Theories of Aging

Novella M Putney. Encyclopedia of the Life Course and Human Development. Editor: Deborah Carr. Volume 3: Later Life. Detroit: Macmillan Reference USA, 2009.

Social gerontology is a multidisciplinary field grounded in the sociology of aging and life course but informed by psychology, demography, epidemiology, anthropology, economics, history, and the humanities, among other disciplines. A central aim of social gerontology since its inception has been to understand and improve the lives of older adults. Thus social gerontologists are interested in the impact of socioeconomic, political, and cultural forces and conditions on the processes of aging and in the statuses and well-being of older people. Social gerontology explores the ways in which the older population and the diversity of the aging experience affect and are affected effected by social structures. Research in social gerontology addresses many domains of social life and behavior, including family relationships, health and disability, and older adults’ social participation. Social gerontologists are also interested in social inequality across the life course, the unequal treatment of older people, and the deleterious effects of ageism. The recognition of diversity and inequality has been crucial to the development of the field and are incorporated in theory and practice.

This entry reviews current theoretical developments in social gerontology and the sociology of aging. Presented here are the field’s major theories or theoretical perspectives, each theory’s intellectual origins, what the theory tries to explain, the theory’s key concepts, and how the theory has been used in recent research. Before discussing specific theories, however, it is useful to provide some background on what is meant by theory in social gerontology, the history of theorizing in this field, and issues of epistemology (approaches to knowledge) as they relate to the underlying assumptions of different theoretical perspectives. The challenges of theory building are also discussed, including the reluctance of researchers to integrate data with theory and synthesize theoretical insights with existing knowledge, or to pay attention to theory at all.

What Theory Is

Theory refers to the construction of explicit explanations that account for empirical findings. Theories of aging help to systematize what is known, explain the how and why behind the what of data, and change the existing order to solve problems, such as age-related disabilities or lack of income security. The systematic progression of knowledge (i.e., explanation) over time is the standard by which any field of scholarly or scientific research is judged. If empirical results are not presented within the context of more general explanations or theory, the process of building, revising, and interpreting how and why phenomena occur is limited. It is through the ability to explain specific empirical findings with more general theories that knowledge develops.

In building theory, researchers rely on previous explanations of behavior that have been organized and ordered in some way. Whenever researchers begin a project, they are operating under some implicit theory about how a set of phenomena may be related, and these expectations or hunches are derived from previous explanations. Yet too often research agendas proceed without any stated theory about how things work. Especially in the area of public policy applications or program interventions in gerontology, it is crucial to specify the theoretical assumptions of a research investigation or program intervention before investing large sums of money in it. If the theory is inadequate, it is unlikely the research intervention program or public policy will achieve its objectives. If the research findings are not backed by tested theoretical assumptions, then it is difficult to judge whether an intervention policy is grounded in supportable assumptions about why things happen.

What Gerontologists Need to Explain

Social gerontologists focus on three sets of issues as they attempt to analyze and understand the phenomena of aging (Bengtson, Rice, & Johnson, 1999). The first set concerns the aged: the population of those who can be categorized as elderly in terms of their actual or expected life span. Most gerontological research in decades leading up to the 21st century has focused on the functional problems of aged populations, seen in human terms as medical disability or barriers to independent living. A second set of issues focuses on aging as a developmental process. Here the principal interest is in the situations and problems that accumulate during the life span and cannot be understood separate from developmental experiences and processes across a lifetime. A third set of issues involves the study of age as a dimension of structure and behavior within species. Social gerontologists are interested in how social organizations are created and changed in response to age-related patterns of birth, socialization, role transitions, and retirement or death. The phenomena to be explained relate to how institutions such as labor markets, retirement and pension systems, health care organizations, and political institutions take into account or deal with age. Although these three emphases are quite different in focus and inquiry, they are nonetheless interrelated in social gerontological research and practice. Theoretical engagement helps to distinguish among these basic categories of interest.

