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Wisdom in later life: ethnographic approaches


The concept of wisdom, popularly associated with the idea of old age, was neglected during the 20th century. It has recently revived as a matter of academic concern, but remains imperfectly understood. This article therefore begins to explore both the concept of wisdom and some forms we might expect wise behaviour to take. It emphasises the contemporary relevance of historical approaches through an examination of Hebrew and Greek writing on wisdom. Recent contributions from psychology develop aspects of these traditions; but studying wisdom ethnographically also substantially expands our understanding of what wisdom is. An ethnographic interview from Austria exemplifies social as well as psychological aspects of wisdom, showing that part of the meaning of wisdom resides in its effects on a social setting. Aspects of discourse in rural Ireland, when interpreted in the light of maxim-related wisdom traditions, extend this claim, showing more about how wise interventions activate wisdom in the society surrounding them. Other ethnographic cases also develop this notion of wisdom as based on social interaction, by exploring its effects. If we face the methodological challenges entailed in tracing wisdom ethnographically, we enhance our understanding of the concept itself and stress the fruitfulness of the idea of wisdom as an attainment of the lifecourse.

Corresponding author
Department of Political Science and Sociology, National University of Ireland, Galway, Ireland. e-mail:
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Ageing & Society
  • ISSN: 0144-686X
  • EISSN: 1469-1779
  • URL: /core/journals/ageing-and-society
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