Joel Savishinsky

Joel Savishinsky

Emeritus Dana Professor, Department of Anthropology
Faculty, School of Humanities and Sciences

Specialty:Cultural Anthropology, Aging and Gerontology


  I am a cultural anthropologist with strong interests in aging, environmental issues, intergenerational relations, and human development. When I first discovered anthropology as an undergraduate, I sensed that it would allow me to study any aspect of the human experience, in any part of the world, and legitimately call it “anthropology.” My career has borne out that hope and promise. After taking an undergraduate degree at the City College of New York (1964), I went on to get a doctorate in anthropology from Cornell University (1970). While a graduate student, I served as the physical anthropologist on the Harvard-Cornell Archaeological Expedition to Sardis, Turkey in 1966: I was responsible for identifying and analyzing human and animal bones at this classical site. I then went on to do fieldwork (1967, 1968, 1971) in the Canadian Arctic, living in a Native American community in the Northwest Territories where people were still hunting, fishing, trapping and travelling by dogsled as part of their basic subsistence patterns. I described their challenging and remarkable lives in a book, THE TRAIL OF THE HARE: ENVIRONMENT AND STRESS IN A SUB-ARCTIC COMMUNITY (1st edition, 1974; 2nd, revised edition, 1994).

  Since joining the Ithaca College faculty in 1973, I have continued to expand and diversify my research and teaching, and moved on to other areas of interest. My teaching has included courses in culture and personality, family and kinship, research methods, human-animal relations, contemporary American society, and aging in global perspective. In the 1970s, I helped run an ethnographic field school on Cat Island in the Bahamas, where my students and I studied topics as varied as slash-and-burn farming, “bush medicine,” boat-building, gender roles, and spiritual life. A volume of our essays was published as STRANGERS NO MORE: ANTHROPOLOGICAL STUDIES OF CAT ISLAND, THE BAHAMAS (1978). In the 1980s, I became very interested in the problems facing older people, and have been studying these in different cultural settings since then. I carried out work as an applied anthropologist in Great Britain (1987-1988), helping human service agencies in London assess the needs of caregivers and families responsible for frail elders living in their own homes. The results of our efforts was a book, DEMENTIA SUFFERERS AND THEIR CARERS IN A LONDON BOROUGH (1991). That same year I edited and co-authored  a volume on DEVIANCE: ANTHROPOLOGICAL PERSPECTIVES. With the collaboration of my Ithaca College students, I also did intensive research during the 1980s and early 1990s on nursing homes in upstate New York, exploring what it was like to live, work and volunteer in such facilities. As part of this project, we examined the role of pet therapy in helping to humanize the quality of life in geriatric institutions. The book that resulted from that project, THE ENDS OF TIME: LIFE AND WORK IN A NURSING HOME, won the Gerontological Society of America’s ‘book of the year prize’ in 1992.

  During the rest of the 1990s, my student and I focused on the experience of retirement as a ‘life passage’ in American society: we followed a group of older Americans as they approached and entered retirement, and coped with its challenges over the next five years. We presented the life stories and insights of these people in a book, BREAKING THE WATCH: THE MEANINGS OF RETIREMENT IN AMERICA, which also won the Gerontological Society of America’s book prize in 2001. That volume incorporated data from comparative research on later life that I had done in India during 1997, with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. My interest in India and Asian cultures has been stimulated by two periods as a faculty member with the Semester at Sea program, during which I was able to voyage to 12 different countries in 1994 and again in 2000. In the late 1990s, I was honored to be named the Charles A. Dana Professor in the Social Sciences at Ithaca College. Since that time, my students and I have examined how older people view the nature of ethical issues; specifically, we have studied how elders have dealt with moral dilemmas in their lives, and how they have incorporated the lessons they have learned from those experiences into their outlook on the aging process. I have continued to work on this project, which bridges anthropology, gerontology, and moral philosophy, in my own retirement.

  My career has borne out what anthropology seemed to promise me when I was in college, namely, a chance to meet and live with people in diverse settings; and opportunities to explore and work on a variety of critical human issues, ranging from survival and family life to aging and morality. It has been especially gratifying that, in so much of this, I have been able to engage my Ithaca College students in a collaborative role as researchers, thinkers, and activists, addressing some of the pressing social problems of our times.

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