Challenges in Theory Development

The field of social gerontology has accumulated many findings and has developed several important traditions of theory. Yet analysis of published findings in aging research suggests many researchers and practitioners are relatively unconcerned about theories of aging (Bengtson, Burgess, & Parrott, 1997). In social gerontology of the early 21st century, there are several problems that impede theory building and the development of a corpus of cumulative knowledge. First is the problem of tacit assumptions. Social gerontologists approach their research or study with certain assumptions and tacit theoretical orientations, even if not made explicit. In their eagerness to exploit new data sources and analytic techniques and generate findings for the solution of the problems associated with aging, researchers often neglect to clearly spell out their theoretical assumptions. One of the purposes that theories on aging should achieve is to lay out these tacit assumptions and orientations in an explicit and systematic way.

A second problem is reducing theory to empirical generalizations. Skepticism about the importance of theory as well as the proliferation of single-aspect research, which tends to lack theoretical grounding, has led some gerontology researchers to substitute empirical generalization for theory. Propositional statements based on empirical generalizations are about specific events in particular empirical settings rather than about more general processes that occur across a range of contexts. Often empirical generalizations are little more than summaries of research findings that require a theory to explain them. There is a need to raise these empirical generalizations to the level of explanation.

A third problem concerns disciplinary boundaries. Social gerontology has evolved into a broad academic enterprise. In addition to sociology, the fields of social psychology and psychology, demography, anthropology, political science, epidemiology, history, and the humanities are represented among social gerontology researchers. The field of social gerontology itself is in need of integration, because so many more factors are now recognized to be involved in human aging (Birren, 1999). For the mountains of data to yield significant new insights, an integrating framework is essential. However, this cannot be done without theories and concepts that are broader and more general in scope. This lack of integration in theories of aging is also an artifact of disciplinary specialization. The various disciplines study a growing diversity of outcomes; hence there is little overlap in theoretical explanations. This poses a further challenge for integrating theory and findings across the sciences when distinct areas of inquiry pursue knowledge under different epistemological assumptions.

A fourth issue, although not necessarily a problem, is to recognize that theory development is also a social enterprise. It has long been observed that science is a social endeavor that cannot be separated from social and professional considerations (Kuhn, 1962). Science reflects the concerns, careers, and competitiveness of collective groups of practitioners. Moreover, like the aging process itself, theoretical development processes—and the explanations that ensue—are embedded in institutional and historical contexts. W. Andrew Achenbaum (1995) observed how the development of gerontological theories paralleled the historical construction of gerontology around new scientific methods and medical practices. Not surprisingly, the biomedicalization of aging remains a guiding research paradigm. One must be mindful of the connections between scientific inquiry and the social milieu at particular points in time that influence how a subject matter is conceived. Since the mid-1908s, interpretive and critical social gerontologists have called attention to these connections (Hendricks & Achenbaum, 1999), cautioning researchers to be more reflective on their own values or biases as they interpret findings, develop explanations, and make policy recommendations.

The Structure of Theories in Social Gerontology

Theories in social gerontology differ in several respects: (a) their underlying assumptions (particularly about human nature—specifically, whether human behavior is essentially determined, and thus predictable, or whether individuals are essentially creative and agentic, that is, producers of the social world); (b) their subject matter (reflecting specific disciplinary interests, or whether the focus is on macro-level institutions or on micro-level interactions); (c) their epistemological approach (positivistic, interpretive, or critical); (d) their methodological approach (deductive or inductive); and (e) their ultimate objectives (whether they aim largely to describe things, explain or even predict them, or change the way things are).

The classical definition of a scientific theory is essentially a deductive one, starting with definitions of general concepts and putting forward a number of logically ordered propositions about the relationships among concepts. Concepts are the building blocks of theory. Concepts are linked to empirical phenomena through operational definitions, from which hypotheses are derived and then tested against empirical observations. A general theory allows researchers to logically deduce a number of fairly specific statements, or explanations, about the nature and behavior of a large class of phenomena. Because such theories are useful in predicting and hence manipulating people’s environments, they are considered essential for the design of programs aimed at ameliorating problems associated with aging, especially by government funding agencies. Some researchers have generated explanations of aging phenomena using inductive or grounded theoretical approaches (Strauss & Corbin, 1990) and qualitative methods, starting with the data and leading into the final stages of analysis to the emergence of key concepts and how they relate to one another. Research using quantitative methods can also proceed inductively, starting with data and developing theory.

