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"Ageing and Empowerment. Between Resources and Vulnerabilities": REIACTIS 2016 conference

The 5th international conference of the International Network on Age, Citizenship and Socio-Economic Integration (REIACTIS) intends to explore the dynamics of resources and vulnerabilities from the perspective that older people can maintain or acquire agency throughout their life trajectories. The event will take place from February 10 to 12, 2016 at the University of Lausanne. It is organised by the University of Applied Sciences and Arts - Westen Switzerland (HES-SO) and the NCCR LIVES. Deadline for the submission of contributions is April 30, 2015.

Participants will examine and question the pertinence of concepts most frequently used to portray and analyse processes at work during the life course. This includes such concepts as integration, exclusion, socialization, déprise or “selective letting go” and empowerment whether they be used in the context of an examination of the public sphere (employment and training opportunities, active use of democratic rights, social participation and involvement in the voluntary sector), the private domain (family, couple or neighbourhood relations, etc.) or the articulation between public and private areas (notably institutional life). In pursuing these debates the conference organizers encourage contributors to re-examine the definitions of resources and vulnerabilities as related to ageing. How should these be approached so as to respect individual decisions and principles of justice and solidarity in the various periods and contexts of the life course? How can differential dynamics of vulnerabilities and resources be explained? What part do gender, generation, social and/or “ethnic” background play in these dynamics? How do the economic context, public policies (e.g. access to health services and home care) or social representations (such as ageism) shape empowerment throughout the different stages of ageing? The multidirectional exchanges expected during this 5th international conference will enable participants to get a better grasp of the ways in which ageing can simultaneously bring about loss of power, forms of emancipations, vulnerabilities and new resources.

Set up as an exchange platform on issues such as citizen participation and social integration of ageing people, the REIACTIS network has been promoting pluralistic analyses focusing on cultural and anthropological traditions, social and health institutions as well personal experiences in a globalized environment. Since 2006 the network joins researchers, professionals and older citizens and fosters exchanges between various actors interested in dealing with issues of ageing whether this be as an object of study or as a field of intervention. In keeping with the international and multidisciplinary approach inherent to REIACTIS since its foundation, the 5th conference in Lausanne will provide an opportunity to open the debate on research and practices from a wide variety of national and regional contexts.

The originality of the 2016 conference lies in the presentation of papers which tackle the controversial question of age-related vulnerabilities by linking it at the micro-, meso- or macro-social level to such counterpoints as resources and empowerment. The aim is to view ageing populations in their diversity and ability to manage their own lives, remain socially, economically and politically integrated and build individual and/or collective resistance strategies. The conference will also offer an opportunity to identify and call into question the forms and conditions of emancipatory social innovation (through new modalities of information and communication as well as through the support offered to learning, training,  self-education and expression processes). Moreover, the conference will allow for an examination of the part played by national, regional or local social movements in influencing political decision-making. In a comparative perspective, we invite to look at the ways in which different economic contexts (growth in certain Asian and African countries and, conversely, economic crisis in a number of European countries) lead to the implementation of new public policies or the revision of existing ones which weaken and/or strengthen certain categories of older people. More specifically, issues examined will be structured along three main themes:

1) Empowerment viewed through the lens of social innovation and collective action

Older people’s agency is linked to the types of solidarity and integration they are able to mobilize (e.g. family solidarity, neighbourhood and community relationships or voluntary involvement) and the ability of individuals and social groups to make their voice heard and define their own needs through such different forms of collective action as social movements, citizen’s organizations, support groups or coalitions seeking to influence decision-making processes at various levels of administrative structures. Thus these types of solidarity and the various forms of collectives linked to age and ageing shed light not only on needs and expectations of older people but also on the resources that these ageing individuals and social groups use.

In a context of budgetary restrictions, changing economic models, family re-composition and growing numbers of age-related dependency, national and international authorities (EU, OECD, UN) currently call for social innovation to sustain the development of ageing policies. This theme will provide an opportunity to focus on new perceived needs or alternatively on failings revealed by collective action and exemplified by new types of solidarity at the individual level (combating isolation) or societal level (compensating for inadequate social service provision). This theme will also broach questions on the modes and limits of the innovation that these collectives demonstrate, for instance through new types of service organizations or through the ability to put new issues on the agenda. Indeed, practiced publicly or privately, such collectives demonstrate solidarities exhibiting many signs of (or protections against) vulnerabilities.

2) Public intervention and reconfigurations of older people’s citizenship

The ability of individuals to cope with ageing depends on the capacity of public policies and service professionals to implement programmes and measures that can adequately help sustain people through economic, social and political dynamics. National, regional and also local social policies and intervention programmes play a part in defining the contours of citizenship. Civil, political and social rights as well as access to these rights and the capacity to exercise them are determined and given concrete significance by these very policies and programmes. In Western countries public policies and social interventions seem to focus on a goal of active citizenship for older people, favouring the personalization of support, the autonomy of individuals and free choice of services. Here one may refer to new forms of social/health interventions focusing less on care than on support, to the development of technology that transforms the ways in which dependency is experienced or to the new forms of housing and of urban planning geared towards the social integration and the quality of life of older people. These policies may in turn create constraints, exclusions, inequalities or new vulnerabilities. Thus the competencies required to use, understand, know about or even find financing for various types of assistance, technological tools or service arrangements are socially available in highly unequal ways. Similarly, many of the reforms implemented in Europe and elsewhere during the recent economic crisis have direct implications for certain groups of elderly people (loss of rights to benefits, termination of assistance and support programmes, higher insecurity, etc.).

