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Aging & Social Theory: A Sociological Review

Jason L. Powell
Liverpool John Moores University , UK

Copyright, 2001 © Jason L. Powell


One of the major problems in social gerontology in recent years is that the study of aging is not clearly directed by social theory. Theoretical developments in gerontology have according to Bengston et al. (1997) lagged well behind other social and human science disciplines. George (1995) consolidates this by claiming that gerontological research is "theoretically sterile". In a study of published literature in eight leading social gerontology journals from 1990 to 1995, Bengston et al. (1997) claimed that 80% of the articles lacked a theoretical framework for their research findings. Bengston et al. (1997) claim that social gerontology has been "itty-bitty" in its development of theoretical frameworks to assist an understanding of an important issue such as 'age': "… it is intellectually irresponsible for a program of research to proceed without … a theory" (Bengston et al. 1997, p.73). This paper faces up to Bengston et al. (1997) challenge and is concerned with finding theoretical ideas which have informed social understanding of age and aging in recent years. Whilst Bengston et al. (1997) are correct to assert the poverty of theory in social gerontology, it would be folly to suggest that no theories exist. Indeed, there have been some significant theoretical ideas which have influenced understanding of social gerontology in recent years: functionalism, marxism, feminism and postmodernism. Whilst these have increased in terms of scholars understanding of aging, quantitative research findings have dominated the gerontological landscape in publications on aging in the US. It is however important to illuminate the contrasting theories of age and aging, as 80% of research papers in mainstream social gerontology have not attempted to review or apply these theories in an attempt to understand the philosophical dimensions of adult aging (Bengston et al. 1997).

A Brief History of Theory in Social Gerontology: The Rise of Functionalism

The emergence of the social theories of age and aging can be located to the early post-war years with the governmental concern about the consequences of demographic change and the shortage of younger people in work in USA and UK (Biggs & Powell, 2001). In the post war years, social gerontology emerged as a multidisciplinary field of study which attempted to respond to the social, health and economic policy implications and projections of populational change (Phillipson, 1998). The wide disciplinary subject matter of social gerontology was shaped by significant external forces: first, by state intervention to achieve specific outcomes in health and social policy for older people; secondly, by a socio-political and economic environment which viewed an aging population as creating a 'social problem' for western society in general (Phillipson, 1998). The important point to note is that theories often mirror the norms and values of their creators and their social times, reflecting culturally dominant views of what should be the appropriate way to analyse social phenomena (Turner, 1989). The two functionalist theories which dominated US gerontology in the 1950s and 1960a of Disengagement and Activity theory follow this normative pattern. Both disengagement and activity theories postulate not only how individual behaviour changes with aging, but also imply how it should change.

Functionalist sociology dominated the sociological landscape in the USA from the 1930's up until 1960s (Blaikie 1999). This was seen in the United States via the dominance of the structural-functionalist school via the work of 'disengagement theorists' regarding the study of aging (Phillipson 1998). Such major protagonists of disengagement theory were Cumming and Henry (1961) who looked at how older people should disengage from work roles and prepare for the ultimate disengagement: death (Powell, 2000; 2001). They also proposed that gradual withdrawal of older people from work roles and social relationships is both an 'inevitable' and 'natural process':

'...withdrawal may be accompanied from the outset by an increased preoccupation with himself: certain institutions may make it easy for him' (Cumming and Henry 1961: 14).

Cumming and Henry (1961) advocate that the process of disengagement is inevitable, rewarding and universal process of mutual withdrawal of the individual and society from each other with advancing age - was normal and to be expected. This theory argued that it was beneficial for both the aging individual and society that such disengagement takes place in order to minimise the social disruption caused at an aging person's eventual death (Neurgarten 1998).

Retirement is an illustration of the disengagement process, enabling older person to be freed of the roles of an occupation and to pursue other roles not necessarily aligned to full-pay of economic generation. Through disengagement, Cumming and Henry argued, society anticipated the loss of aging people through death and brought "new blood" into full participation within the social world (cited in Katz 1996). Bronley (1966: 136) further portends 'in old age, the individual is normally disengaged from the main streams of economic and community activity'. Not surprisingly for Bromley (1966 quoted in Bond and Coleman 1993: 44) 'The (disengagement) process is graded to suit the declining biological and psychological capacities of the individual and the needs of society'. In order to legitimise its generalisations, disengagement theory self-praised itself to objective and value-free rigour of research methods: survey and questionnaire methods of gerontological inquiry. In a sense, by arguing for 'disengagement' from work roles under the guise of objectivity based on scientific predisposition is a very powerful argument for governments to legitimise boundaries of who can work and who cannot based on age (Powell 1999).

