Other Free Encyclopedias » Medicine Encyclopedia » Aging Healthy - Part 2 » Inequality - Multiple Bases Of Inequality: Conceptual Issues, Status And Power, Housing, Health, Conclusion

Inequality - Status And Power

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Put simply, status refers to one's position in society. Sociologists often make a distinction between ascribed status and achieved status. Ascribed status refers to characteristics of individuals over which they have little control, such as their sex, age, race, or ethnicity. Achieved status, on the other hand, refers to positions in society that an individual may achieve, such as level of education or occupational status. Although ascribed and achieved status have received considerable research attention, the status group concept is more relevant to the discussion presented here, because it is directly tied to issues of power. A status group refers to a set of people who "have a subjective sense of common membership and a group awareness that is relatively well defined" (Grabb, 1997, p. 50). Status groups are clearly demarcated in society on the basis of their prestige, honor, and the resulting power that they have.

What then, is meant by power? There are many sociological definitions of power but perhaps the most widely cited view reflects the ability of individuals or groups in social relationships to impose their will on others regardless of resistance (Weber, 1922). Economic resources are often thought to be associated with power. However, as the preceding discussion of status groups suggests, power may also be derived from prestige and honor.

Because status moves away from the idea that power is largely based in economic relationships, it is tempting to consider issues of aging and inequality in this light. This is because most older people do not have direct associations with the economy (i.e. they do not work for pay), and therefore must derive their status and power, if they have any, from other means. Hence, one question that arises is whether age groups might well be evaluated with regard to their status, and, in turn, whether honor, prestige, and power vary across age groups.

The extent to which age is associated with power and status varies depending on the specifics of the culture or society in question. In some societies, high levels of status and power are found in older age groups relative to younger groups, but in other societies older adults are afforded very little status or power.

In early twenty-first-century Canada and the United States, the relationship between age, status, and power is complex. In these societies, very rarely are young children or teenagers afforded higher levels of status and power than are adults. Regardless of levels of maturity, dexterity, or intellectual ability, teenagers who live in North America must turn a certain chronological age before they are legally able to drive a car, vote, or consume alcohol. Wage scales are established for teenagers, not on the basis of what they do, but on their chronological age. Hence, a twenty year old and a seventeen year old could be working at the same job and the seventeen year old could legally be paid less for doing the same work. All of this suggests that the status and power of younger people in North America lags far behind that of middle-aged or older persons. This assessment is too simplistic, however. A counter pressure to these facts exists which has been referred to as the "cult of youth." This refers to the ideology in North American culture that favors young over old and suggests that to be young is to be vibrant, beautiful, and happy, whereas to be old is to be tired, unattractive, and grim. These cultural views do little to take away from the status and power that middle-aged adults have. However, for older adults these views are especially detrimental because, combined with the loss of their youthful appeal, they have also lost the power and status associated with middle-aged activities such as working for pay and raising families.

The status and power associated with age is influenced by other dimensions of inequality, including class, gender, and ethnicity/race. Yet researchers have not tended to consider these intersections in their discussions of status and power. Anecdotally, however, we can imagine that an older, retired, white man who had a successful career as the president of a large multinational company will likely maintain some status and power despite his age. One way in which men in these circumstances do this is by retaining their memberships on the executive boards of companies or public organizations (e.g., universities). Alternatively, there would be very little status and power associated with being an aging, Hispanic housewife.

As this discussion on status and power illustrates, research on aging tends to insufficiently deal with the intersections between class, age, gender, and ethnicity/race. Where possible, the ensuing discussions will present information on class, age, gender, and ethnicity/race, while maintaining a focus on aging and later life. Notably, very little research has simultaneously and systematically considered all of these dimensions of inequality, thus limiting the extent to which the intersection of these factors can be discussed. Further, most of the available information on health and housing assesses income differences rather than social-class differences and focuses on black/white racial comparisons to the neglect of other racial and ethnic groups. In the following discussion, therefore, income will be used as a proxy for social class and racial comparisons will be limited to discussions of older black and white Americans.

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