This theme opens the floor to questions that inquire about the ways in which various forms of public action and social intervention play a role in the redefinition of older people’s citizen participation. How and with what mechanism are maps of social exclusion and inclusion currently drawn in terms of social, employment and health policies linked to age? Public intervention and links to citizen participation may be examined through the instruments used (be they technical, architectural, institutional, etc.), the populations they target, the range of actors concerned (public, market-oriented, non-profit) or the modes of intervention they deploy. In a comparative approach, the role of new reference frameworks and the concepts associated with reforms such as New Public Management, the goal of efficiency or even the very terminology of empowerment may equally be analysed.

3) Adaptation and socialization in the ageing life course

In some configurations ageing can be associated with loss of self-determination as well as with decreases in social, economic and political power. How do (older) individuals deal with a world in constant evolution? Do shifts in orientation towards the family, self, economy and politics make certain ageing populations more fragile? How do older people prepare for grief and the transitions, crises and opportunities they face? This theme will focus on gaining a better understanding of the characteristics or the mechanisms that lead certain (older) individuals to live better than others through societal changes and/or changes in personal situations (in terms of health, economic resources, social relations, etc.). An analysis of these processes should help gain in-depth knowledge on age-related vulnerabilities and the means these require to get to terms with them. In a more general way this theme will provide an opportunity to reflect on the notion of socialization, specifically the dispositions and competences obtained along the life course that pertain to ageing. If all (older) individuals can be viewed by and large as the product of successive and/or simultaneous socialization experiences, and if social vulnerability is the result of a disjunction between socializing experiences and the contexts of actions, is it then still appropriate to speak of socialization processes in old age?

Proposals for communications

For the conference three types of contributions may be proposed:

  1. Oral communications: they will take place within sessions organized along the three themes presented above;
  2. Posters: they will be exhibited and presented during a special session;
  3. Symposiums (panel sessions): they will be proposed by authors and should focus on a specific issue identified as pertinent for the conference and its themes. These panel sessions should be comprised of three or four contributions by researchers from different countries or working on different national settings. Altogether communications should last 90 minutes. The format of these panel sessions is purposely left open, but session leaders will be encouraged to organize them in a way that will promote exchanges with the public. Panel session proposals should include the following: names and affiliations of panel leaders, symposium title, abstract, names, e-mail addresses and affiliations of proposed speakers, and issues on which contributions will focus.

Proposals for contributions, posters and symposiums may be submitted in French, English or Spanish.

Proposals of no more than 3000 characters in length should be submitted by April 30, 2015, with an indication, where appropriate, of the theme to which they are associated.

All proposals must be directly submitted through the Conference web site

The full texts of accepted communications must be sent to the organizers by November 30, 2015, so that they can be transmitted to the moderators.

Communications may be held in French, English or Spanish. However, the availability of simultaneous translation cannot be guaranteed for all sessions.


  • Deadline for submission of proposed contributions: April 30, 2015
  • Notification of acceptation/refusal of contribution proposals: July15, 2015
  • Deadline for the submission of the contributions: November 30, 2015.

Conference venue

University of Lausanne, Amphimax Building, Sorge, 1015 Lausanne

Organizing committee

Jean-François BICKEL, Michèle GUIGNARD, Valérie HUGENTOBLER, Rosita KORNFELD, Alexandre LAMBELET, Barbara LUCAS, Pascal MAEDER, Christian MAGGIORI, Dario SPINI, Daniel THOMAS, Jean-Philippe VIRIOT-DURANDAL, Peter VOLL.

Scientific committee

A scientific committee composed of internationally recognized experts will review proposals.

For a complete list of committee members, see: Reiactis2016_conseil_scientifique

Contact address for the 2016 REIACTIS Conference:

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Is active ageing an attainable ideal for the underprivileged?

In her doctoral thesis defended on 26 February 2015 within the National Centre of Competence in Research LIVES (NCCR LIVES) at the University of Geneva, Laure Kaeser deals with "the contemporary norms of ageing through the lens of a life course perspective", taking elderly economic migrants as case study. Following a fascinating investigation into the interplay between migrant trajectories and the host country’s retirement policy, she recommends taking into account the range of different forms of ageing and calls for democratising access to resources.

Senior citizens in Switzerland may also be migrants. This fact has not escaped the notice of the research team involved in the Vivre-Leben-Vivere (VLV; English: Living) study carried out by the Centre for the Interdisciplinary Study of Gerontology and Vulnerability (acronym CIGEV in French) at the University of Geneva. The NCCR LIVES is supporting the study, in which several doctoral students are involved.

