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Critical Gerontology

Critical Theory

Drawing on the tradition of the Frankfurt school of thought (see Held), Harry Moody (1988) has attempted to apply critical theory to the study of aging. He relies, in particular, on the work of Jürgen Habermas, especially his book Knowledge and Human Interests (1971). In it, Habermas distinguishes three kinds of cognitive interest toward any world of concern. Cognitive interests are the general intellectual task orientations taken in describing a world of objects. Asking, in effect, "For what purpose is this knowledge?" Habermas specifies three answers: cognitive interests in control, understanding (verstehen), and emancipation. Our discussion will focus on the interests in control and emancipation. (For a description of all three interests as they relate to aging, see Lynott and Lynott.)

Consider first a cognitive interest in control, which underlies conventional theories of aging. From this point of view (with this tacit interest), social objects and events are believed to be things in their own right, separate from those who experience them. This understanding makes it reasonable to raise questions about the relationship between individuals, on the one hand, and a real, objective world that they encounter, on the other. For example, if one feature of an individual's world is that it is organized around a life span or a life course with distinct stages, cohorts, or points of transition, then one might reasonably ask what sort of impact these "things" have on the characteristics of the individuals who are located within, or proceeding through, them, and how this affects adjustment in old age. The knowledge obtained by empirically testing various hypotheses in this regard would then allow one to effectively intervene in human affairs, or at least to suggest alterations, in order to bring about desirable changes (control) of some sort, as a consequence of policymaking.

In contrast, a cognitive interest in emancipation does not take for granted the separate and objective existence of objects—separate, that is, from those for whom they are objects. Thus, for example, the life course, as a thing, is not treated as an entity that is ontologically distinct from those who experience it. It would make no sense, with this interest, to ask how persons proceed through the life course, since the procedure itself, in some critical sense, produces the life course. (Murphy and Longino, [p. 147] have pointed out in this regard that the term "life course" itself conjures up an image of a person's life as having "a natural or evolutionary course," which glosses over the "pervasiveness of interpretation" in everyday life.) The emancipation of concern to critical theorists is to reveal to the subject that the objects of his or her experiences (things like stages, cohorts, and transitions in later life) are products of his or her labor.

An interest in emancipation arises out of the understanding that, on the one hand, the objects of the world get produced by meaningful action, and yet, on the other hand, in the course of human affairs the source of the objects gets lost. The research task for this cognitive interest is critique, and thus theory becomes critical. What is critiqued by critical theorists is not the objective state of objects per se; what is critiqued are transformations of the relationship between subjects and objects from being genuine to being alienated (ideologically distorted). Thus, a major concern for critical theorists, with respect to age conceptualizations and theories of aging in general, would be how they represent a language serving to reify experience as something separate from those doing the experiencing. In the final analysis, critical theorists would argue that treating age-related concepts as depicting things separate from their human origins allows for their use as a means of social control. In other words, ignoring the possibility that objects are objectsfor-someone, thereby being in someone's interest, can lead "not to freedom. . .[for elderly persons]. . .but to new domination, perhaps a domination exercised ever more skillfully by professionals, bureaucrats, or policymakers" (Moody, 1988, p. 26).

Following this line of reasoning, Moody (1993, p. xvi) states that a cognitive interest in control "can never provide a rational foundation for purpose, value, or meaning in [late] life." It can only serve "to reify the status quo and provide new tools to predict and control human behavior" (Moody, 1988, p. 33). What is missing in theories of aging, for Moody, is a form of "emancipatory knowledge" that offers "a positive vision of how things might be different or what a rationally defensible vision of a 'good old age' might be" (Moody, 1993, p. xvii). To achieve this, he argues, gerontologists must move beyond their attempts to study aging based upon the natural-science model, and explore contributions toward theory development from a more reflective mode of thought derived from disciplines within the humanities, such as history, literature, and philosophy (see, e.g., Cole et al.).

However, it is unclear how Moody's vision of emancipation can be realized, given that, as Michel Foucault's work (1980) has demonstrated, knowledge and power are always inextricably intertwined. Foucault's sober message cuts short attempts to provide new, more truthful discourses. Moody (1988, p. 27) himself has acknowledged that "we still have no clear account of where that emancipatory ideal is to be found." Nonetheless, the incorporation of critical theory into gerontological thinking has expanded critical awareness in the field, adding to the ideological and epistemological concerns raised earlier by political economists and social phenomenologists (see Lynott and Lynott; Passuth and Bengtson). We discuss each of these perspectives in turn.

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Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 1Critical Gerontology - Critical Theory, Political Economy, Social Phenomenology, Conclusion