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Status of Older People: Modernization

Critiques Of Modernization Theory

Critics of modernization theory have observed that the theory was based on faulty assumptions about the historical status of older people—that it represented an oversimplification of the effects of modernization and ignored important variations arising from cultural variations, family forms, and social statuses other than age. According to sociologist Jill Quadagno, historical evidence demonstrates that significant variation occurred in the treatment of older people across and within different societies and over time, that older people have not always been universally revered, and that modernization has both positive and negative affects on older people.

Researchers have refuted modernization theory on a number of fronts. They have challenged the inevitability and uniformity of the effects of modernization by providing an historical view of the roles of aged family members and their political and economic power, of elder health and longevity, and of cultural attitudes toward older people. Historians and sociologists have used historical evidence from Western countries to challenge assumptions built into the modernization model, while anthropologists have provided evidence from crosscultural studies to demonstrate that there is no uniform, linear outcome determining aged people’s status in modernizing societies.

In 1976, British historian Peter Laslett challenged the universalist portrayal of ‘‘the aged’’ embodied by modernization theory, contending that theorists perpetuated a mythical ‘‘world we have lost’’ syndrome. He identified four aspects of the ‘‘golden age’’ myth: (1) before and after processes connecting the social outcomes of aging to modernization (i.e., that after modernization, older people’s social status inevitably declined); (2) traditional societies regarded and bestowed on older people universal respect; (3) specified and valued economic roles existed for older people in traditional societies; and (4) the assumption that older persons were cared for by their relatives living in multigenerational households. He contended that modernization theorists mistakenly incorporated these myths into a formal theory of aging.

American historian David Hackett Fischer (1977) agreed with modernization theorists that the status of older people had declined over time, but argued that, in the United States, this status decline began long before modernization and industrialization could have been the cause. Fischer identified a the period of decline during the years preceding American industrialization. He argued that the cultural transformation in the status of older people occurred as Americans picked up on the ideals of liberty and equality in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries influenced by their own experiences as founders of a new nation and by the ideals of the French Revolution. New cultural beliefs about equality destroyed the hierarchical conception of the world on which the authority of age had rested, while the ideal of liberty dissolved their communal base of power. Consequently, older Americans were displaced from their previously high status positions.

W. Andrew Achenbaum (1978) differed with Fischer in terms of the timing of negative cultural perceptions of older people in the United States. Achenbaum identified the post–Civil War era as the period during which negative views of older people became prominent. Elders were still called on for advice and were seen as moral exemplars of health and longevity until the 1860s, according to Achenbaum. Despite disagreements about timing, these two historians identified cultural factors, not the socioeconomic changes emphasized in modernization theory, as most influential in determining the social position of older people in U.S. society.

Other critiques of the modernization model examined its foundational assumptions. For example, modernization theorists assumed that the extended family form represented the typical family in pre-twentieth-century, nonindustrial societies, and that its displacement by the nuclear family contributed to the decline in the status of older people. Yet studies by John Demos (1978) and Peter Laslett (1976) have shown that extended multigenerational families were less common than other family forms, and that elder Americans and English people preferred living in primary residences rather than with their children. More recent work by Emily Abel (1992) also questioned modernization theory assumptions about family life. Abel found that rural elders living in the 1800s did not necessarily enjoy high social status and that intergenerational living arrangements often caused problems for the children and their parents.

In 1994, Tamara Hareven critiqued the linear modernization approach to understanding social change, emphasizing the importance of an historical and life-course approach to studying old age. Her review of historical changes in generational relations in American society demonstrated that individual and familial experiences and specific historical circumstances were of utmost importance in understanding generational relations. She emphasized the importance of taking race and ethnicity, class, and family form into account when studying intergenerational family relationships.

Peter Stearns (1977) and Jon Hendricks and C. Davis Hendricks (1978) provided evidence that challenged the view that pre-industrial Western European societies valued old age and were tolerant of old people. Thomas Cole’s (1992) cultural history of old age in the United States and Georges Minois’s (1987) history of old age in Western culture both demonstrated ambivalent and evolving perceptions toward, and varied statuses experienced by, older people.

Researchers have also challenged the assumption in modernization studies that non-western societies would mirror changes Western countries experienced as they industrialized. Ellen Rhoads (1984) argued that culture was a more important factor than modernization in explaining the status of older people. From her work in Samoa, a modernizing society, she found little evidence to support the idea that individuals lose status as they age. If a society has a tradition of revering its elders, she argued, this tradition would likely persist even as the society becomes more modern.

In 1984, Ann Foner warned against assuming that the status of all older people deteriorates when nonindustrial societies begin to change. According to Monica Wilson (1977), under British colonial rule, the status of elderly African men actually increased. African elders in Nyakyusa remained chiefs and held offices much longer than they would have in precolonial times. More recently, York Bradshaw and Michael Wallace (1996) found that elder Africans are still deeply respected and never without the company of family members. Africans see Westerners as too quick to dispose of an older and wiser generation.

The historical status of older people varies according to race, gender, social class, and culture. Modernization theory overlooked the diverse positions of older people across different societies and the diversity of elders across gender, racial and ethnic groups, and economic classes within societies. For example, in 1990, Susan De Vos examined the extended-family household situations of elderly people in six Latin American countries. She found a larger number of elderly people living in extended households compared to Western nations, however, this was usually because they needed special support. Women were especially likely to live in extended families because they traditionally had been more economically dependent and emotionally closer to their kin than their male counterparts. De Vos found little difference between urban and rural residents in the likelihood of living in an extended family, undermining the modernization proposition of rural extended families and urban nuclear families. Among others, James Thorson (1995) identified economic status as an important variable in understanding the status of older people, since status is often gauged by relative income. The relative status of older people has improved in modernized societies as their relative economic position has improved.

Clearly, modernization theory created a growth industry of refinement and critique among social gerontologists. Modernization theory has been challenged in the decades since its original formulation for offering an over-simplified, linear explanation of inevitable decline in the status of older people in industrializing societies. Critiques of modernization theory have developed threads in social gerontological research that are attentive to issues of timing and pace of change, the evolution in family forms, cultural values about aging and old age, and the multiple statuses that people enjoy—and that endure—as they age in a modern world.

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