Giddens’ sequestration of experience
In a previous post, I discussed Philippe Ariès’ theory on the way in which death has become ‘denied’ or hidden in contemporary Anglo-American society. The sociologist Anthony Giddens (1991) expanded on this theme in arguing that in ‘modern’ times, aspects of human experience can be divided into ‘normal’ and ‘non-normal’ experiences. ‘Non-normal’ experiences are those that are considered outside of typical social life, such as illness, death, or criminality. Because they differ from the norm, these experiences become concealed from social life through the sequestration of ill, dying, or criminal individuals into specially designed institutions, such as hospitals and prisons. By hiding and sequestering non-normal experiences, it becomes possible to regulate ill, dying, or criminal individuals through means of control and surveillance. By extension, it also gives society at large the impression that these non-normal aspects of life are under control. However, Giddens warns that there are consequences to the systematic obfuscation of experiences that are part of the human experience; as a society, when we fail to directly engage with the more existential issues that define human existence, we become enmeshed in “moral dilemmas;” effectively repressing “a cluster of basic moral and existential components of human life” (Giddens 1991:169; stress in original). What happens, then, when ‘normal’ social life comes into contact with experiences that are sequestered? Giddens describes these “frontiers of sequestered experience” as “battlegrounds, sometimes of a directly social character” (Giddens 1991:168). In order to assess Giddens’ theory, I examine a situation in which ‘normal’ society reacts to the encroachment of sequestered ‘non-normal’ human experience.
Fear and loathing in Minnesota
In May 2010, the New York Times’ blog The New Old Age reported on a controversy that erupted in Woodbury, Minnesota associated with development plans to convert a vacant strip mall into an assisted living facility that would specialize in care for individuals with dementia (Span 2010). Some residents of a nearby residential subdivision objected to the plans; among concerns raised, a pattern emerged in which residents expressed their fears that the facility’s residents would present a danger to children in the community, especially because of the planned facility’s proximity to a nearby primary school (Span 2010). I reviewed the 131 comments posted by readers of the original Star Tribune article and the large majority of them condemn the community for not welcoming the facility and the elderly patients; however, some residents continue to be uncomfortable with the plans (see Tevlin 2010). I would argue that this particular issue has become one of Giddens’ “battlegrounds,” in which ‘normal’ society is forced to engage in the moral dilemmas for which it may be ill prepared because of the regularized and institutionalized sequestration of ‘non-normal’ experiences.
This example is of course just one and does not span the many instances in which facilities for the ill and dying are welcomed in communities; indeed, many of the readers who posted comments on the articles referred to these instances as positive models for intergenerational integration. Yet, it is also likely that Woodbury is a relatively typical mid-western community and that the views espoused by opponents to the institution would be shared by other communities; rather than treat the situation as anomalous, it provides a starting point for discussing the moral dilemmas associated with the sequestration of experience. Furthermore, these kinds of moral dilemmas will likely become even more problematic as baby boomers deal with old age. Lynn (2004) describes the increasing lifespan of Americans today coupled with end-of-life experiences that consist of a number of illnesses and disabilities. Many of us will spend part of our old age in care facilities, such as hospitals or nursing homes. These demographic and epidemiological changes have effectively reordered the ‘norm’ for many Americans, situating ‘non-normal’ experiences of illness and disability within the experiences of baby boomers about to reach old age and their children. For these reasons, it would seem that US society urgently needs to grapple with the moral dilemma of old age and dying. Is it realistic to continue to conceal the elderly and ill out of the public eye?
Room for hope?
Fortunately, there seems to be some attempts to try to incorporate the ‘non-normal’ experience of the elderly into ‘normal’ social life through the development of innovative intergenerational programs that bring children and the elderly together in institutional settings, such as school programs and shared daycares. In this way, perhaps through developing new values, successive generations will be encouraged to actively face the moral dilemmas that emerge from the sequestration of experience, transforming battlegrounds, such as that in Woodbury, into opportunities for learning from and understanding all aspects of the human experience.
Giddens, Anthony. 1991. The sequestration of experience. In Modernity and Self- Identity. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
Lynn, Joanne. 2004. Sick to Death and Not Going to Take It Anymore! Reforming Health Care for the Last Years of Life. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Span, Paula. 2010. A Danger to the Community? (New York, NY: New York Times, May 12), http://newoldage.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/05/12/a-danger-to-the-community/, accessed October 14, 2010.
Tevlin, Jon. 2010. Troublesome undercurrent wells up in Woodbury. (Minneapolis, MN: Star Tribune, April 26), http://www.startribune.com/local/east/92145794.html?elr=KArksUUUoDEy3LGDiO7aiU, accessed October 14, 2010.