Joel Savishinsky

Dana Professor Emeritus, Anthropology
Speciality: Cultural Anthropology, Aging and Gerontology


I am a cultural anthropologist and gerontologist 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 with honors 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, which was the capital of the Lydian Empire. I then went on to do doctoral and follow-up fieldwork (1967, 1968, 1971) in the Canadian Arctic, living in a First Nations Native American community in the Northwest Territories where people were still hunting, fishing, trapping and traveling by dogsled as part of their basic subsistence patterns. I described their challenging lives and remarkable adaptive skills in a book, THE TRAIL OF THE HARE: ENVIRONMENT AND STRESS IN A SUB-ARCTIC COMMUNITY (1st edition, 1974; 2nd, revised edition, 1994).

I first taught at Adelphi University for four years, and then joined the Ithaca College faculty in 1973, where I continued to expand and diversify my research and teaching interests. My courses came to include offerings on culture and personality, family and kinship, research methods, human-animal relations, contemporary American society, and the human experience of 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).

During the 1970s and 1980s, I served as co-editor of the journal Ethnic Groups and worked as a volunteer and board member at Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service. At various times from the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s, I held the position of chairperson of Ithaca College’s Department of Anthropology for a total of 13 years, and in 1997 was given an endowed chair as the College’s Charles A. Dana Professor in the Social Sciences, a position I help until my retirement.

Stimulated in part by my experiences with community elders in the Arctic and the Caribbean, in the 1980s I became involved in studying the problems and possibilities facing older people in different cultural settings. Serving as one of the early core faculty in Ithaca College’s Gerontology Program, I carried out work as an applied anthropologist in Great Britain (1987-1988), during which I was a visiting faculty member at the Polytechnic of North London: I helped human service agencies in a working-class area of North London assess the needs of caregivers and families responsible for frail elders living in their own homes. The results of our efforts appeared in several articles and 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 re-focused our efforts to examine 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, reflections and insights of these people in a book, BREAKING THE WATCH: THE MEANINGS OF RETIREMENT IN AMERICA, a volume which again 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, conducted with support from the National Endowment for the Humanities. While in India, I lectured at a number of colleges in the states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. My interest in India and Asian cultures was 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 1997, I was honored to be named the Charles A. Dana Professor in the Social Sciences at Ithaca College. With the advent of the new millennium, my students and I took on yet another project, examining how older people view the nature of ethical issues. Specifically, we 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. The results of our work have been published in CONTEMPORARY GERONTOLOGY, THE JOURNAL OF CROSS-CULTURAL GERONTOLOGY, ANTHROPOLOGY AND AGING QUARTERLY, THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF AGING AND HUMAN DEVELOPMENT, and THE JOURNAL OF INTERGENERATIONAL RELATIONSHIPS. I have continued to explore these ethical and developmental questions -- which bridge anthropology, gerontology, and moral philosophy -- in my own retirement.

Since retiring from full-time teaching at Ithaca College in 2008, I have taught on two more voyages of the Semester at Sea program: a global journey in 2010 and one around the Mediterranean basin in 2012. I also worked for five years (2009-2014) at an enhanced assisted living facility, providing cultural enrichment programs for residents, and liaison work with their families. In 2015, I moved to Seattle, Washington to help raise my five grandchildren. In recent years, it has been gratifying to remain in touch with and trade ideas, visits and viewpoints with my former students, a few of whom are now grandparents themselves. I have remained active in political campaigns, environmental organizations, and the fight against hunger while working at a community food bank at Seattle’s El Centro de La Raza. My expressive life has evolved in new directions, and I have been writing, publishing, and giving readings of my poetry, short stories, and creative nonfiction. Some of this work has appeared in AMERICAN JOURNAL OF POETRY, ATLANTA REVIEW, BEYOND WORDS, BLOOD AND THUNDER, CAESURA, CALIFORNIA QUARTERLY, THE DECADENT REVIEW, THE EXAMINED LIFE, METAFORE, THE NEW YORK TIMES, POETRY QUARTERLY, TOHO JOURNAL and WINDFALL.

My life and career have borne out what anthropology seemed to promise me when I was a young adult in college, namely, a chance to meet and live with people in diverse settings; and opportunities to explore, work on, write and advocate about a variety of critical human issues, ranging from survival and family life to aging, urban development, social justice, expressive culture, and morality. It has been especially gratifying that, in so much of this, I was able to engage students in the United States, Canada, the Bahamas, England, India and international programs in collaborative roles as researchers, writers, thinkers, and activists, addressing some of the pressing social problems of our times. I can be reached at: and