Due to their age, background and socio-economic status, low-skilled foreign nationals aged over 65 are difficult to reach, still fairly unfamiliar to researchers and largely overlooked in social policy-making. For this reason, the VLV study collected data on 365 retired people in Basel and Geneva who were natives from Italy, Spain and Portugal – the three main countries of origin of former immigrant workers in sectors such as construction, manufacturing and cleaning. Laure Kaeser chose to base her work on this sample, drawn from a wider set of 3,600 respondents surveyed in the VLV project.

An ambivalent and normative concept

The young sociologist observes how gerontology on the one hand and the policies of the modern welfare state on the other play a part in helping to construct and promote the 'active ageing' model, based on the notion that older people enjoy a better quality of life and cost the state less if they remain empowered. However, she notes that this concept is ambivalent and has a normative aspect to it. She considers whether the idea of 'ageing well', conveyed by the image of 'active senior citizens', excludes people whose individual life course has not allowed them to amass the necessary resources. By encouraging older people to work longer, keep themselves physically and mentally fit, maintain their networks and make themselves useful, this discourse risks contributing to the further marginalisation of the most vulnerable and least integrated. And as a matter of fact, the data gathered by the VLV project clearly show that migrants are overrepresented among those at the bottom of the scale in terms of health, material resources and education.

By studying the data from the life course perspective Laure Kaeser has been able to link migratory, occupational, family and health trajectories and analyse their interplay with the institutional reality of the host country. It has led her to examine the weight of the historical and social context on these lifes (e.g. how episodes of xenophobia have left their mark…), the timing of the immigration process and the way in which social values and norms have been internalised (or not, as the case may be) by individuals caught between different reference frameworks. Laure Kaeser’s research thus shows that the notion of active ageing has strong ethnocentric connotations and is most applicable to those who are most privileged culturally, socially and economically. And since relationships of power play a role here, the author also examines questions concerning the articulation of background and age with gender. She thus observes significant differences between men and women in terms of this generation’s limitations and opportunities.

What is activity?

"Why would a man spend all day in front of the television instead of getting out and about ? Is he tired ? ill ? isolated? Conversely, is the one who prefers to do DIY or go to the pub trying to occupy his time or is it because he feels that his wife wants him 'out from under her feet'? And would he choose to spend his time like this if he had the means to travel? Does it make sense to encourage migrants to go hiking if it is something they never did before they retired?", questioned Laure Kaeser during an interview a few days before her thesis defence, in order to point out some of the stereotypes surrounding migrant activity vs. inactivity.

One of the merits of her dissertation is in the conclusion, where she reflects on the role and responsibilities of academia. She devoted a whole chapter to the difficulties encountered by the VLV team when trying to recruit participants with a migrant background. These problems are of great significance in this line of questioning, since many migrants tended to mistrust the people collecting data for the study, associating them with state officials. Indeed, the author admits that there is a risk that research could be instrumentalised and used to produce prescriptive guidelines. It is a slippery slope from a holistic concept of active ageing to a productivist one that aims only to save money.

Laure Kaeser states that she took the approach of a researcher actively involved in society, concerned to "bring scientific progress into the public debate" and to give "a voice to people who have no voice", particularly via discursive spaces that include all senior citizens.

Supporting democratic ageing

At the end of her thesis, she sets out several approaches to overcoming the ambivalence in the active ageing model – something that is supposed to be empowering but is actually restrictive. Several of them involve ideas which have already been put forward elsewhere, favouring a more egalitarian pension system. Above all, she calls for "democratic ageing that allows for different forms of ageing and has as its social ideal the democratisation of access to economic, cultural and social capital throughout the entire life course."

Her thesis ends with the following phrase: "The strength of a people is measured by the wellbeing of its weakest members." This a return to fundamental values, since this powerful idea is nothing less than the preamble to the Swiss Constitution.

Examiners’ comments

At Laure Kaeser’s thesis defence, the jury members noted her "deep commitment to her work, her ability to take into account criticism in order to improve her conclusion, the talent with which she defended her views and her aptitude for bringing about collaborations," reports Prof. Michel Oris, one of her supervisors.

This research has, in fact, enabled Laure Kaeser to really make the most of the LIVES network. This can be seen in the way in which she has built on the collaborative effort that comprised the VLV study, in her theoretical construct that makes way for a certain interdisciplinarity and, above all, in the fact that she has co-written several articles with other young researchers, benefiting from their theoretical and methodological skills, as she underlined.

Having earned a DAS (Diploma of Advanced Studies) in public administration alongside her doctorate, Laure Kaeser is now well-equipped to commit herself in society. A month ago she began an exploratory study for the Canton of Vaud regarding the trajectories of people on social benefits.

>> Kaeser, Laure (2015). Personnes âgées issues de la migration et vieilissement actif. Interroger les normes contemporaines du veillissement au prisme des parcours de vie (Elderly people with a migrant background and active ageing. Examining the contemporary norms of ageing through the lens of a life course perspective). Supervised by Claudio Bolzman and Michel Oris. University of Geneva.