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Social Theories

Social Theories Of Aging Individuals

Whether at the level of microinteraction or macroinstitutions, a social theory’s claim, by definition, is that some socially organized aspect of experience or activity, or some set of cultural practices, plays a role in influencing or accounting for some significant aspect of aging. The general idea that how a person lives affects health, length of life, and how that person ages has long been familiar in both popular culture and science. However, not all theories of aging espoused by social scientists could properly be considered ‘‘social’’ theories.

Indeed, one of the most famous and centrally influential theories of aging—disengagement theory—is not a social theory of aging at all. It is more properly understood as an organically based theory of society. This is because it considers the disengagement of the aged to reflect an ‘‘inevitable’’ human process operating ‘‘in all societies’’ (Cumming and Henry, pp. 14–15), yet anchored in the fact of chronological age. Such a theory cannot permit much scope to the social realm because it defines aging as a universal, biologically based process inherent to the human species. Because it posits disengagement as a mutual process of withdrawal of others (and hence of social connectedness and social resources) from the aging individual, as well as the reverse, it is an organismic theory not only of individual aging, but of society. It envisions a social order in which the removal of aged individuals from the mainstream of social life is both normal and desirable. The extent to which this theory was initially accepted by social scientists is indicated by the fact that the pre-eminent U.S. sociologist, Talcott Parsons, wrote a foreword for Growing Old: The Process of Disengagement, which was the initial monograph setting forth disengagement theory (1961). The positive reception of this work by many sociologists may be taken as an example of how scientists—even social scientists— are limited in their perspectives by assumptions about the society and culture in which their own existence is located. This condition is endemic to the scientific enterprise, and it requires a strong measure of self-critical reflexivity on the part of those who practice science to avoid such pitfalls.

The evidence for the initial formulation of disengagement theory was drawn primarily from the fabled Kansas City studies of aging, spearheaded by Bernice Neugarten in the 1950s. Interestingly, the same data were simultaneously used by others to argue precisely the opposite— that continued activity was both possible and desirable among those with advancing age. This is the premise of activity theory. Each of these perspectives was energized by the claims of its competitor, and the result was a crystallization of the classic debate between the two. This debate has framed the parameters and terms of much subsequent theorizing, some of which has turned out to be useful in illuminating and resolving this debate.

The debate is partly resolvable by distinguishing the actual from the possible. Theorists located in the activity tradition cannot dispute the fact that disengagement has been an accurate description of the experiences of many older people in the ‘‘late modern’’ societies of the middle and late twentieth century. At the same time, within and beyond these societies, there are individuals, subcultures, and even entire societies that challenge this generalization. These challenges fuel the contention that disengagement is not a universal or inevitable pattern, but one that is encouraged, and even naturalized (made to seem natural and taken-for-granted), by the structure of modern societies.

Such a resolution is only made credible, and perhaps only possible, thanks to the subsequent elaboration of several distinct approaches of social theories of aging, each of which has provided illuminating concepts and evidence. These approaches can be divided into two general subgroups that can, at the risk of some oversimplification, be called micro and macro approaches. For present purposes, micro approaches can be considered those that locate explanation at the level of individual, interpersonal, or small-group social dynamics; macro approaches locate explanation in the more encompassing dimensions of social organization that form the broader context of experience, including microinteraction. The discussion that follows focuses on how various theories treat the explanatory forces that each nominates as important in explaining aging.

The discussion does not systematically distinguish types of age-related outcomes, since many of these approaches consider their respective explanatory principles to be applicable to a wide range of age-related social, psychological, and physiological outcomes. There is widespread adherence to the view that, even though a given study may focus only on one or two factors—such as stress, psychological adjustment, or economic status—these factors are themselves interrelated, so that, for example, stress affects mood, mood can affect immune functioning, immune functioning affects health, and health affects functional status. This sequence is overly simplistic, as multiple complex interactions occur at each of these nodes at the same time that other processes are having simultaneous impacts. Rather than specifying the exact relations among such largely psychological and organismic processes, the discussion that follows focuses on the difference in how social theories conceptualize the dimensions of the social.

Microlevel approaches. Most microlevel approaches generally involve direct attention to the experiences and social-interaction processes that occur in everyday life. One established tradition to note here is the symbolic interaction (SI) approach, which has deep classical roots in both European and North American traditions of social theory. More than its name implies, the SI approach stakes a foundational claim for social interaction. The general model can be thought of in terms of a cyclical process involving: (1) interaction as essential to the development and experience of human beings and (2) human activity as constitutive of interaction. SI thus begins by recognizing that the transformation of raw organisms into human beings does not occur without sustained participation in a somewhat stable set of relationships with other people, and that these relationships, constituted through human interaction, form part of the social context within which individuals develop and age. SI researchers focus on interactive processes such as negotiating and making alliances. While the SI perspective is widely recognized as capturing an important general dynamic that can be applied to the domain of aging, critics charge that symbolic interactionists omit any clear concept of social structure, leaving the impression that social life consists of a somewhat creative and indeterminate process in which concepts like negotiation permit a high degree of uncertainty and an unrealistic amount of efficacy is credited to the actions of individuals.

