Anthropology Students Examine Technology Aimed at Older Adults 

This past summer, Assistant Professor of Anthropology Anna Corwin and Professor and Chair of the Anthropology Department Dana Herrera supervised a resilient group of students during a four-week, online research internship on Aging and Technology. Students took a business anthropology approach to examine how technology is marketed to the aging population. Participants worked in teams then came together to produce a white paper entitled “Aging and Technology: A Business Anthropology Perspective.”

“Normally, in the spring, there are a lot of field schools available for anthropologists all over the world,” said Corwin. “We fund students every year to go to these field schools. But because of COVID, they couldn’t follow through with plans. We ran the micro internships to provide our students with another opportunity.”

The professors were delighted to see that Anthropology majors and minors jumped at the chance. “I was particularly impressed with how quickly the students pivoted to collaboratively working online,” said Herrera. “Despite being in diverse geographic locations, they came together and took ownership of the project. At home or in the classroom, our students are adaptable, hardworking, and have the skills to produce significant work virtually and in person.”

Students Madeline Bird ’21, Nikki Phan ’21, Sydney Meyer ’20, and Celina Chand ’21 synthesized large amounts of data, analyzed it through an anthropological lens, and provided actionable insights for the aging and technology sector regarding what technologies are currently marketed to seniors, and how they might be improved. Two recent alums, Olivia Brophy ’19 and Aidan Muñoz-Christian ’19 served as research assistants, helping the students throughout the term.

In their final paper, the students reported, “Technology marketed to and for older adults often does not meet the expectations of older adults. Older adults want to see themselves reflected in the marketing and advertising of technology. They want to be accurately represented.” They also noted that new technologies emphasize independence and wellness for older adults, allowing them to “retain their autonomy and more efficiently take care of themselves. Technologies focus on maintaining health and preventing any negative symptoms of chronic conditions.” New technologies focus on a range of valuable information, from mobility and transportation, to finance and even dating sites. But problems still remain.

“Oftentimes, companies that produce technologies for older adults market to the consumers around the older adults, such as family members or children, because of the stereotypes surrounding aging,” said senior Madeline Bird. “This creates a gap where companies don’t know exactly what the older adult wants, but instead [use] what they think the older adults need. We, as anthropologists, are working to shut down stereotypes about aging and fill the gaps between producer and consumer.”

“I learned about the many stereotypes about aging and how detrimental they can be,” Bird continues. “I was surprised to find yet another way that anthropology is such an important and interesting social science.”

The internship allowed Anthropology major Nikki Phan to combine several of her passions. “My favorite part of this internship was taking our research and formatting it into an organized and cohesive white paper,” said Phan. “Because I am extremely passionate about art and graphic design, I thought this part of the process was a great way to integrate my interests with Anthropology. It emphasized the importance of not only doing the research but also presenting the information in a way that is accessible to a large demographic with varying knowledge of anthropological concepts.” 

The students learned how using the lens of Anthropology can be of value, and how the subject might impact their futures. “I think as an Anthropology major who hasn't experienced the world outside of academics, I often forget the versatility of Anthropology and how important it is to our ever-changing world,” said Bird. “This internship reminded me of the many things I am able to do with my Anthropology degree. I am excited to get out into the world and continue to do work as an anthropologist.”

Students met with their professor-advisors on Zoom twice a week. “Most of this internship was independently motivated,” said Bird. “We worked in three teams of two, but each team of two worked together in the long run. I think this aspect of the internship taught me the importance of self-motivation and group work. However, due to Zoom, we were fortunately able to meet with different anthropologists that work in the field and make some really neat connections. It was great to get to learn about on the job experiences from anthropologists who do this work daily.” 

The professors also remarked on the success of the internship program, which both supervised without pay. “As someone who teaches at a small school and who loves the community…I was surprised at how we were able to create a community and do great research even though we were on Zoom,” said Corwin.

“Unlike in the classroom, where a professor would be teaching, the students were the ones doing the research and answering the questions,” Corwin added.

For more information on the Anthropology major and minor, please click here.