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Social Theories

Age As A Cultural Construct And The Study Of Age As A Cultural Practice

At several points, the above discussion has alluded to value differences in the meaning of age, or in the degree of age awareness. Social scientists who study culture recognize such differences as problems to be explained. But, in this case, age is a characteristic of neither a person nor a collectivity, but of culture, of the symbolic apparatus of a social order. Thus, modernization theory provides an example of a tradition of work in which societies are distinguished based on the relative status of various age groups within them; age is thus seen as a property of a status system that can be explained by broader aspects of the prevailing value system. Subsequent work debated the relative contributions of values, technology, economics, and demography in producing the observed differences—and the debate continues.

In his important book on age norms, How Old Are You?: Age Consciousness in American Culture (1989), Howard Chudacoff proposed that societies not only differ in how they value age, but in how much awareness they have of age. He traces the rise of what he calls age consciousness in the United States over the past century, explaining it on the basis of a combination of changes in education, work policies, and institutions, and a growing emphasis on both age and age-appropriateness in public depictions of age— depictions that were disseminated by an increasingly centralized and influential set of media institutions.

Taking seriously the implications of either the historical relativization of Chudacoff and Achenbaum or the cultural relativization of Cowgill and Holmes requires theorists of age to confront the circumstance that no aspect of age can be understood and studied apart from concepts that have been constructed, however rigorously, by scholars who are themselves actors located in social and historical space—with their own sets of taken-for-granted assumptions. This recognition requires that an adequate theorizing of age cannot avoid a mobilization of the sociology and anthropology of knowledge. From this vantage point, one can readily understand the youth-glorifying and socially uncritical acceptance of the ‘‘mutual withdrawal’’ of society and its older members that was presented in disengagement theory: such a view has an ‘‘elective affinity’’ with the pervasiveness of those same characteristics throughout North American culture in the 1950s and 1960s. But many of its effects are more subtle. One example is the longstanding neglect of questions concerning systematic changes in inequality, which were suppressed by the underlying assumptions of organismic theories rooted in an evolutionary model, and which themselves were argued to resonate with an age-graded bureaucratic order. Such theories tend to assume that aging can be best characterized by describing the modal or normative aspects of a population and treating variation as random, rather than as an opportunity to study the constitutive interaction between aging and other factors. Since such analyses suggest that participation in a wider society and culture frames the theorizing of virtually every scholar, it particularly behooves scholars of aging to engage regularly in the practice of self-critical reflexivity as an effort to understand how their operating assumptions reflect their own biographical experience.

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