Ethnography, Transportation and Older People

With ethnography so in vogue nowadays there is barely a domain, particularly one where commercial opportunity might present itself, that does not have an ‘ethnographic’ study conducted on it.

When my team at Intel started to conduct some work examining mobility and transportation for older people I assumed that there must be some major study somewhere that examines, qualitatively or ethnographically, the mobility of older people. It turned out, initially at least, that this is not the case. Yes, there have been some major studies in a European context (I’m thinking particularly of MOBILATE) but this is stronger on the quantitative front than empathetically communicating the value and impact of transport (or lack of it) on older people’s lives. There is of course a good deal of work on transportation and mobility for older people – from within variety of academic domains; psychology, geriatrics, gerontology, transportation studies – but nothing we could find that unpicked these issues ethnographically.

Conducting research in a vacuum like this has its advantages of course. We had a blank canvas. We read the literature but designed our ethnographic research without the dubious benefit of conventions to follow. The report Connections: Mobility and Quality of Life for Older People in Rural Ireland is now complete and read to distribute, though I’m not allowed to link to it and you need to email me at “simon dot w dot roberts at Intel dot com” if you want a copy.

The report is based on 5 weeks of ethnographic research – a week in each of five projects that are funded by the Irish government through the Rural Transport Programme. We purposely focused the research on the entire transport system – drivers, project managers, older people, service providers and others whose lives or livelihoods are touched by these transport programmes.

In the month or two since we completed the research and drafted the report we have, finally, uncovered previous ethnographic research. It was conducted by Judith Okely (an anthropologist most famous for her work on Traveller Gypsies and a lecturer from my days at Edinburgh University). It was funded by the ESRC in 1989 when Judith was at the University of Essex, the research outline was described by the authors as follows:

The project aimed to make both substantive and methodological contributions to the Transport Initiative. A specific category of persons, the elderly, many of whom are considered to be a significant proportion of the transport poor, was selected in a rural context. They were not to be studied in isolation, but both within the circumstances of their daily lives and in the light of transport planning and practice. The Initiative called for new approaches from a range of social science disciplines. Hitherto, the perspective of social anthropology, with its fundamental dependence on the ethnographic method, has not been developed in transport research. The Initiatives call for research into the micro social dimension would be inadequately met by a simple reduction in the size of questionnaire samples. Crucial aspects would be excluded. This project aimed to use an holistic approach allowing key themes to develop, and emerge. Participant observation both among the elderly and the planners and transport operators would give space for the informants to volunteer their own priorities. The selection of the rural elderly and related policy making process and practice would serve as a case study for a specific methodology with proven potential for other types of consumers, providers and local contexts (e.g. urban transport).

I’ve made an application to the ESRC for this report, which they are providing under a Freedom of Information request (!), but I have yet to receive it.

UPDATE from ESRC: "I regret to inform you that I have been unable to locate the information you have asked for.  Therefore I can neither confirm nor deny that we hold the information; this however should not be taken as conclusive evidence that the information you requested exists or does not exist"

The work appears to provide a counterpoint to work that Judith had done on the older people and Third Age movements in rural northern France. It appears to take a systemic approach to rural transport initiatives, as did our research – since only through thinking through the total social and economic system in which such provision is made can one hope to develop innovative service concepts.

I cannot, for obvious reasons, divulge much of what we are doing with the research internally. However, in a series of future pieces on this blog I will try to outline some findings and their impact on our efforts to improve independence and autonomy for older people, in rural and urban settings.