The second functionalist theory, Activity theory is a counterpoint to disengagement theory, since it claims a successful 'old age' is can be achieved by maintaining roles and relationships (Powell, 2001). Activity theory actually pre-dates disengagement theory. In the 1950s Havighurst and Albrecht (1953 cited in Katz 1996) insisted ageing can be lively and creative experience. For activity theorists, disengagement is not a natural process as advocated by Cumming and Henry. For activity theorists, disengagement theory is inherently agist and does not promote in any shape or form 'positive ageing'. Nevertheless, Activity theory neglects issues of power, inequality and conflict between age groups. An apparent 'value consensus' may reflect the interests of powerful and dominant groups within society who find it advantageous to have age power relations organised in such a way. Whilst Phillipson (1998) sees such functionalist schools as important in shaping social theory responses to them, such functionalist theories 'impose' a sense of causality on aging by implying you will either 'disengage' or will be 'active'. Such theories of aging are very macro orientated and fail to resolve tensions within age-group relations which impinge upon the inter-connection of 'race', class and gender with age (Powell, 1999).

Aging, Political Economy and the Politics of Distribution

As an intellectual backdrop against functionalist theoretical dominance, Political Economy of Old Age emerged as a critical theory in both sides of the Atlantic. Political economy drew from Marxian insights in analysing the capitalist complexity of modern society and how old age was socially constructed to foster the needs of the economy (Estes 1979). This critical branch of Marxist gerontology grew as a direct response to the hegemonic dominance of structural functionalism in the form of disengagement theory, the biomedical paradigm and world economic crises of the 1970s. As Phillipson (1998) points out in the UK huge forms of social expenditure were allocated to older people. Consequently, not only were older people viewed in medical terms but in resource terms by governments. This brought a new perception to attitudes to age and aging. As Phillipson (1998: 17) teases out:

'Older people came to be viewed as a burden on western economies, with demographic change… seen as creating intolerable pressures on public expenditure'.

Hence, the major focus is an interpretation of the relationship between aging and the economic structure. In the USA, Political Economy theory was pioneered via the work of Estes (1979), and Estes, Swan and Gerard (1982). Similarly, in the UK, the work of Walker (1981), Townsend (1981) and Phillipson (1982) added a critical sociological dimension to understanding age and aging in advanced capitalist societies. For Estes (1979) political economy challenges the ideology of older people as belonging to a homogenous group unaffected by dominant structures in society. Estes (1979) claims political economy focuses upon an analysis of the state in contemporary societal formations. Estes looks to how the state decides and dictates who is allocated resources and who is not. This impinges upon retirement and pensions. As Phillipson (1982) points out, the retirement experience is linked to the timing of economic reduction of wages and enforced withdrawal from work has made many older people in the UK in a financially insecure position. Hence, the state can make and break the 'minds and hearts' of its populace. Phillipson (1982, 1986) considers how capitalism helps socially construct the social marginality of older people in key areas such as welfare delivery. The important argument Phillipson (1998) makes is that inequalities in the distribution of resources should be understood in relation to the distribution of power within society, rather than in terms of individual variation. Similarly, in the USA, Estes, Swann and Gerard (1982) claims that the state is using its power to transfer responsibility for welfare provision from the state and onto individuals.

Sociological interpretations of age and gender

In recent years, there has been an acceleration of Feminist insights into understanding age and gender as identity variables of analysis (Arber & Ginn 1991 and 1995). There are two important issues: first, power imbalances shape theoretical construction; second, a group's place within the social structure influences theoretical attention they are afforded. Henceforth, because older women tend to occupy a position of lower class status, especially in terms of economic status than men of all ages and younger women, they are given less theoretical attention (Arber & Ginn, 1995). According to Acker (1988 cited in Arber and Ginn 1991) in all known societies the relations of distribution and production are influenced by gender and thus take on a gendered meaning. Gender relations of distribution in capitalist society are historically rooted and are transformed as the means of production change. Similarly, age relations are linked to the capitalist mode of production and relations of distribution. "Wages" take on a specific meaning depending on age. For example, teenagers work for less money than adults, who in turn work for less money than middle-aged adults. Further, young children rely on personal relations with family figures such as parents. Many older people rely on resources distributed by the state.

Older women are viewed as unworthy of respect or consideration (Arber and Ginn 1991). Itzin claims the double standard of aging as arising from the sets of conventional expectations as to age-pertinent attitudes and roles for each sex which apply in patriarchal society. These are defined by Itzin as a male and a female 'chronology', socially defined and sanctioned so that the experience of prescribed roles is sanctioned by disapproval. Male chronology hinges on employment, but a woman's age status is defined in terms of events in the reproductive cycle.

