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The sociology of aging is both broad and deep. The breadth of the field can be highlighted in several ways. First, the sociology of aging encompasses investigations of aging as a process, of older adults as a group, and of old age as a distinctive stage of the life course. Second, aging research is performed at multiple levels of analysis, from macro-level studies of age structure within and across societies, to meso-level studies of labor-force participation and family structure, to micro-level investigations of health and well-being. Third, aging research uses the full repertoire of methods that characterize the discipline, including life tables and other demographic methods, survey research, ethnographic methods, and observational studies. The depth of the field results from the accumulation of scientific studies that now span more than three-quarters of a century.
A large proportion of sociological research on aging rests on the challenges posed by an aging society, although that impetus is not always explicit. Studies of public and private transfers of money, time, and in-kind services rest in large part on their salience for sustaining an aging population. Studies of health, disability, and quality of life are important not only because they address threats to well-being, but also because they shed light on the factors that keep older adults from excessive reliance on public programs. Even studies of the caregivers of impaired older adults rest not only on concern about the health risks of chronic stress, but also on the desire to enable families to bear as much of the cost of care as possible, thus relieving public programs. Thus, age structure and its social implications is a significant and far-reaching arm of aging research.
Multiple forces, both social and non-social, determine the process and experience of aging. Historically, there was a tendency to attribute the aging process and the experience of late life to inherent biological and developmental processes. Most of us are relatively ignorant of the extent to which the process and experience of aging vary across historical time, finding it difficult, for example, to imagine a time when there was no retirement or when the odds of dying were essentially the same during childhood, adulthood, and old age. And yet, retirement as a predictable life course transition and odds favoring survival to old age both emerged in the twentieth century.
The vast majority of aging research falls under the general topic of aging and well-being, with well-being broadly defined to include any social asset (e.g., economic resources, life satisfaction). Social scientific interest in aging was spurred by concerns about the well-being of older adults in both absolute and relative (to other age groups) terms. This is probably not surprising. The history of sociology in general has been driven by concerns about social disadvantage – its prevalence, antecedents, and consequences. The types of well-being examined in relation to aging are numerous. A partial list of the forms of well-being frequently studied in late life include longevity, physical health, disability, mental health, subjective well-being, economic status, and identity or sense of self.
Since the late 1980s, the life course perspective has assumed increasing influence in sociological research, especially research on aging. The life course perspective focuses on the complex links between social/historical change and personal biography. In addition, the life course perspective is ideally suited to linking macro- and meso-level social conditions to individual behaviors and well-being, to tracing the effects of both structural opportunities and constraints of human agency (i.e., personal choices) over the long haul, and documenting the many ways that the past is indeed prologue to the future. Thus, life course research is an important and exciting part of the sociology of aging.
- Binstock, R. H. & George, L. K. (eds.), Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences, 3rd edn. Academic Press, San Diego, CA, pp. 208-28.
- George, L. K. (2003) What life course perspectives offer the study of aging and health. In: Settersten, R. A. (ed.), Invitation to the Life Course. Baywood Publishing, Amityville, NY, pp. 161-90.
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