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Critical Gerontology

Social Phenomenology

The social phenomenologists (Gubrium, 1986, 1993; Gubrium and Buckholdt; Gubrium and Lynott, 1983, 1985; Lynott; Starr) turn their attention from causal explanations of human behavior to a concern for the reality-defining labor of practitioners of everyday life. Drawing primarily from the works of Alfred Schutz (1970) and Harold Garfinkel (1967), they "bracket," or set aside, one's taken-for-granted belief in the reality of age and age-related concepts in order to examine the process by which they are socially constructed. The analysis focuses on membership in various communities of discourse (professional and lay alike), showing how members collectively negotiate a sense of age and aging through talk and interaction.

Social phenomenologists have criticized theories of aging for taking the existential status of age for granted. While the theories look at variations in the meaning of age and aging behavior along, for example, historical, cohort, and exchange lines, the variations are accepted as background factors or outside forces operating upon older people. Thus, the interpretation of the so-called forces and their subsequent reinterpretation, in the ongoing practice of everyday life, is ignored. (This criticism also applies to the concept of social class, as was noted above.) The social phenomenologists, on the other hand, focus attention on the process by which age, agedness, and age-related "facts" are produced and reproduced in the first place. Their concern lies with the issue of how the objects of and ideas about aging are understood by people who experience them, and how these experiences serve to produce and reproduce themselves along certain lines.

The social construction of fact has been concretely demonstrated in an analysis of the Alzheimer's disease experience (Gubrium, 1986; Gubrium and Lynott, 1985; Lynott). The study examined the social organization of two types of discourse—aging and disease—by which to reference, describe, and explain the "symptoms" of aging. It was clear that those affected by the variety of conditions experienced considerable suffering. The existence of the objects of turmoil— neurofibrillary tangles and senile plaques in the brain and their erratic behavioral correlates, including memory loss and confusion—were equally empirically validated, as was the alarm they generated. Their meaning, however, was problematic, with all the existing evidence, from neuropathological to psychological, being garnered on behalf of both a disease entity and the aging process itself.

Yet, in the final analysis, it was not the "facts" per se that secured the disease distinction, but the practical usages they served. In this regard, the desire to ameliorate the conditions observed were part and parcel of Alzheimer's assigned factual status, for the disease interpretation allowed medical researchers to search for treatments and possible cures that aging itself did not. Likewise, the Alzheimer's Disease and Related Disorders Association's instrumental efforts in spreading the word about what was increasingly presented as the devastating effects of a disease served to transform the meaning of the conditions dealt with. The result was that "Alzheimer's disease [was] not normal aging." The telltale signs of aging became a disease, the "disease of the century." By implication, a reality meaningfully came to possess its own concrete facts.

The transformation, however, was not a linear and progressive process of redefinition from old age to disease. It was clear that the ongoing assignment and descriptive practices of those concerned were continually producing what the sense of this thing—aging/disease—was to be for the practical purposes at hand. For example, in the support groups for caregivers of Alzheimer's patients, the condition of a patient could be interpreted as a sign of a given stage of the disease against a background of certain comparisons with others. That "same" condition could shift, with a change in framework, to an interpretation of old age when lamenting the lack of any "rhyme or reason" to the course of illness. In this respect, there were no straightforward facts concerning any aspect of the disease experience; rather, the facts entered into ongoing practical experiences as more or less useful ways to understand the condition and related experiences under consideration.

The social phenomenological analysis reveals that the potential realities assigned to the aging experience are the products of an ongoing process of social construction, descriptively organized by prevailing stocks of knowledge (Schutz). Even so, the issue of power is never fully addressed by this perspective. The reason is that while the approach generates important data about the process of social production, at the same time it tends to ignore its structure. That is, it tends to conclude its analysis when the human products of the process have been produced, considering the product not as a configuration of social conditions independent of and perhaps confronting members, but rather in terms of its interpretive resources and production and reproduction—a concern for structuration rather than structure as such (Giddens).

Additional topics

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