Mainstream gerontological research is scientific in its approach to knowledge. However, interpretive and critical perspectives and qualitative and narrative methods have become more common. In modern social gerontology there is debate over positivistic approaches where knowledge is gained from the scientific method, or whether social theories can be scientific at all. Many social gerontologists believe there are nonscientific ways to look at, interpret, and develop knowledge about aging. Researchers using interpretive approaches, as opposed to positivistic approaches, focus on describing and understanding how social interactions proceed and on the subjective meanings of age and aging phenomena. From this perspective, a theory is useful to the extent that it provides a deeper understanding of particular social events and settings (Gubrium & Holstein, 1999). The assumption is that individuals are active agents and can change the nature of their social environments. Thus there cannot be general theories of aging reflecting fixed or natural laws of human social organization (Turner, 2003).

The critical theory perspective questions positivism and the search for scientific natural laws as a principal source of knowledge. Within this perspective, the understanding of meanings and the analysis of power and domination and the constraints imposed by social structures or forces are termed critical knowledge. Critical knowledge is equally as important as objective knowledge in understanding phenomena (Bengtson et al, 1997).

Debates Over Epistemology

To understand the controversies in social gerontology surrounding forms of knowledge and the use of theory, one must concern themselves with epistemology: how one knows what they think they know. Is there a reality out there? Are social phenomena real facts? Or is reality itself socially constructed through the collaborative definitional and meaning-sharing activities of people who observe it (Marshall, 1999)? Critical theorists note that values cannot be separated from facts and that all research is value-laden. Such concerns are metatheoretical, and they have been the subject of a great deal of debate in recent years among scholars in social gerontology. Metatheories—technically, theories of theories—are concerned with more fundamental epistemologica! and metaphysical questions addressing such things as the nature of human activity about which humans must develop theory; the basic nature of human beings or the fundamental nature of society; or the appropriate way to develop theory and what kind of theory is possible, such as scientific theories, interpretative frameworks, general concepts that sensitize and orient, or critical approaches (Turner, 2003).

Because they are incommensurate, perhaps one effective way to deal with these issues in social gerontology is to regard each perspective as providing different lenses to address the different problems at hand, thereby enriching one’s understanding of the multiple facets of aging. It should be remembered, however, that although scientific, interpretive, and critical approaches to knowledge are different in their objectives and methods, all of these theoretical approaches do involve a set of concepts, which are the building blocks of any theory. Increasingly, scholars in social gerontology are weighing the prospect of finding a common currency of ideas and concepts that would allow a synthesis to emerge.

Early Theorizing in Social Gerontology

In gerontology’s short history, considerable intellectual effort has been invested in theory development. Early researchers on aging, such as Granvilae Stanley Hall (1844-1924), Edmund Cowdry (1888-1975), Ralph Linton (1893-1953), Talcott Parsons (1902-1979), and Robert Havighurst (1900-1991), integrated empirical findings into theoretical insights and established the foundations of gerontology. As social gerontology developed in the post-World War II (1939-1945) period, it drew theoretical insights from the prevailing theoretical paradigm of the time, structural functionalism and symbolic interactionism, and later Marxism and rational choice.

