Unsettling Age: Constructions of Later Life and Support in US Resettlement Bureaucracy

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Refugees gain access to benefits and services in the United States through the bureaucratic birthdates recorded in the documents they carry when they first enter the country. Examining how and why chronometric age based on these documents was essential to resettlement was the starting point for my dissertation, which explores and unsettles the connection between concepts of age and aging, bureaucratic parameters, and resources in US resettlement and related social service bureaucracy. To examine the unexpected consequences of the enrollment of age in the resettlement process, I conducted almost two years of participant-observation at a program for refugee “seniors” (60+) in Chicago, Illinois and interviewed refugee participants and relevant staff. The findings of my study underline the value of anthropological research in making visible the processes of inequality that are connected to age and yet taken for granted in human services bureaucracies. By tracing how the age documents refugees receive from overseas bureaucratic contexts gain new meanings within the US welfare system, I highlight the arbitrariness and inequality of chronometric age as a basis of deservingness for social assistance. In this thesis, I use an interdisciplinary approach synthesizing critical gerontology and anthropology scholarship to bring attention to political-economic as well as reflexive and intersubjective aspects of what I refer to as aged citizenship. I use this term to highlight the importance of the role that constructions of age play in the organization of human services bureaucracies and to bring attention to age and aging as a significant aspect of the governmentality of citizenship. This focus builds on previous scholarship examining refugee resettlement as a means of understanding the hierarchies of US citizenship. I argue that the “welfare or work” (Mirza 2012) approach as well as the narrow “self-sufficiency” focus of US refugee resettlement policies understood in terms of productive citizenship (Shrestha 2011; Ong 2003; Erickson 2010) has, in fact, relied upon the use of age to categorize some refugees as “non-employable.” Chronometric age and bureaucratic constructions of later life guide access to mainstream resources enabling what I refer to as the patchworked structure of US resettlement programs. Through age, resettlement caseworkers repurpose programs for refugee newcomers and, in this way, create the appearance of resettlement as a “system.” Their efforts make visible the contingencies and contradictions of making refugees “self-sufficient” through a shifting cast of mainstream programs vulnerable to funding changes. Bureaucratic processes rely on an implicit construction of the bureaucratically aged, independent or autonomous individual. In fact, refugees become capable of navigating their bureaucratic lives by relying upon others to help them. Thus, the enrollment of age reinforces the authority and particular organization of resettlement that equates integration with bureaucratic integration and removes from view the resultant insufficiencies and interdependencies. To address such issues, I suggest an attention to how age is embedded in the interaction between family and state resources and relationships. My findings point to the value of anthropology in advancing understandings of age and aging situated in multiple moving parts and dimensions, including how states use life course institutions to manage relationships of citizens to the market. Stripped of contextual and relational aspects, chronometric age enables new meanings enrolled in political-economic processes to be attributed to refugees. Seen as neither “employable” nor sufficiently “aged,” refugees under 65 fell into a gap created by the norms of “work society” (Kohli 1991:277) and the use of age as a means of regulating labor (Quadagno 1988:6; Walker 2006:65). Chronometric age is a useful form of knowledge for bureaucracies. It creates a sense of objectivity and similarity between people of the same chronometric age while obscuring key structural inequalities that contribute to different experiences and conditions of aging. Therefore, the concepts and rationalities by which refugees become legible in bureaucratic contexts make them subject to the governing and political-economic processes of aged citizenship. Rather than applying preconceived identities and norms to refugees, resettlement programs should apply a relational and contextual approach to age and aging that takes into account the practical and political aspects that affect processes of rebuilding a life with dignity

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  • 02/13/2018
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