SOC256H1F - OLD AGE IN DIFFERENT KINDS OF SOCIETIES
How often have you heard someone say:
- Older people used to be treated with more respect
- In the past, children took better care of their parents
- Old people get more respect and better treatment in less developed, more traditional
These popular ideas were the source of a famous social science hypothesis:
“The modernization hypothesis” – theoretical justification that we do not need the old,
we have better resources today, old people do not have power we need, their knowledge
- The more modernized the society, the worse is the status of the elderly
QUESTION FOR CLASS DISCUSSION: why does this seem so plausible? If it were true, why
would it be true?
- Maybe because some people had more respect in the past?
- The Modernization Hypothesis located above…
- Arguments linked to Lenski et al. notions- maybe older people’s knowledge out-dated
with a more technologically advanced society…
- Some plausibility but dubious assumptions overall
Before discussing this hypothesis we need to clarify its two key variables:
- Modernization of a society: we will interpret this as its level of technology and the
resulting effects such as extent of surplus (Lenski et al: how sophisticated is the level
of the core technology in the society in turn affecting how much surplus, inequality
etc.) - equate modernization with Lenski et al’s core technology model.
- Status of the elderly: this is really a number of variables including: These are all
interpretations of the term status and they are all important… These all matter. May
be in deed different things – example in Kiev – people may talk about how wonderful
old people are but when they need to help may not be forthcoming.
Esteem (honour, respect, deference, prestige)
Supportive treatment (social support) – do people care for the elderly
- These are different things that are not perfectly related
o e.g. it is not unknown for people in a society to SAY how wonderful and
valuable old people are, but to DO little to help them
- The more technologically advanced a society, the more complex it is, so:
o The more sources of status accorded to the elderly
- E.g. in Canada the old may get financial and other support form their
own savings, family, friends, the government, charitable groups...
Other forms of support: their income if still working, financial support from children when needed, from the state,
à There is no homogenous understanding of the status of the elderly –
thus part of the complexity patch
- the more varied elderly people themselves are, and the more variable their status
- e.g. income and wealth inequality is at its greatest among the old in a
modern society, and the wealthier old get a lot more deference
à Ask these two questions located below: part one and part two – Silverman and Maxwell went
to same data source as parental preferences for desirable traits for daughter in laws and son in
law looking at different societies.
PART ONE: WHAT WAS THE STATUS OF THE ELDERLY IN PRE-MODERN
-there is no one answer to this question!
Silverman and Maxwell coded 95 ethnographies of premodern societies to assess the ESTEEM
given to the elderly.
-Esteem varies greatly
- Hunting and Gathering- no one status of the elderly – in some it could be very
low in some and high in others = variable…consider the Ache compared to the !
- esteem for the elderly is higher when:
(1) - the elderly provide valued information
- the !Kung are a classic example: old people are respected and valued for
- see Megan Biesele and Nancy Howell, 1981, “The Old People
Give you Life,” pp. 77-98 in Pamela T.
Amoss and Stevan Harrell (eds.), Other
Ways of Growing Old, Stanford University
Press, Stanford California). - meaning they
give you a lot of valuable information that
helps you in life, know who is related to
who, how to exploit environment, know
cautionary world tales – everyone says the
old people are important and valuable
because they do this – living store house of
learning in this tradition who know old
- Just because they may do less work, they still do usefully
- !Kung elderly do less of the more physically demanding work (hunting,
gathering) shifting to other useful work including childcare and teaching
the young, directing important rituals such as boys’ initiations and girls’
menarche rites, healing in the traditional way, telling stories, singing and
dancing, ruling on who has the right to use certain water holes and so on - seen as human storehouses of important information and skills
built up over lifetimes
Difficulty of old may out-weigh any benefit. Ache subject to many dramatic
changes during forest period, oldest and wisest had no useful information
(2) Environmental stress is not too high- Ache do not see elders with stores of
valuable information. – Ache is a very difficult environment to live in, must
move, hard to move in forests compared to desert, hard to carry them across
-Among hunters and gatherers, some environments are very difficult, so
that tender loving care for needy people is sometimes too difficult
- The Ache are a classic example, sometimes forced to abandon
people who could not keep up in difficult moves through the
- Ache pretty low…
-sometimes left old people behind, or even killed them
-true for others who could not keep up, like the sick in
times of epidemics
-note that the Ache stopped being “cruel” when they started
living relatively secure lives in reservations: environmental
stress, not cultural nor individual cruelty, underlay some of
their violent customs in the past
- Killer of old ladies- tale
-- it was the grim necessities of a rigorous environment, once out people’s behavior changed
(3) Older people control valued material resources (Silverman and Maxwell) more
respect if they control more resources, if they are rich instead of poor,
- This does not apply to hunting and gathering societies (why?) this factor
did not apply to hunting and gathering societies because it was hard to
accumulate wealth there.