Disengagement Theory Drawn from structural functionalism, disengagement theory was the first explicitly scientific theory of aging (Cumming & Henry, 1961). This theory attempted to explain age-related decreases in social interaction, psychological involvement, and the supposedly inevitable process of aging individuals withdrawing from society. The theory postulated that aging individuals and social structures would mutually disengage as individuals approached death, an adaptation seen as beneficial for the individual and society. This general theory of aging was elegant, multidisciplinary, parsimonious, and intuitively provocative (Achenbaum & Bengtson, 1994). However, its ambitious propositions were roundly criticized (Hochschild, 1975), particularly its unfalsifi-ability claims. The theory had attempted to explain both macro- and micro-level changes with one grand theory, but when tested against the cited data, its validity and generalizability claims could not be supported. Whereas many older people do appear to disengage or withdraw from their social connections and activities, many do not. One outcome of the profound criticism of disengagement theory was to curtail further attempts to develop a general theory of aging. Nevertheless, disengagement theory had a significant effect in social gerontology by prompting development of alternative theories of aging, particularly activity theory.

Activity Theory An implicit theory in gerontology for decades, activity theory was formalized by Bruce Lemon, Vern Bengtson, and James Peterson (1972) in response to the challenge posed by disengagement theory. Based on symbolic interactionism, activity theory postulates that older people who are more active will be more satisfied with their lives. Activity theory places strong emphasis on ongoing social interaction in the development of self-concept. It argues that one’s self-concept is related to one’s roles and that with old age comes a loss of roles (e.g., retirement and widowhood). In order to maintain a positive sense of self, older persons must substitute new roles for those lost in old age. Well-being in late life results from increased activity in newly acquired roles. Activity theory provides a conceptual justification for a central assumption underlying many programs and interventions for the elderly—that social activity in and of itself is beneficial and results in greater life satisfaction. Activity theory has received considerable empirical support but is vulnerable to several criticisms. First, the theory assumes that all older persons need and desire high levels of social activity. Some older people may prefer to be couch potatoes. Second, the theory overlooks variations in the meaning of particular activities in the lives of older people. The ideas of activity theory can be readily discerned in the more recent successful aging paradigm put forth by John Rowe and Robert Kahn in 1998. Not unlike activity theory, successful aging has been criticized for its excessive individualism and its discounting of social diversity and inequalities (Schmeeckle & Bengtson, 1999).

Modernization Theory As formulated by Donald Cow-gill (1974), modernization theory attempts to explain variations in age status both historically and across societies. Its historical roots are in structural functionalism. Focusing on the macrostructural conditions of older adults in different sociocultural settings, the theory postulates that the status of the aged is inversely related to the level of societal industrialization. Whereas the elderly held high status in preindustrial societies as a result of their control of scarce resources and their knowledge of tradition, they have lower status in present industrialized societies. Four elements of industrialization are implicated in the reduced status of older people: economic technology, urbanization, mass education, and health technology. Modernization theory is elegant and parsimonious in capturing the general socioeconomic processes as they relate to the status of the aged; yet like most general theories, it cannot be documented empirically except at the most superficial levels. For example, historical research examining the loss of authority of elders, timing and sequencing of proportion of the aged, and the appearance of retirement are at variance with tenets of modernization theory. Although no longer used as a general explanation of the status of the aged, it has been applied in more narrowly defined settings, such as in Isabella Aboderin’s (2004) qualitative study of the intergenerational relations and the status of elders under conditions of poverty in urban Ghana in the late 1990s.

Social Competence and Breakdown Theory Social competence and breakdown theory attempts to explore both normal and problematic aspects of aging. Based on symbolic interactionism, Joseph Kuypers and Vern Bengtson (1973) sought to explain the negative consequences that can accompany crises that often occur with advancing age. They conceptualized how a negative spiral of feedback can occur: (1) an elderly individual, whose self-concept may already be vulnerable because of role loss or negative stereotypes concerning aging, experiences a health-related crisis; (2) experiencing a health-related crisis leads to labeling of the older person as dependent by the social environment—health professionals or family; (3) atrophy of previous competency skills occurs; and (4) the individual adopts the self-concept of being sick, inadequate, or incompetent. This leads to further vulnerability, leading to another negative cycle and further negative consequences for social and psychological competence. The process can be reversed and competence promoted by providing improved environmental supports while facilitating expression of personal strength. Although useful for sensitizing practitioners in dealing with the problems of aging, the social competence and breakdown model has yet to be tested in empirical studies.

