“The Berlin Aging Studies Are a Gift for ­Interdisciplinary Research”

Lise Meitner Group for Environmental Neuroscience & the Center for the History of Emotions

The individual and societal conditions necessary for successful aging are examined in the Berlin Aging Study II (BASE-II). Many aspects studied are relevant not just for psychologists, but for historians, too, and historical methods can yield new perspectives on this large dataset. Psychologists Simone Kühn and Johanna Drewelies, and historian Kerstin Maria Pahl talk about their joint project.

What is your project about?

Johanna Drewelies: We collected data on day-to-day activities as part of the Berlin Aging Study II (BASE-II), conducting so-called “Yesterday Interviews” with study participants of an average age of 75. The BASE-II participants were asked to look back on what they did on the day before, from the time of getting up until going to bed. These interviews were not conducted in order to factually document the day’s occurrences, but rather to get the participants’ own reconstruction of what they did throughout the day.

Simone Kühn: We are generally interested in what older people do in their day-to-day lives. And what they are then able to relate about it. We conducted these Yesterday Interviews in two studies, the first being BASE, starting in 1990–1993, and then more than 20 years later in BASE-II. This allows comparisons between the participants in the two studies.

What was the original idea behind the Yesterday ­Interviews?

Simone Kühn: We are investigating the interviews to add some “meat” to the numerical data. Most data we normally collect is quantitative in nature: how high is a participant’s blood pressure, how much do they weigh, or how many words from a list can they remember? For example, Johanna is currently working with a colleague, Gustav Lauridsen, to investigate whether the speed at which cognitive tasks are completed is correlated with the number of activities participants mention in the Yesterday Interview.

Johanna Drewelies: The advantage of the interviews is that, in contrast to standardized surveys, there are no predefined lists of activities to go through. We found that older BASE-II participants in particular perceive things like “waiting,” “arriving,” and “observing” (looking out of the window, watching birds or the sunset) as activities. These would not usually be found in standardized activity lists.

Why did you bring Kerstin as an historian on board?

Johanna Drewelies: In the field of psychology, context is often ignored. In the Lise Meitner Group, we examine the environment’s influence, but not historical context. We work with data collected many years ago, and rarely think about potential changes in the participants’ life contexts. However, the data available from the two Berlin Aging Studies enable us to compare life contexts over time.

Kerstin Maria Pahl: This contextualization is not just about comparing the two cohorts with each other. What we want to do is a close reading of the interview content, to put forward a careful interpretation of what we are told. I find “arriving” or “arriving home” to be the most intriguing activity that you noted. How is it that those of the post-war generation see arriving as an activity? And why is that fact relevant to your work? This has quite a lot to do with the fact that “forms of life” undergo change: the relevance of everyday activities varies and is impacted by the respective historical period. Hallways, for example, used to be an important place. You took off your outdoor clothing, hung it up, put your shoes away, even put on an apron to not soil your clothing before doing anything else. Guests were welcomed there. Arriving was something that took place over a longer time-span: it took time to arrive. That is one striking example of how perceptions differ on how the day is structured, and how people organize individual processes and activities throughout the day. Such historical contextualizing of what is understood as an activity in the first place, and how an activity in itself is structured, formed the starting point for our collaboration.

Simone Kühn: I find it quite fascinating to look at what people do not mention. Thus far, we have focused on frequency analysis, but refocusing our attention on what specific activities are not mentioned was a new idea for us. And as I have learned, that is an essential part of historical textual analysis.

How did your collaboration get started?

Simone Kühn: It was an initiative of mine. The interviews provide subjective descriptions, but that is the only thing we have. To me this seems like a problem historians have to a similar extent, which therefore could yield methodological input on how to make use of the information. I then presented our work at a colloquium held by the Center for the History of Emotions, soliciting feedback.

