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Lecture 3: Theories on Aging

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Health, Aging and Society
Jessica Gish

September 18, 2013 Theories onAging What is Social Theory?  Describes how society operates and what society is made of  Offers explanations about the relationship between individual people and social stuff  Come from sociology ThreeAreas of Study 1. Biomedicine  study of changes in physiology & health that comes with age  biochemical causes of aging, studies of reaction time & stress, and studies of Alzheimers disease/ dementia 2. Psychosocial Studies  Study of the changes that take place within individuals and between individuals and groups  Study of memory, learning & personality, family/friendship ties, and recreation/leisure 3. Socioeconomic-Environmental Studies  The effects on aging on social structures such as health care and education  Looks at the effects of social structures on the aging individual  Study of income policies, health care systems, and formal social supports Theory in the Study ofAging  Agood theory helps a researcher choose research methods, questions and samples Four Ways that Theory is Valuable to Researchers 1. Allows for the integration of new knowledge w/ information that is already known on the topic or issue. 2. Provides a framework for the explanation of findings. 3. Predicts outcome in future research 4. Provides practical information for the development of social programs and interventions Levels of Theory Macro-Perspective  Focus on social structures or structural elements as they influence experiences & behaviour  Explains phenomena such as the effect of industrialization on older people’s status  Like looking through a telescope  Trend and patterns from a global perspective Criticism: minimizes people’s ability to act & overcome social structures Micro-Perspective  Focus on individuals & their interactions  Used to explain phenomena such as: o The relationship between adult children & their parents o Changes in memory w/ age o The effect of negative attitudes on an old person’s self-image  Like looking through a microscope Criticism: focuses too much on people’s actions & not enough on economic conditions & social policies Theoretical Perspectives (1) Interpretive (2) functionalist (3) conflict Interpretive  Focuses almost exclusively on the micro level  Looks at how people define situations, create their social world, & how they relate to one another in daily life  View the individual as a creator of social order and organization  Society does not exist independently of us; we create it through our actions  People order the world—the social construction of reality  People assign meaning to things or symbols o Symbolic communication  People have agency—the ability to do things outside of social constraints o People are creative actors with the ability to interpret or construct meaning Strengths  Focus on the individual  Consideration ofAgency  Attention to social context  Analysis of different meanings assigned to aging & aging experiences Weaknesses  Gives only the subjective/individual view on social life  Cannot answer many of the “big picture” questions  Says little about power & conflict between social groups Functionalist  Social system theory  Positivist worldview  Based on Emile Durkheim’s “The Division of Labour and Suicide”  Social order is based on consensus, cooperation, and shared norms & values  Institutions work interdependently  Society is like an organism  Institutions have functions  People fulfill roles and obligations because of shared norms and values  Most influential early theories: o Disengagement Theory o Activity Theory o ContinuityTheory o Modernization Theory Disengagement Theory  Cummings & Harry (1961)  Bi-product of functionalism  Mutual withdrawal of individual and society to restore balance to the system o The individual withdraws from society & society withdraws from the individual o Individuals desire to withdraw from society to prepare for the “ultimate disengagement”: death.  Disengagement is evolutionary, universal and beneficial for individuals and society Weaknesses  Not supported empirically  Justifies policies of mandatory retirement  Ignores that different types of disengagement exist and that disengagement has different meaning for individuals Activity Theory (Neugarten, Havighurst, and Tobin, 1968)  Engagement in activity facilitates adjustment to aging  Assumes that any activity will do  Continuous engagement is ideal  New activities are required to substitute for role loss Weaknesses  “activity” is not well-defined  Difficult to test empirically  Ignores socioeconomic status (too micro) 
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