Joel Savishinsky

Dana Professor Emeritus, Anthropology
Speciality: 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
(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
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.