unexpectedly social objects

Back in October, there was an interesting edition of ‘Thinking Allowed’ wherein Laurie Taylor (2014) interviewed academic, Julia Twigg, about some research that she and her researcher, Christina Buse, did on the ways that women with dementia use their handbags whilst living in a care home. What was interesting about the study is that some of the more interesting findings seem to have emerged unexpectedly from the data.

Buse & Twigg (2014) reported the findings of the study in the Journal of Aging Studies. They are clearly coming at this topic from the sociological perspective with a good helping of material culture studies on the side. But it is possible to draw some other ideas from their findings. The initial framing of the study, through the background literature review, is on the role of handbags in women’s daily lives, a status symbols and embodiments of personal identity, and how this creates the potential for handbags to be both objects of memory and containers of memory objects.

Early on they suggest that these embodied processes of identity formation are susceptible to the cognitive slights of dementia, although this is not an idea they develop particularly well. So the aim of the study was to investigate, using qualitative research methods, the place of handbags in the lives of women with dementia both in their domestic homes and in care-homes. The focus shifts to the latter.

The role of the handbags and their contents as prompts for autobiographical memory comes as no surprise. Building on the paper by Harris et al. (2014), I commented on in the previous blog post, it is possible to develop an argument for collective remembering involving both people and objects. However, it is worthwhile considering the transition from domestic home to care home as an experience of the loss of many objects and spaces that are serving important sociological and psychological functions for an individual (Miller, 2009). So the handbag might be seen as a distilled/concentrated selection of objects carried over into the new domain that continue to perform some of those functions in, perhaps, a diminished form.

Nonetheless, the unexpected findings from the study (and the ones that Twigg was keen to emphasise in the radio interview) concerned the social role that the handbags acquired in the care-home setting. Buse & Twigg gathered these under the linked themes of ‘Security and vulnerability’ & ‘Handbags and the boundaries of public/private space’.

Under the first of these, they noted that the women in care-homes clutched their handbags to them whilst in the home. They contrasted this with normal behaviour in domestic settings, where handbags were more readily set down, and suggested that this indicated that the women saw the care home as a public space (contra the homes’ own rhetorics) and that it indicated a high level of anxiety. The authors suggested that the handbags worked both through their tangibility and by being portable containers of treasured items.

This second point linked to the second theme of creating boundaries between public and private space: sorting through a handbag might serve as a means of carving out some private space and avoiding interactions with others in the communal lounges. By this means the women seemed to be creating a space that the women could conceive of as their own.

I’ve been reading some literature around the topic of ‘resilience’ in developmental psychology. There is a growing body of work looking at resilience in later life. Resilience is generally seen as taking a systems approach to understanding why some people display better than normal responses to adverse situations. Wiles et al. (2012) suggest that these ideas might need some reconfiguring when looking at older people and their responses to the chronic stressors of later life. It might be more appropriate to consider resilience for the women in Buse & Twigg’s study in terms of positive emotional states and relative rates of decline in behavioural indicators. However, Wiles et al. suggest that the systems approach using personal traits in a personal and social context is appropriate. This work by Buse & Twigg can be seen in that light: the women could be considered as using their handbags as ‘personal resources’ (to borrow an idea from Benight & Cieslak, 2011) to achieve a more positive emotional state given their circumstances and an experience of self-efficacy which, in turn, has been linked to positive psychological outcomes.

The initial cohort of Buse & Twigg’s study included 23 women and 10 men. They didn’t report on the 10 men but it would be interesting to see whether they found material resources to achieve comparable resilient outcomes in the same situations and, if so, how they managed to deploy them.


Benight, C.C. & Cieslak, R. (2011). Cognitive factors and resilience: how self-efficacy contributes to coping with adversity. In S.M. Southwick, B.T. Litz, D. Charney & M.J. Friedman (Eds). Resilience and Mental Health: Challenges Across the Lifespan. Ch. 3. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Harris, C.B., Barnier, A.J., Sutton, J. & Keil, P.G. (2014) Couples as social distributed cognitive systems: Remembering in everyday social and material contexts. Memory Studies, 7, 285-297

Miller, D. (2009) The Comfort of Things. Cambridge: Polity Press

Taylor, L. & Twigg, J. (2014, October 13). Dementia Handbags [Radio Broadcast] In T. Macleod, Thinking Allowed. London: BBC Radio 4

Wiles, J.L., Wild, K., Kerse, N. & Allen, R.E.S. (2012) Resilience from the point of view of older people: ‘There’s still life beyond a funny knee’. Social Science & Medicine, 74, 416-424


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in ageing, dementia, developmental psychology, Objects, reminiscence, resilience, wellbeing. Bookmark the permalink.

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