The Ethnography of Ethnic Minority Families and Aging: Familism and Beyond

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Book Chapter

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In lieu of an abstract, here is the chapter's first paragraph:

Scholarship on ethnic minority families and aging has wrestled implicitly or explicitly with the understanding of a theoretical dichotomy not uncommon in the field of sociology as a whole: the role that culture plays as either an epiphenomenon and/or as an integral element of the social structure. The literature has exposed a series of social and cultural factors that shape the experiences of aging and access to services for older minority elders. Is older African American and Hispanic families’ lower use of nursing homes the result of a cultural preference or of institutional barriers? Are multigenerational living arrangements an expression of an ethnic identity or is this a survival strategy for minority families? These are some of the issues I will be discussing in this chapter. Interpretations of that basic structural versus cultural duality may derive from broader ideological perspectives, such as conservative and progressive leanings, but they may also refl ect a superfi cial framing of the concept of culture in scholarly analyses of ethnic minority families. In his study of the Puerto Rican “underclass,” La Vida, Oscar Lewis articulated the basic tenet of the culture of poverty hypothesis, often employed by conservative pundits: that poor ethnic communities develop a way of life and subculture that is at odds with the mainstream American values of competitive individualism and ultimately reproduces their disadvantageous socioeconomic position (Lewis, 1966). Absent from this perspective, however, are the structural barriers commonly faced by minority individuals and the role that ethnic culture has always played in helping minority and immigrant families adapt to the challenges of living on the margins of American society. When examining differences in the use of elder services by minority elders it is often stated that this is the result of a cultural preference among many ethnic groups for “taking care of their own,” but many studies are also pointing to factors such as fear of discrimination and quality of formal services as infl uencing families’ caregiving decisions

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