Arguably, Arber & Ginn (1991) claim because women's value is exercised the awareness of a loss of a youthful appearance brings social devaluation; vulnerability to pressure is penetrated by cosmeticisation. Daly (cited in Arber and Ginn 1991) draws a mirror image between western cosmetic surgery and the genital mutilation carried out in some African societies: both cultured practices demonstrate the pressure on women to comply with male standards of desirability and the extent of male domination. For older black women, the ideal of 'beauty' portrayed by white male culture was doubly distant and alienating, until growing black consciousness subverted disparaging language and argued 'black is beautiful'.

It is perhaps emblematic of contemporary western society that aging marginalises the experiences of women through an inter-connected oppression of gender and aging. The reason for this as Arber and Ginn (1991) claim, is that patriarchal society exercises power through the chronologies of employment and reproduction, and through the sexualised promotion of a 'youthful' appearance in women.

Aging in a Postmodern world?

In the 1990s, there has been a vast interest in Postmodern perspectives of age and aging identity underpinned by discourses of "better lifestyles" and increased leisure opportunities for older people due to healthier lifestyles and increased use of bio-technologies to facilitate the longevity of human experiences (Blaikie 1999; Featherstone & Hepworth 1993, Featherstone & Wernick 1995 and Powell & Biggs 2002). The intellectual roots of 'postmodern gerontology' derive from Jaber F. Gubrium's (1975) superb analysis of the discovery of Alzheimer's disease in the USA and the establishment of boundaries between 'normal' and pathological aging; old age is seen as a "mask" which conceals the essential identity of the person beneath. The view of the aging process as a mask/disguise concealing the essentially youthful self beneath is one which appears to be a popular argument (Featherstone & Hepworth 1989, 1993). When asked at the age of 79 to describe what it felt like to be old, the author J.B. Priestley replied:

'It is as though, walking down Shaftesbury Avenue as a fairly young man, I was suddenly kidnapped, rushed into a theatre and made to don the grey hair, the wrinkles and the other attributes of age, then wheeled on stage. Behind the appearance of age I am the same person, with the same thoughts, as when I was younger' (Puner 1978: 7).

There are two underlying issues for Featherstone and Hepworth (1993) which should be understood as the basis for understanding postmodern gerontology. Firstly, the the mask alerts social gerontologists to the possibility that a tension exists between the external appearance of the body and face and functional capacities and the internal or subjective sense of experience of personal identity which is likely to become prominent as aging travels through the lifecourse.

Secondly, older people are usually 'fixed' to roles without resources which does not do justice to the richness of their individual experiences and multi-facets of their personalities. Idealistically, Featherstone and Hepworth argue that a postmodern perspective would deconstruct such realities and age should be viewed as fluid with possibilities not constrained by medical model decline discourses.

According to Powell and Biggs (2000) the use of new technologies to modify the appearance of aging identity exemplifies postmodernity. To paraphrase Morris (1998) technologies here hold out the promise of 'utopian bodies' or perfect bodies. Indeed, Haraway's (1991) (cited in Powell and Biggs 2002) reference to cyborgic fusion of biological and machine entities has been taken up by postmodern gerontology. The list of technologies available extends beyond traditional conceptualizations of the body to include virtual identities created by and reflected in the growing number of 'silver surfers' using the Internet as a free-floating form of identity management (Powell & Biggs, 2002). Thus Featherstone and Wernick (1995: 3) claim that it is possible to' Re-code the body itself 'as biomedical and information technologies make available' the capacity to alter not just the meaning, but the very material infrastructure of the body. Bodies can be re-shaped, remade, fused with machines, empowered through technological devices and extensions'.

The use of diet and exercise as techniques specifically related to later adulthood, is closely related to the growth of leisure and a lifestyle approach to the creation of late life identities (Powell & Biggs 2000 and 2002). It therefore resonates beyond the simple fuelling and repair of the bodily machine to include a continual re-creation of the self within a particular social discourse.


These theories have been at the forefront of understanding old age in US, UK and Australasian academies. Taken together, these theoretical currents have been influential in providing social gerontology with a rich social dimension. Such social theories have been used also to analyse pressing social issues such as, elder abuse, the gendered nature of age, the politics of power relations between older people and state/society and community care. The purpose of this paper has been to amalgamate the key ideas of social theories of age in order to stress the importance of social philosophy to understanding age and aging.


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