Kerstin Maria Pahl: I afterwards approached Simone about a potential collaboration. I wrote my doctoral thesis on biographies and autobiographies, and have been reading what we call “ego documents” for years. I attempt to find out how people construct their lives through narratives, and how events and experiences can be accessed through a close reading of certain sources, while also factoring in the general culture and mentality of the time. The research done by Simone and Johanna is closely akin to mine in several ways. These BASE and BASE-II interviews are a goldmine for historians. They really provide source material for two separate fields of inquiry.

What is the current status of your project?

Kerstin Maria Pahl: We don't have any results to show at this time, the ball is in my court. I was given access to the BASE-II data and briefed, and received plenty of material to read. Now I am going to start looking at the data qualitatively, more closely studying the activities and the categories they fall into. For example, we talked about all the things that are associated with “walking” and “going.” Not just the aspect of walking itself, but rather going to a place as well. That is, for some people this means “going for a walk” while for others it means something more purposeful. I aim to take a closer look at this distinction.

As psychologists, what exactly are you looking to gain through this historical perspective?

Johanna Drewelies: We hope Kerstin's input will afford greater specificity in our evaluation and allow us to identify further categories. When somebody says, “I'll go eat something,” that falls into the category of Eating. Information like eating together, eating with, or eating alone can get lost. We make use of machine learning algorithms to analyze such large volumes of text. Such methods do not always make the relevant distinction.

Kerstin Maria Pahl: Our work unites strong qualitative and quantitative analysis; first, categories are defined through qualitative analysis, which are then utilized in the quantitative analysis. The act of interpretation is like casting a net. Some fish always pass through. But then you can go back and make your net finer.

Kerstin, you are the one responsible for the fine tuning. What is your approach?

Kerstin Maria Pahl: I’m applying quite a classic approach, combining close reading and contextualization. I’ll start with reading a few dozen interviews to get into the material. Usually, overarching themes will emerge very quickly because people of a given generation share frameworks of references and ways of thinking and expressing. A period’s culture affects how people write and speak. I usually make notes of themes, phrasings, or tropes to then be able to identify the rules and exceptions, both of the activities and of the ways of talking about them. Afterwards, I skim other texts to find out if there are similarities there or what the differences are. To broaden the focus, I draw on other texts from the period, such as autobiographies, letters to the editor, or newspaper articles. It gives me hints on what things are talked about or not.

What else does this collaboration give you, beyond the methodological extension? 

Johanna Drewelies: When psychologists examine differences between cohorts, the work is highly quantitative. In many cases we limit ourselves to counting frequency of occurrence and simply describing differences. Questions of ‘why’ and about historical context often remain unanswered in any detailed way.

Simone Kühn: I find it quite refreshing to see how such information is methodologically treated in a different research field. I also see it as a challenge for us to be bold enough to include such information in the interpretative process. In a way, psychologists seem to be afraid of context and rather want to convert information into numbers.

Kerstin Maria Pahl: I agree that such methodological cross-fertilization is very fruitful. The study of history is highly qualitative in nature, especially when working on a micro-level, and we often have the opposite problem: quantitatively supported arguments very rarely play a role in my area. You mentioned a fear of context; we’re a bit afraid of numbers. Historians can learn quite a lot from frequency analysis, be it words or activities.

What challenges have you encountered?

Simone Kühn: The vocabulary is difficult. Often you can’t be sure you are even talking about the same thing. But otherwise, I don't see any other major hurdles.

Kerstin Maria Pahl: Yes, that is the biggest challenge in my experience, also within the Max Planck Society more broadly. When I took part in the MPG “Sign Up!” career building program I was one of only a few scholars representing the humanities, and the sole historian. It really made me realize that to engage in dialogue with colleagues from other disciplines, you need, before all else, a multilingual dictionary. You need to verify whether you're actually talking about the same thing. This language barrier really shouldn’t be underestimated as it can kill a potential collaboration before it even gets started because you can't be certain you're working on the same thing.