Such charges have merit. However, some concepts that derive from SI, such as labeling, recognize how elements of structure, such as normative expectations, shape the direction and outcomes of interaction, even as the interaction that results reconstitutes those structural elements. Thus, labeling theory analyzes how the subjective processes of interpretation and appraisal that are integral to interaction lead to characterizations of others, which sometimes are unwarranted. Applied to old age, Vern Bengtson and associates have proposed a social breakdown model, which traces how, for example, stereotypic expectations are used to interpret small and perhaps random episodes of ‘‘functional lapse’’ or ‘‘misbehavior’’ as signaling serious problems, so that the ‘‘deviating’’ individual is declared unfit: when he or she responds with disputation or anger, it is taken as confirmation that a problem exists—thus generating a devianceamplifying ‘‘vicious cycle’’ interpretation that can be quite destructive for individuals. Social breakdown theory is thus predicated on a view of action as, in substantial part, a self-amplifying system, and a self-fulfilling prophecy. Thus, it can be considered a more sophisticated and systematic elaboration of the SI perspective. Properly understood, this model carries the important implication that the social effects on aging are not limited only to such matters as meaning or status, but also go to the core of self-identity, and that they can affect organismic aspects of aging, such as health and functional abilities. This point draws on a range of related interpretive traditions (illustrated by the classic work of Peter Berger and associates), as well as empirical social-psychological studies demonstrating how experience systematically affects values and intellectual functioning (as in the classic studies conducted by Melvin Kohn and associates) and health (as studied by Michael Marmot and associates).

Other insights in the study of microinteraction have come from ethnomethodology, a related tradition that focuses on the processes of how people make sense of their everyday lives. For example, Jaber Gubrium and colleagues have analyzed interaction sequences and probed the thinking of study participants to excavate the operating assumptions of a wide variety of actors— from elementary school teachers to nursing home staffers to clinicians diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease—engaged in ‘‘constructing age.’’ Their work also shows how the structure of pre-existing assumptions creates a ‘‘reality of aging’’ that is specific to the culture that carries those assumptions.

Some efforts at microlevel theorizing derive from a tradition fundamentally different from interactionism. The general approach of exchange theory is to make predictions about behavior, taking the values and perceived self-interests of actors as a starting point, without attempting to probe the subtleties of meaning and interpretation that are part of appraisal processes; meaning is taken as a ‘‘given,’’ a starting point for analysis. James Dowd attempted to apply exchange theory to explain the behavior of individuals of different ages. He proposed that if old people have fewer resources than younger individuals, this could account for their withdrawal because younger individuals would find it ‘‘more costly’’ to interact with them. For the old, there could also be stress and other psychic costs attending the loss of status.

One of the best-known approaches to explaining and interpreting age-related outcomes, the life-course approach, can be seen as something of a bridge between the micro and macro levels. It is here classified as micro because its key explanatory strategy focuses on how earlier life events and circumstances shape individuals in ways that are decisive for later-life outcomes— thus meeting the above-referenced criterion that explanation is located at the individual level. At the same time, the life-course approach also has a macro-level explanatory component, since it focuses on the role of major historical events and watershed circumstances of social change in producing the effects. In a well-known classic study, for example, Glen Elder (1982) showed that the long-term effects of encountering the Great Depression as a child were important, but also that they were different for different people, depending on age, on social class, and on the degree of deprivation experienced. Subsequent work in this tradition has continued the theme that such effects have enduring consequences. For example, Elder and colleagues found that mothers in middle-class families who experienced the deprivation of breadwinner job loss were in better ‘‘emotional health’’ by the time they were seventy years old than were middle-class mothers who did not experience deprivation or working-class mothers, regardless of whether or not they experienced deprivation (Elder and Liker). Such an interaction effect, Elder and colleagues suggest, is predicted by theories that focus on the character-building effects of difficult experiences. Analyses such as these have generated great interest, although they have been criticized for omitting important information about the contingencies and events impacting such women. Until recently, few sources of data existed to use for such analyses (which require following the same individuals over many decades).

