Ageing and fiction


Philip Tew, Brunel University


  • Nick Hubble, Brunel University

  • Jago Morrison, Brunel University

Partners and collaborators

  • The Third Age Trust

  • Demos

  • The Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex


Philip Tew

Aims and objectives

The primary aims of ‘Fiction and the Cultural Mediation of Ageing’ were to understand both how representations of ageing circulate in culture and society (impacting in complex ways upon social agency and policy) and how elective readership facilitates purposeful symbolic interaction with these representations, producing qualitative data through analysis of reader group diaries.

The project aimed to:

  1. Investigate the complex processes of cultural exchange and social narrative involved in understanding the experience of ageing within the contemporary period.

    Research concentrated on the field of fiction and its part in narratives of identity, agency and social norms. The investigators analysed the changing cultural contours of ageing in contemporary Britain variously, including by exploring (i) changing fictional representations of ageing during the post-war period, (ii) the role of representation in reflecting and shaping social and personal attitudes towards ageing amongst older people, and society more generally, and, (iii) the changing social and ideological understanding of ageing, as revealed by a longitudinal qualitative social survey undertaken by Mass Observation, and the specific attitudes of readers and writers of fiction in reading groups as co-researchers.

  2. Investigate elective readership as a form of social agency.

    A wide range of qualitative data was collected from authors, readers and participants in the Mass-observation life-writing project. In particular, reading diaries were kept by members of the reading groups which were formed in association with the Third Age Trust. These diaries provided direct evidence concerning how the practices and strategies of active reading process representations of ageing, and detail the participant’s views of social contexts in which ageing is configured.

    The critical discussion within these reading groups, led by moderators and involving on occasions participant observation from the three investigators and a Demos researcher, enabled the same practices and strategies to be applied to the representations that implicitly underlie social policy issues concerning ageing and the elderly.

The three key objectives of the project were

  1. to give voice to older people and produce an adaptable framework for user-group activity.

    By bringing together reading group members with writers and policy-makers in a series of public events, we ensured that older people were heard. We illustrated how a model of active readership can restore symbolic capital to the elderly and directly benefit society in general: a virtuous circle which could be repeated in many locations.

  2. to make the insights revealed by this study directly available to, and readily usable by, policy-makers at all levels of British society. Collaboration with the think tank Demos was central to this objective, guaranteeing high-profile presentation and dissemination of the research in the form of a substantial policy report that was co-written by a Demos researcher and the project investigators.

  3. to create a lasting academic legacy for both the project itself and for this kind of social research within the Humanities. The findings and analytical models established by the project were disseminated through a major international conference and a path-breaking critical monograph written by the three investigators.

    It attempted to demonstrate that the rich inheritance of critical approaches possessed by the humanities integrated with those drawn from the social sciences can be expanded beyond traditional humanities interests to meet the complex social needs of 21st century Britain.


Research methods

Reader study

In collaboration with the Third Age Trust, seven volunteer reading groups were set up under the jurisdiction of the Greater London Forum of University of the Third Age (U3A) districts. The U3A network provided active readers, across the retired age range, experienced in self-organised informal learning.

Group coordinators were recruited through existing U3A channels and acted as the principle point of contact between group members and the investigators. The groups were supplied with a series of post-war and contemporary texts (such as David Lodge’s Deaf Sentence and Barbara Pym’s Quartet in Autumn). Their discussions, guided by the coordinator, treated fictional representations as a stimulus to wider debate.

Over the course of the study, discussions ranged across many areas of policy concern, such as social isolation, dignity, disability and dependency. Group members maintained anonymous reading diaries throughout exploring both their encounters with texts and the group discussions engendered by them. These were collected at intervals and complemented with semi-structured interviews.

Group members were asked to consider themselves as co-researchers within the project and be invited to participate in events and the project conference, including live dialogue with authors.

Social attitudes study

This component of the project comprised of both archival research and the commissioning of a new directive in autumn 2009 to the MO panel concerning books, book groups and representations of ageing (51% of respondents to the spring 2007 directive were over 60).

In keeping with successful MO practice, the directive was framed broadly to elicit a wide variety of discursive and critical reflections. Analysis of the resultant material not only complemented the reader study but was further comparable with the responses to earlier directives from the contemporary MO project (1981 to the present), enabling a longitudinal study of social attitudes to ageing and their relationship with cultural representations of ageing.

This longitudinal research drew on the replies to the questions concerning ageing issued first as part of the winter 1992 directive and then repeated again, in almost identical format, in autumn 2006. This material was particularly useful for showing generational shifts in the dating of the key changes of life and the understanding of what being old means to particular individuals.

Initial analysis of this data and some of the material written in response to directives concerning issues of reading, writing and literacy practices in 1983, 1991, 1993 and 2003, informed the drafting of the autumn 2009 directive. Subsequent detailed analysis of all this material and the incoming directive replies played a crucial role in mapping the complex process of socio-cultural interaction that has shaped the experience of ageing within the post-war period.

