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Social Theories

Social Theories Of Population Patterns

Some outcomes studied by demographers, political economists, and others cannot be conceptualized at the individual level. By focusing on the intersection of social change and agerelated population patterns, and on ‘‘cohort flow’’ (Riley and Foner)—the movement of entire cohorts through the age-graded institutions of a social system over time—it is possible to discover features of population aging that may be reflected in, yet are not reducible to, the level of individual experience. Such analyses take the entire cohort as the unit of analysis. One well-known example of such work focuses on aspects of cohort transition behavior, and more specifically on the phenomenon of compression (see Hagestad and Neugarten, 1976), leading to more strongly and clearly defined life-course transitions within and between individuals. For example, during the twentieth century, the span of time in which the discrete life events that mark the transition to adulthood (e.g, leaving school, entering the workforce, marrying) occurred was reduced dramatically, and succeeding cohorts underwent these transitions at an increasingly similar chronological age (see Hogan). Thus, cohorts seemed to be moving through major transitions in increasingly lockstep fashion.

Both personological and social explanations have been advanced for such trends. Personological explanation locates the effective casual force at the individual level, in the characteristics or agency of individual actors. (Dannefer and Uhlenberg). One noted personological explanation assumes that, as prosperity increased in the United States during the twentieth century, members of each succeeding cohort were increasingly able to implement a life plan of their own choosing, and the increasingly standardized behavior thus reflects the existence of similar underlying preferences. For example, greater economic resources permit more years of education and earlier age of marriage for more people. The sociological explanation focuses on social-policybased incentives and normative pressures leading to the same outcome. As age-graded institutions designed to standardize the life course expanded their scope to broader and broader segments of the population through policies (e.g., compulsory education and retirement) and a through a growing normative sense of ‘‘age-appropriateness,’’ the transition behavior of individuals became more and more regimented to respond to the resulting structures of opportunity and status. Given the dynamic quality of human decision-making, it is difficult to disprove definitively either of these proposed explanations—even though the idea of choice leading to greater conformity seems, at best, paradoxical. A current apparent reversal in these demographic trends has been interpreted as a ‘‘deinstitutionalization’’ of the life course—resulting from or reflecting late modern economic, technological, and policy changes.

As its name implies, the political economy approach has focused on the distribution of resources among age strata or cohorts. In the United States and in Europe, many such analyses examine the role of policy in altering or reinforcing the distribution of resources. Another cohort characteristic that has received growing attention over the past decade is the distribution of resources within birth cohorts. This question has been of particular interest since it has been shown that inequality among age peers appears greater among older adults than among other age groups, and it appears to increase systematically as members of a cohort age. Again, both personological and social explanations have been advanced, but in both cases the nature of the explanation is different than in the transition case. The personological explanation is based on an assumption of fixed individual differences in, for example, personality or health that become accentuated over time and that may have an impact on work preferences or earning power, so that differences that were present early become even more pronounced. The social explanation, by contrast, is based on institutional and other social-interactional processes that tend to encourage cumulation of advantage, and also cumulation of disadvantage. Quoting the Gospel of Matthew (and misstating the intent of Jesus’ words), Robert Merton called this general process the Matthew effect: ‘‘To him that hath, more shall be given, but to him that hath not, that shall be taken away, even that he hath.’’ Within the political economy or other Marxist traditions, such a process might be better termed capital accumulation. Adjudication of the competing explanations is difficult in this case as well. However, the close tracking of changes in resource distributions with policy changes provide at least some support for a structural explanation for changes in income inequality. The general structural argument here also links such a macroanalysis back to micro-level approaches, which also describe a cyclical, cumulative process, such as labelling theory.

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