Contemporary Theories in Social Gerontology

Additional theories emerged in a second period of theorizing in social gerontology and the sociology of aging, including the political economy of aging perspective (Estes, Gerard, Jones, & Swan, 1984), which draws from Marxist thinking and conflict theory in sociology and exchange theory (Dowd, 1975), a rational choice perspective. Since the late 1980s, these theories, as well as earlier theories (activity and modernization theories), have been refined and reformulated, and new theoretical perspectives have emerged. Prominent among the latter are the life course perspective, cumulative advantage and disadvantage theory, and socioemotional selectivity theory. In reviewing theory development in social gerontology, Jon Hendricks (1992) suggested more recent theoretical work reflects an effort to synthesize the distinct micro- or macro-level approaches of earlier theorizing. Also, there has been a shift among a subgroup of social gerontologist toward socially constructed and ideological considerations in theoretical conceptualizing. The growing presence in the field of social constructivism, critical perspectives, feminist theories of aging, political economy of aging perspectives, and postmodernist perspectives reflects this trend.

The Age Stratification (Age and Society) Theory This perspective represents one of the oldest traditions of macro-level theorizing in social gerontology. Matilda Riley, Anne Foner, and Joan Waring (1988) traced this perspective’s intellectual roots to structural functional-ism, particularly the works of sociologists Pitirim Sorokin (1889-1968), Karl Mannheim (1893-1947), and, later, Parsons. This theory seeks to explain (a) cohort flow, or the movement of different age cohorts across time in order to identify similarities and differences between them; (b) the interdependence of age cohorts and social structures; and (c) the asynchrony between structural and individual change over time. Its major concepts are age cohorts, age roles, age-graded social structures, age segregation or integration, and structural lag. Structural lag occurs when social structures cannot keep pace with the changes in population dynamics and individual lives.

Since the late 1980s, Riley and colleagues have refined this perspective, now referred to as the age and society paradigm. A current example of structural lag is the discordance between the increasing needs of elderly parents for caregiving support, concurrent reductions in state resources to provide long-term care services, and the resultant increased demands placed on families to provide parent care even as adult children are less able to do so because of employment demands. Using this theoretical perspective, Riley and Karyn Loscocco (1994) argued that a more age-integrated society brought about by policy changes can compensate for structural lag. Restructuring the social institutions of work, education, and the family through such things as extended time off for education or family, for example, can bring social structures in balance with individuals’ lives.

Life Course Theory This perspective is perhaps the most widely cited theoretical framework in social gerontology in the early 21st century. Its proponents argue that to understand the present circumstances of older adults, one must take into account the major social and psychological forces that have operated throughout the course of their lives (George, 1996). Although there is debate as to whether the life course is a theory or an orienting perspective, it represents a convergence of thinking in sociology and psychology about processes at both macro-and micro-social levels of analysis and for both populations and individuals over time. This multidisciplinary perspective draws content and methods from sociology, psychology, anthropology, and history. Researchers using this perspective are attempting to explain (a) the dynamic nature, context, and process of aging; (b) age-related transitions and life trajectories; (c) how aging is related to and shaped by social contexts, cultural meanings, and social structural location; and (d) how time, period, and cohort shape the aging process for individuals as well as for social groups (Bengston & Allen, 1993; Elder & Johnson, 2003). Although studies so far have not incorporated all four of these life course perspective dimensions in their empirical analyses, new methodological advances suggest such a multilevel, cross-time model in the future.

Glen Elder and Monica Johnson (2003) identified five basic principles that guide life course research. The first is that development and aging are lifelong processes; relationships, events, and processes of earlier life stages have consequences for later life relationships, processes, and outcomes. The second principle concerns the interdependence of lives over time, especially in the family, where individuals are linked across generations by bonds of kinship and processes of intergenerational transmission. For example, economic declines can have reverberating effects on the interconnected life paths of family members. The third principle concerns agency in human development and the idea that individuals make choices within the constraints of social structures and historical conditions. The fourth principle concerns the impact of history and place on aging. Researchers now recognize the necessity of nesting individual lives and family processes in social and historical contexts. A fifth principle emphasizes historical time, the importance of transitions and their timing relative to structural and historical contexts. There can be “a best fit” in the timing of individual development and family life stage and their temporal convergence with structural and historically created opportunities.