Author study

Authors were addressed as active cultural and social agents operating in a field of cultural capital through a series of semi-structured interviews. Not only was the focus to consider ageing as both a fictional engagement, and as part of their professional and life experiences, but the selected writers were encouraged to consider their role as public intellectuals in debates wider than the literary.

Given their potentially significant role as producers and social agents, such authors are recognised both formally and informally as contributors to the literary zeitgeist and, in a broader sense, to the symbolic economy within which frameworks of cultural value evolve.

The study drew upon these interviews together with associated literary-biographical and other data. It fed into an integrated analysis including findings from the reader and Mass Observation studies, which incorporated analysis of the role of authors in mediating and shaping the cultural field.


The project had the following outcomes:

  1. An adaptable framework for user-group activity.

    A model for user-group activity, drawing on the good practice of the Third Age Trust and Mass Observation, was established that can be replicated at different levels around the country as a form of participatory democracy and social engagement for all groups in society, but particularly for those across the retired age range.

  2. A policy report published by Demos.

    A Demos researcher was actively involved with the project from the beginning:

    • assisting with the training session for reader group coordinators

    • attending some of the reading group sessions

    • attending author-reader events

    • analysing research findings before co-authoring a Demos report with the project investigators.

This report took a narrative approach to the project’s research findings and aimed to show

    • how narrative tropes of older people drive policy

    • how older people respond (critically and imaginatively) to these tropes

    • how these stories provide a platform for rethinking policy.

According to the usual Demos procedure, emergent findings were publicly discussed with key stakeholders at a high-level policy seminar organised by Demos in central London in order to ensure maximum effectiveness for the final draft. Demos also organised a public launch and facilitated media coverage for the finished report. The report is available freely on the Demos website: comparable publications have achieved download rates in excess of 80,000.

  1. Academic publications and methodological legacy.

    The project investigators co-authored a socio-cultural study synthesizing the project’s innovative methodological mix. Offering a fresh model of engagement with post-war representations of ageing, this study drew on the author interviews, reader study and Mass Observation research to produce a path-breaking publication within literary studies and social sciences. The monograph was placed with a major academic publisher in order to secure a lasting academic legacy for the project and its research methods.

Events series

During the life of the project, the investigators ran a series of activities and events including author participation and an academic network seminar series, culminating in a major two-day conference, aimed at engaging participants, stakeholders and user groups.

Policy implications

‘Fiction and the Cultural Mediation of Ageing’ employed an innovative methodological bricolage, drawing on a range of research techniques from both the Humanities and Social Sciences.

In policy terms, these elements were brought together in an integrated analysis, tightly targeted at the policy community through a close collaboration with the think tank Demos.

Key outcomes from this collaboration included a policy report which is available freely through the Demos website, and the hosting of a high level policy seminar to which key interest groups, stakeholders and media were invited.

Key policy and/or practice implications of the research

The project will gave voice to older people, offered recommendations and made insights directly available to stakeholders and policy makers and developed an innovative model for social research in the Humanities.

The key means through which this was achieved were by

  • restoring symbolic capital to older people and producing an adaptable framework for user-group activity

  • providing evidence of the complex processes of cultural exchange and social narrative involved in understanding the experience of ageing in the post-war period

  • providing evidence of the ways in which social attitudes towards ageing amongst older people themselves have changed during the post-war period

  • providing evidence of how narrative tropes of older people may potentially drive policy and demonstrate how they certainly shape cultural norms

  • interrogating and radicalising such cultural norms

  • providing evidence of how older people respond (critically and imaginatively) to these key tropes in a context beyond literary appreciation

  • offering recommendations of how such groups and suggesting how an understanding of such stories of ageing can potentially provide a platform for rethinking policy

  • running events and producing publications that ensure a lasting academic legacy for both the project and thereby encouraging similar methodologically innovative social research within the humanities

  • offering potentially an innovative model for the in-depth analysis of subject’s opinions and belief systems in a culture where people are increasingly more guarded about voicing any such values

  • encouraging key aspects of participant democracy.

Key non-academic user groups that were targeted

User groups that were targeted included:

  • Older people generally

  • The Third Age Trust / U3A (nationally)

  • The Centre for Policy on Ageing (CPA)

  • Age Concern and Help the Aged

  • CAADE Employers Forum on Age Independent Age National Pensioners Convention (NPC)

  • Policy Research Institute on Ageing and Ethnicity (PRIAE)

  • The Age and Employment Network (TAEN)

  • All Party Parliamentary Group on Ageing and Older People


Assistance that was needed from the NDA programme in this targeting:

  • Aid in dissemination of findings through the NDA family’s extensive network of stakeholder contacts (and additionally help in the form of suggestions of further appropriate non-academic user groups that might be targeted).

  • Press releases