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Age Norms - Continuing Controversies

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Several controversies still surround the study of age norms despite their continuing significance to aging (see the useful, brief summaries of some of these issues in Dannefer, 1996). First, conceptualization and measurement difficulties continue. For example, if sanctions are a critical dimension of norms, then they ought to be measured (Marini; for an alternative view, see Lawrence). Yet few researchers have captured this essential component. Second, age norms' status in explaining behavior needs greater scrutiny. While role transitions have received the bulk of attention, age norms might be most visible in their obligatory sense (and backed by sanctions) in people's daily interactions and behavior (e.g., being admonished to "act your age"). Such data might also inform another debate over how strongly society is currently organized by age norms (and age more generally). Many scholars agree that American society became increasingly age graded and age conscious through the last half of the nineteenth and well into the twentieth century, but some argue that late-twentieth-century America became more age irrelevant, that is, transitions and behavior are less age defined than previously (e.g., Neugarten and Neugarten). If the latter is the case, then we would expect greater diversity in aging outcomes, yet it is precisely this diversity that the age norm tradition often historically missed given its conceptual emphasis on consensus and resulting methodological search for modal patterns (Dannefer). Historical and subcultural variation is critical for reminding us that particular age expectations do not reflect natural or universal aging outcomes (e.g., adolescents are rebellious), but rather are both cause and effect of particular societal arrangements. Undoubtedly, further exploration into these dynamics of age norms will continue to bear fruit in our study of aging.




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