Cumulative Advantage and Disadvantage Theory Cumulative advantage and disadvantage theory applies a life course approach to the analysis of stratification among the aged. The theory seeks to explain how inequality in old age is produced. The theory derives from Robert Merton’s (1988) original observation of the Matthew effect on scientific careers. As applied to the status of older people, the metaphor implies that those already advantaged (across a range of domains, such as health or wealth) will accumulate more benefits, whereas those who are disadvantaged early will accumulate more loss. In the 1970s and 1980s, two themes emerged in social gerontology that the cumulative advantage and disadvantage perspective was uniquely positioned to examine: the heterogeneity or diversity of older persons and the poverty and inequality among the aged. A central concept is intracohort heterogeneity. Structural or institutional arrangements operate to stratify cohorts as they allocate differential opportunities for the accumulation of value and reward. Inequality is seen as the product of institutional arrangement as well as aggregated individual actions over time. People who begin in a position of social advantage generally are better positioned to acquire additional resources than those who begin life at the bottom of the stratification system (Quadagno & Reid, 1999). It is important to explain the within-cohort differences over time along significant life course trajectories in terms of health, family, work, income, and wealth.

There are, however, flaws in this theory according to some researchers. In expanding the scope of cumulative advantage and disadvantage theory, Kenneth Ferraro, Tetyana Shippee, and Markus Schafer (in press) argue that accumulating advantage is not necessarily oppositional to accumulating disadvantage. Cumulative advantage and disadvantage theory ignores power relationships that determine how resources are allocated. A political economy of aging perspective would counter the idea of attributing inequality to structural arrangements and constraints and argue instead that inequality is the product of economic and political forces and power arrangements. Finally, the perspective as currently conceptualized makes no allowance for agency.

Social Exchange Theory This micro-level theory has been useful in many studies in social gerontology and the sociology of aging, particularly those focused on intergenerational social support and transfers. Developed and extended by James Dowd’s “Aging as Exchange” in 1975, the social exchange theory of aging draws from sociological formulations by George Homans (1910-1989) and Peter Blau (1918-2002) and work in economics that assumes a rational choice model of decision-making behavior. The positivist tradition underlies this perspective; the interpretation of exchange events is not considered. Applied to aging, this perspective attempts to account for exchange behavior between individuals of different ages as a result of the shift in roles, skills, and resources that accompany advancing age. It explicitly incorporates the concept of power differentials. A central assumption here is that the various actors (such as parent and child or elder and youth) each bring resources to the interaction or exchange and that resources need not be material and will most likely be unequal. A second assumption is that the actors will only continue to engage in the exchanges for as long as the benefits are greater than the costs and while there are no better alternatives. This theoretical approach also assumes that exchanges are governed by norms of reciprocity—that is, when a person gives something, he or she trusts that something of equal value will be reciprocated. A major contribution of the theory is its ability to explain exchanges of contact and social support as well as how these exchanges are influenced by emotional, social, or financial report. However, simplistic formulations of social exchange theory may ignore the fact that many interactions are not driven solely by rationality but rather by irrational motivations such as altruism or affection. Also, the theory is premised on the assumption of an imbalance in the relative power of the parties to the exchange. Finally, in contrast to social constructionist theories, the quality and the meaning of the exchange are ignored.

