To what degree does culture influence our concepts of age and aging? In our own culture, chronology is crucial to perceptions of the aging process. Our expectations for a twenty-year-old, for example, are different from those we have for a sixty-year-old. So entrenched are our ideas about aging that the notion of measuring age in ways other than chronology may be startling.
In this unique ethnographical study of the people of the Kel Ewey confederation of Tuareg, Rasmussen explores age and aging in an African culture. A seminomadic community in northern Niger, the Tuareg understand aging in a way that is distinctly nonlinear—a dimension of life they measure outside of a chronological time frame. Instead, rituals related to marriage, childbirth, and death mark the process of aging. In this way the life course of an individual is more important to the notion of age than the literal age. A sense of private power and transformation of self over time are thus achieved through ritual.
Rasmussen draws on field experience conducted between 1974 and 1995. The longevity of her ethnological study provided the opportunity for extended interaction with local residents, who eventually took an active role in studying the researcher. She explores the mutual exchange of knowledge about aging and life course—an interaction that itself sheds light on the need to deconstruct standard age-related categories for studying other cultures.