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Chapter 2

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Health, Aging and Society
Jessica Gish

Chapter 2: Theories and Methods  Three Broad Areas of Study 1. Biomedicine • Changes in physiology and health 2. Psychosocial Studies • Changes within individuals and between individuals and groups 3. Socioeconomic-Environmental Studies • Effects of aging on social structures • Effects of social structures on aging individual How is Theory Valuable to Researchers? 1. Allows integration of new knowledge with information that is already known 2. Provides framework for explanation of finding 3. Predicts outcomes in future research 4. Provides practical information for the development of social Two Levels of Theory 1. Micro-level Theories • Focus on individuals and their interactions • Relationship between adult children and their parents, changes in memory with age and effect of negative attitudes on an older person’s self-image 2. Macro-level Theories • Examine social structures/structural elements as they influence experiences and behaviours • Effect of industrialization on older people’s status, the history and impact of public pensions and how gender and income affect older people’s well-being Three Theoretical Perspectives 1. Interpretive Perspective • Micro level of social life • How people define situations, create their social world and how they relate to one another in daily life • “Social constructionism” represent interpretive approach • Mead o Objects and events have no meaning in themselves o People give them meaning through everyday interaction o Give meaning to objects, base actions on these meanings o (examples: gray hair and hearing aids) • Interpretive perspective views individual as a creator of social order and organization • Symbolic Interactionist Perspective – recognize objects and behaviours can have more than one meaning o (ex. MacRae’s research – family members help loved one with dementia look normal when he/she enters social world) • Weaknesses of perspective e o Gives only subjective/individual point of view on social life o Ignores connections that exist between micro-level social interactions and larger social forces/structures o Cannot answer big picture questions 2. Functionalist Perspective • Within a positivist worldview – belief that knowledge is built by studying observable facts and their relationship to one another • Social order is based on consensus, cooperation and shared norms and values • All parts of society serve role/function to keep society in state of balance/equilibrium • What is the structure of the society that people live in and how do parts of this structure function? • Treat society as a system – social institutions o Systems keep dynamic equilibrium o Adjust to one another as the system responds to internal and external pressure • Predicts when there is change, society will attempt to create an orderly transition to a new stable state • Assumes that shared norms and values shape individual behaviour • Draws connections between large-scale (macro) social structures and individuals’ social roles and actions • Gerontologists use this perspective the most when studying aging • Age stratification Theory (Aging and Society Paradigm) o focuses on role of social structures in the process of individual aging and stratification by age in the society o focuses on movement of age cohorts over life course o identifies similarities and differences between and among different age cohorts o Age cohorts – a group of people born in the same period of time  Each successive cohort brings new norms and values to its age grade o Age grades – describe a period of life defined by society (childhood, adolescence, young adulthood)  Childhood, adolescence, young adulthood, third age (after retirement but before physical decline and dependence takes place in late old age)  People in each cohort move/flow through age grades o Relies on assumptions of structural functionalist approach to aging o Strengths  Helped separate age differences (between cohorts) from age changes over the life course (aging)  Highlights the impact of historical and social changes on individuals and cohorts  Shows relationship between aging and social structures  Bengston – provides new ways to explore differences related to time, period and cohort o Weaknesses  Same age do not experience world in same way (Chinese vs. French-Canadian)  Overlooks each person’s interpretation of the world  Little reference to individual control/action  Little reference to tensions and conflicts between social groups in society or to issues of power  How characteristics (gender, social class, race and ethnicity can create inequalities within age cohorts) • Life Course Perspective o Bridges the micro- and macro- levels of analysis by incorporating social interaction and social structure within its framework o Use perspective to explain: 1. The continuity and change in individuals’ lives over time 2. Age-related and socially recognized life transitions
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