- With accumulation of land- power and property source of prestige
- Nor to women in many pre-modern societies (why?) – not an
issue for old women but rather is an issue for old men. Why? Early
farming societies were patriarchal men had more power than
à Why was this true: why would it be higher in some societies: (1) key factor: do the elderly
provide key information? – part of modernization hypothesis, modernization societies rapidly
changing. Silverman and Maxwell find that elderly’s provision of valuable knowledge varied.
One possible NEW hypothesis developed from such work:
- “the exchange hypothesis” – getting things in social life including deference, positive
regard, esteem = getting stuff is a question of social exchange, you give something to
someone who requires to give back to you, those with highest esteem have the most to
exchange with others therefore status of any state or life stage depends on the average
level of resources in that life stage compared to others - tricky hypothesis because if we
define resources as those things which you can trade in society to get esteemed deference we are in a true by definition, we know what resource is if it has the effect we expect-
core idea is important
- The status of any life stage depends on its relative control of valued resources
- One tricky part: defining resources
- Resources, their value, and who controls them can change over time
- Especially if a society changes, as when simpler societies get absorbed
into more technologically advanced onesà low levels become those like
higher because of absorption, pick up on their ideas adopting, war, thus
the simple societies undergo a lot of social change as they shift from
simple technology to more developed
Old age pension at 65 meant they had a significant source of income =
became valuable resource that was now important
== The way simpler societies absorbed into more advanced influences life
- e.g. traditional knowledge of older Native Canadians lost value as native
communities came under domination, but has since become valued again
- Older native people lost some economic resources (e.g. their skills in
hunting, gathering, or traditional farming became less useful) but gained
others (notably old age pensions)
Two halves of the modernization hypothesis – high and low in modern societies …
PART TWO: WHAT IS THE STATUS OF THE ELDERLY IN HIGHLY
DEVELOPED MODERN SOCIETIES?
ESTEEM is generally low.
- E.g. Graham and Baker, Canadian journal on Aging, vol. 8 no. 3, 1989, pp. 255-67
- Asked both younger people (university students) and older people (senior citizens) in
Victoria to rate the social status of people of different ages from 5 to 100
- rated status was low for the very young; rose to a peak in mid-life; dropped from
mid-life to old age; and bounced up to average again for those aged 100.
- Victoria has many benches for pensioners
à Not a lot of difference between older people and younger people – common cultural
perception that many share in, and people are aware of
- Why is social status highest in mid-life?
à Kids still dependent on family, whereas family needs to make own way provide for own
- Why is the peak age for status somewhat younger for women than for men?
à women judged on appearance more often, definition of beauty prioritizes new features rather
than old – same thinking does not apply to men who are judged on material success which rises
into middle age which grants them esteem benefits but not for women
- Why is status higher for those aged 100 than for those aged 80?
à 100 is a rare achievement! Not overall reflection of esteem of elderly but rather achieving 100 years old
STEREOTYPES are generally negative
- As an informal example, consider birthday cards!
- Systematic research also shows this
- Physically sick, dependent rather than contributing to societal development
à CULTURAL LAG- when society changes and not represented in
societal stereotypes, takes a while to be seen in societies
SUPPORTIVE TREATMENT is generally outstanding
- The elderly in high-tech societies are in many ways the best treated elderly in the
history of the world
- Material needs supported by public pensions
- As we