral ethos about the way things are done; as showing solidarity with and moral concern for a group and its members; or in terms of identity with some larger community (129). This illustrates the way in which the interviews in this chapter, and in the book as a whole, can be interpreted contextually; the interpreters’ extensive knowledge of the relevant social settings produces a sort of informal participant observation. Future work, it might be hoped, could develop this method by using participant observation explicitly, in order to trace more details of the contents of such apparently oblique practices.
In chapter two, Joanna Bornat remarks on the demands of working trilingually, which include the challenge of maintaining continuous sensitivity to the complexities of translation. Despite, or perhaps because of, these problems, the oral history in these pages “uniquely engages voices and memory to understand the past” (37). Its success owes much to the authors’ multi-layered feeling for their methods. While remaining generously in contact with larger-scale approaches—for instance, including in their study some questions taken from the European Values Survey—their own research takes a more phenomenological form. Their work explicitly reflects on how to achieve textual recognition of the multiple origins of a conversation and its many participants, present and absent. Thus, in chapter four, on non-religious narratives, Hilary Young reflects on oral history’s alertness to how an interviewee can “draw on . . . social discourses to construct a narrative they are comfortable with telling” (67; cf. 76). She cites Abrams’s argument that the whole habitus of the interviewer will influence the course of an interview, potentially altering what the respondent feels able to say (81). For example, Young reflects on how mentioning her own impending humanist wedding has an enabling effect on her conversation partner. In chapter five, readers see that another interviewee might not have brought herself to mention her miscarriages and “failed motherhood” without the “feminine complicity and reciprocity” established by the interviewer’s maternity leave (101). It is clear from Young’s examples that interviewers’ prompts really can co-create answers (83-84), eliciting fragments that ensue, perhaps, from what fits in most easily with a narrative that is socially current, from what fits the subject’s self-understanding better, or from what she feels able to explain in terms of what the interviewer might understand. Some of the speakers approached for this book even experience “radical” new recollections prompted by the process of interviewing itself. While responding to these complexities is key in the study of such elusive topics as meaning and religion, it makes high demands of interviewers, and writing about such intricacies is at least equally demanding of the skills of an author.
This book weaves an intelligible argument from chapter to chapter in terms of methodology and subject matter, yet rejects homogenizing either participants’ or authors’ positions (253). Thus it leads on from Young’s chapter to Sidonia Grama’s work on “key moments” in interlocutors’ life histories: “the most difficult periods” they have had to face, “turning points” that have provided “meaning and structure” to their lives, sometimes even “sheer epiphanies” (89). Grama’s chapter five addresses “ambiguous and paradoxical religious identities” in which accounts reveal “a meaningfully recurrent oblivion” (90). Thus she stresses the importance of forms of silence—though silence tends to be interpreted here in relation to what is “meaningfully forgotten” or else ineffable (107-08). (In the West of Ireland, where this reviewer lives and works, silence is a definite communicative form. Reasons for not saying things include the fact that many operations, from negotiating quarrels to communicating solidarity, can be better achieved in at least the partial absence of words. Often, interlocutors are relatively well informed about what is not being said, and the not-statedness is part of the conversation.) In relation to the difficult, impossible, or perhaps unnecessary nature of explicit communication, Grama discusses types of paradox: “neither religious nor irreligious” is ascribed more often to people in the UK, but “both religious and non-religious” to those in the East (91). What this means is made present through life stories that are attentive to the way narratives are built up and embedded within each other, with different foci, temporalities, and outcomes (94-96; cf. 249-50). Thus the life narrative of Aleko Radev from Bulgaria is structured around his rise from impoverished orphanhood to success as a lawyer and judge under the Communist regime, but is interrupted by another narrative concerning ritual and death. While Radev defines himself as an atheist, “his entire autobiography is organized according to the temporal guidelines of religious holidays in the Orthodox Christian calendar” (92). A contrasting tale concerns a former professor of foreign languages from Cluj in Romania, whose parents’ deaths forty years ago formed “an epiphanic moment”: from then on, she visited the cathedral every morning, lost her job in consequence of this “genuine existential choice,” and has since lived “serenely” but in considerable poverty (93).
Part III of the book focuses on experiences of death and loss, and in this connection religious practices retain much force, even in places like the UK, whose citizens are often regarded as distinctly tepid in their religious views. In this part, the authors again engage with ideas by both looking from actors’ viewpoints and siting these ideas along “a complex, dynamic integrity of cultural practices” as well as “the interiorization of collective norms of dying” (136). In chapter seven, Galina Goncharova explores ways in which the experience of losing loved ones can stimulate “new social competencies and cultural paradigms later in life” (137) in the context of trajectories of secularization in all three countries. This is followed by John Spreadbury’s chapter eight, which focuses on therapeutic properties associated with religious belief and ritual. This chapter delves into, among other things, the ways in which some interlocutors find “new sources of meaning and purpose in life” (156) in connection with their religious practice. The chapter offers notable case studies that show different ways in which responses to bereavement can, in the end, empower those concerned.
In Part IV, a chapter by Ignat Petrov and Peter Coleman deals with older Bulgarian men, including comparisons between Romania and the UK; another chapter, by Teodora Karamelska, considers older women’s religiosity. The case studies in the chapter on men supply impressive examples of tenacious moral commitment among both humanists and believers. In chapter twelve, Bornat and Koleva surmise that, in the midst of the enduring significance of life-course rituals, it is “the transcendence of the self” that “contributes to older people’s emotional and mental well-being,” whether this transcendence takes religious form or not (250). Karamelska’s chapter ten focuses on turning points in women’s lives connected with children and careers, the vicissitudes of marital relationships, the ending of career lives, and the eventual loss of close relatives. The chapter is replete with instances showing lives that remain interwoven with religion in the form of “a practical ethic and a collective ritual” (223), but is pervaded by a feeling of sadness; here, religion is often associated with a more—or less—effective reaction to suffering and insecurity (214). While men’s religious roles seem heavily associated with public, political morality, women often use religion to cope with personal hardship and bereavement, though in some cases religious participation permits them rare social significance (251). They might, too, look critically at the public form taken by the Churches and their governance, sometimes turning away from ritual to their own private spirituality (223). Thus, the chapter resonates with Woodhead’s analysis of women’s appropriation of religious activity (201, 251) just when such activities began to lose prestige for men, thereby opening a social space for articulating women’s own needs and desires. At a time when their public presence was expanding, within limits, (older) women could draw on religious practices and their place in them to construct meaning and accommodate insecurity—even though religious organizations remained mostly under the direction of men.
Grace Davie, in her preface, rightly commends the use of interdisciplinary teams in composing this text. Particularly given what this reviewer would term the different cultures of reasoning in different disciplines, the composition is a genuine triumph. The use of such a nuanced approach to oral history has certainly expedited this achievement; but readers might also reflect on the role that the interlocutors themselves played in this success. The text attest to all they have done and experienced; perhaps the authors felt united by a common respect, even awe, for their interviewees and their fortitude. It is the authors’ profound appreciation of what their interlocutors can give that so strongly characterizes the gerontological value of this exceptional text.
About the Author
Ricca Edmondson, National University of Ireland, Galway (firstname.lastname@example.org)