Macro approaches. Macro approaches look to more encompassing dimensions of social organization or to the features of entire populations for explanatory principles. One of the earliest and best-known of such theories is modernization theory. First advanced by Donald Cowgill and Lowell Holmes in the 1960s, this theory offered a direct challenge to disengagement theory by mobilizing the evidence contained in earlier anthropological work, some of which had already been analyzed by Leo Simmons and others. Modernization theory focused on the position of the elderly in societies with different types of value systems. A value system that encompasses ‘‘individualistic achievement places the older person at a disadvantage as compared with a value system which submerges the individual in the group’’ (Cowgill, p. 12). Subsequent work consistent with the general thesis of modernization theory has provided considerable specification of the dynamics involved. The value differences described in modernization theory have been linked to important technological, demographic, and economic dimensions of a social order. For example, historical scholars such as Andrew Achenbaum have specified aspects of the general thesis, using historical data from the United States and Europe to suggest that factors such as the lack of authoritative, scientific knowledge in matters of health and the rarity of surviving elders combined to give older adults high status; others focused on the control of wealth by elders (though not all were wealthy).

Theories in the modernization tradition have thus become more than efforts to account for the status or behavior of individual elderly people as they age. They have also offered an explanation of age as a cultural ideal. That is, they suggest that the symbolic meaning and nature of aging also changed when elders were no longer seen as the gatekeepers of knowledge, wealth, and opportunity. The more general model underlying modernization theory, seldom articulated explicitly, is simply that the basic principles on which a society is organized to perform its essential functions will dictate the meaning, significance, and location of different age groups.

At about the same time that Cowgill and Holmes were writing about modernization, Matilda Riley introduced the age stratification perspective. This perspective shared the general view that macrosocial forces must be understood in order for aging itself to be understood, and introduced a more systematic approach to understanding the relationship between aging and social change, but it differed in several important respects. It offered a broader view of the features of society that could potentially impact individual aging—rather than focusing mainly on questions of status and values. It also offered a broader view of the explananda, envisioning a broad range of individual age-related characteristics likely to be altered by features of social structure.

The age stratification perspective (recently renamed by Riley as the ‘‘aging and society perspective’’) made explicit the potential effects, not only of social change, but also of enduring and stable aspects of social structures upon aging. Thus, it also contributed a more explicit conceptualization of the importance of social structure as having a causal force upon aging. By making explicit the systems-analysis distinction between people as actors and roles as components of a social system, this framework sharpened questions of the ‘‘fit between persons and roles,’’ and even proposed that ‘‘fit’’ could itself be a factor in explaining age-related outcomes. For example, the phenomenon of disengagement was, from this vantage point, interpreted as a result of a dearth of meaningful roles for older people and consequent social exclusion, leading to possible adverse psychological and health consequences. The question of the fit between persons and roles also invited analysis of age-related features of the population at any given point in time. For example, Joan Waring (1976) and Richard Easterlin (1980) argued that the size of a birth cohort would have fateful consequences for the patterns of aging of its members: their movement through the age-graded structures of society would be influenced by the availability of agegraded roles. Specifically, both argued that being in a large cohort (such as the baby-boom cohorts born from 1946 to 1965 in many Western societies) would increase the competition for resources typically allocated on an age-graded basis, and that members of such large cohorts would not fare as well as those of smaller ones.

In such theorizing, age is recognized not merely as a feature of individuals, but as a component of culture. The socially constructed aspects of aging are claimed to affect physical aspects of aging, as well as its psychosocial and status dimensions. Because of these socially specific aspects, such theorizing implies that what seems to be natural aging is only loosely related to the presumed biological imperatives of aging. For example, in contemporary Western societies, age is associated with physical changes such as increases in blood pressure. Evidence from some traditional societies suggests that such physiological changes do not occur in their populations, and detailed analysis demonstrates that they do not occur for everyone in late modern societies. While the exact cause of such variations are not well understood, such findings invite social hypotheses, social factors such as diet, activity patterns, and experience-based stress have been proposed as playing a role in accounting for such outcomes.

The general notion of roles as components of social systems has been given new specificity and timeliness through the explicit analysis of the life course as a social institution. Martin Kohli was a leader in articulating the ‘‘institutionalization of the life course.’’ This notion referred to the expansion of a set of social institutions based on age-specific characteristics (from daycare centers to nursing homes) designed to process individuals from birth to death. Such a notion makes explicit that the life course (with its putative agegraded needs and characteristics) is itself a social institution that defines the character of ‘‘normal aging,’’ but, again, in a historically specific and rather arbitrary way. There is nothing ‘‘natural’’ about having teenagers’ activities structured by school curricula any more than it was ‘‘natural’’ for Native American teenagers of three centuries ago to hunt buffalo on the northern plains of North America. Despite this historical and social myopia, which Matilda Riley has called ‘‘cohortcentrism,’’ the force of such institutions define what is normal and natural with regard to age; thus, they also can operate as self-fulfilling prophecies in shaping the patterns of aging of the individuals who are processed through them.

Additional topics

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 4Social Theories - Social Theories Of Aging Individuals, Social Theories Of Population Patterns, Age As A Cultural Construct And The Study Of Age As A Cultural Practice