Ethnographic encounters with elderly people and an interpreter. A fieldwork experience from Djenn Mali


  • G. Mommersteeg Department of Cultural Anthropology, Utrecht University, The Netherlands



In this paper, methodological issues of doing ethnographic fieldwork among elderly people are considered. Examples of fieldwork conducted in a small town in Mali are given, to draw attention to the importance of having a close research partner from the local culture. Illustrations taken from both conversations with elderly persons and discussions about them show how in the collaboration between the anthropologist and the research assistant, local images and notions of old age are revealed. The author argues that being dependent on an interpreter, which is commonly looked upon as a handicap, in research on old age proves to be an advantage.


Apostel, L. 1993, Zinvol ouder worden. Tijdschrift voor Geneeskunde, 49(23): 1711-18.
Berreman, G.D. 1962. Behind many masks: ethnography and impression management in a Himalayan village. Ithaca: Society for Applied Anthropology.
Fry, C. (Ed.) 1980. Aging in culture and society: comparative viewpoints and strategies. New York: Praeger.
Lindholm, C. 1982. Generosity and jealousy: the Swat Pukhtun of Northern Pakistan. New York: Columbia University Press.
Pool, R. 1994. Dialogue and the interpretation of illness: conversations in a Cameroon Village. Oxford: Berg Publishers.
Rabinow, P. 1977. Reflections on fieldwork in Morocco. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Rosenmayr, L. 1988. Die Schniire vom Himmel. Uber Alte und Ahnen bei den Bambara in der Region von Segou. Psychosozial Heft, 34: 85-111.
Sagner, A. 1999. Reflections on the construction and study of elderliness. Editorial. Southern African Journal of Gerontology, 8(2): 1-6,
Van der Geest, S. 1997, Between respect and reciprocity: managing old age in rural Ghana. Southern African Journal of Gerontology, 6(2): 20-25.
Wax, R.H. 1971. Doing fieldwork: warnings and advice. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.