Simone Kühn: It is often a problem that people talk to each other in the abstract. Actually having data or other very concrete material on hand is very helpful, as you can then understand the other person's approach.

The way you have described it, interdisciplinary connections go undiscovered in many projects. What could be done to improve dialogue?

Simone Kühn: I got to know Kerstin at a meeting where the objective was to do just that, by talking very specifically about our research in a manner accessible to colleagues working in other fields. I gained the insight there of how valuable it is to expose one’s work to potential criticism from individuals working in other fields and take heed of that criticism—for instance, finding out why the way we assess affect in psychology seems strange to historians.

Kerstin Maria Pahl: Exactly. Our meetings got really interesting when we were able to work with actual data. We often engage in dialogue about topics and methods. But perhaps the source material should really form the basis for the collaboration. When we ask you what you are working on, you say ‘interviews.’ And that is where our historians come in, who focus on “oral history.” Several of us would say, “Hey, I use interviews in my work as well.” I usually work with material from the eighteenth or nineteenth centuries, but people recorded their daily activities or anecdotes of what happened then as well. Psychology and history have a lot to learn from each other as fields of inquiry.

Overview of the Berlin Aging Studies (BASE & BASE-II)

The multidisciplinary Berlin Aging Study (BASE), initially directed by the late Paul B. Baltes and Karl Ulrich Mayer, directors at the MPI for Human Development, was started in 1989. Ulman Lindenberger, director of the Center for Lifespan Psychology, is the current BASE speaker. The study spans eight measurement occasions spaced over 18 years. Its distinguishing features include (1) a focus on the very old (70 to 100+ years); (2) a locally representative sample, stratified by age and sex; and (3) a broad-based interdisciplinarity (involving Psychology, Sociology/Social Policy, Internal Medicine/Geriatrics, and Psychiatry). From 1990 to 1993, a core sample of 516 men and women aged 70 to 100+ years from the western districts of Berlin completed the Intensive Protocol comprising detailed measures from all four research units. Seven longitudinal follow-ups involving different depths of assessment were completed at approximately 2-yearly intervals. The Yesterday Interview (Moss & Lawton, 1982) was carried out three times in the course of the study.

BASE-II, led by a Steering Committee including Ulman Lindenberger, Johanna Drewelies, Sandra Düzel, Simone Kühn, and Gert G. Wagner at the MPI for Human Development, also follows a longitudinal design. At the first wave of measurements (T1), the BASE-II sample consisted of 1,600 participants aged 60 to 80 years and 600 individuals aged 20 to 35 years. Data collection of the first wave, which included many instruments already used in BASE, was completed in 2014. In close collaboration with Simone Kühn, eligible BASE-II participants (n = 445) were additionally invited for a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) assessment of the brain. In 2015, this MR subsample was reinvited for further cognitive and psychosocial assessments and a second MRI session (n = 327). In November 2017, the older cohort of 1,600 men and women from the original BASE-II sample was re-invited in the context of the project, Sexand Gender-Sensitive Prevention of Cardiovascular and Metabolic Disease in Older Adults in Germany (GendAge), which includes most of the medical and biological assessments of T1, along with a third wave of cognitive and psychosocial assessments. In addition, accelerometers are used to track participants’ physical activity and sleep for a week. A further data collection wave is currently underway.

Moss, M. S., & Lawton, M. P. (1982). Time budgets of older people: A window on four lifestyles. Journal of Gerontology, 37(1), 115–123. https://doi.org/10.1093/geronj/37.1.115

Research Project in Brief

Topic: Analyzing BASE-II data from an historical perspective
Researchers: Simone Kühn (Head, Lise Meitner Group for Environmental Neurosciences), Johanna Drewelies (Postdoctoral Fellow, Lise Meitner Group for Environmental Neurosciences), Kerstin Maria Pahl (Researcher, Center for the History of Emotions)
Period: 2022–ongoing
Funding: Max Planck Society

Go to Editor View