Continuity Theory Continuity theory (Atchley, 1989) proposes that despite some disruptions of established roles and behavior patterns across the life span, individuals are inclined to maintain as much as possible the same habits, personalities, and lifestyles they developed in earlier years. Individuals are also predisposed to continue many activities and major tasks into older age. Further, individuals in later life make adaptations that allow them to gain a sense of continuity between the past and the present. The theory posits that it is this sense of continuity across the life span that contributes to well-being in later life. Continuity theory’s implicit reference to trajectories and their constitutive roles, identities, values, and behaviors across life stages finds parallels in aspects of the life course perspective. Assumptions contained in a person’s perceptions of the meaning of time—their own constructions or culture-bounded views—may call into question the usefulness of continuity theory. Gary Kenyon, Jan-Eric Ruth, and Wilhelm Mader (1999) questioned whether continuity theory is about aging per se or whether it reflects a cohort, cultural, or period effect based on an unexamined belief in a linear view of time.

Life Span Development Theory Life span development theory is one of the most widely cited explanatory frameworks in the psychology of aging as well as social gerontology. The framework conceptualizes ontogenetic development as biologically and socially constituted and as manifesting both developmental universale (homogeneity) and interindividual variability (e.g., differences in genetics and in social class). This perspective also proposes that the second half of life is characterized by significant individual differentiation, multidirectionality, and intraindividual plasticity or adaptability. Using the life span development perspective, Paul Baltes and Jacqui Smith (1999) identified three principles regulating the dynamics between biology and culture across the ontogenetic life span: First, evolutionary selection benefits decrease with age; second, the need for culture increases with age; and third, the efficacy of culture decreases with age. Their focus is on how these dynamics contribute to the optimal expression of human development and the production of outcomes of adaptive fitness. Drawing from evolutionary theory and ontogenetic theories of learning, Bakes and Smith also postulated that a condition of loss, limitation, or deficit could play a catalytic role for positive change.

Selective Optimization with Compensation Theory Life span development theory has produced one overall theory to explain how individuals manage adaptive (successful) development in later life. The theory identifies three fundamental mechanisms or strategies: selection, optimization, and compensation (Bakes & Carstensen, 1999). This is a model of psychological and behavioral adaptation in which the central focus is on managing the dynamics between gains and losses as one ages. Selection refers to the increasing restriction of an individual’s life to fewer domains of functioning because of age-related loss in the range of adaptive potential. Optimization reflects the idea that people engage in behaviors that augment or enrich their general reserves and maximize their chosen life courses. Like selection, compensation results from restriction of the range of adaptive potential and becomes operative when specific behavioral capacities are lost or are reduced below a standard required for adequate functioning. This lifelong process of selective optimization with compensation enables people to age successfully.

Socioemotional Selectivity Theory In this theory, Laura Carstensen (1992) combined insights from developmental psychology—particularly the selective optimization with compensation model—with social exchange theory to explain why the social exchange and interaction networks of older persons are reduced over time (a phenomenon that disengagement theory tried to explain). Through mechanisms of socioemotional selectivity, individuals reduce interactions with some people as they age while increasing emotional closeness with significant others, such as an adult child or a sibling. Carstensen’s theory provides a concise developmental-behavioral explanation for selective interaction in old age. This theory explains the change in social contact by the self-interested need for emotional closeness with significant others, which leads to increasingly selective interactions with others in advancing age. Such chosen interactions reflect the levels of reward these exchanges of emotional support achieve for older persons.

Social Constructionist Theories Social constructionist theories are among the more frequently cited perspectives in social gerontology. Social constructionist theories draw from a long tradition of micro-level analysis in the social sciences: symbolic interactionism (Mead, 1934), phenomenology (Berger & Luckmann, 1966), and ethno-methodology (Garfinkel, 1967). Using hermeneutic or interpretive methods, social constructionism focuses on individual agency and social behavior within larger structures of society and particularly on the subjective meanings of age and the aging experience. Key concepts of social constructionist theories of aging include social meaning, social realities, social relations, attitudes toward aging and the aged, and life events.

Researchers working in this tradition emphasize their interest in understanding, if not explaining, individual processes of aging as influenced by social definitions and social structures. Examples include Jaber Gubrium’s 1993 study of the subjective meanings of quality of care and quality of life for residents of nursing homes and how each resident constructs meanings from her or his own experiences. These meanings emerge from analyses of life narratives but cannot be measured by predefined measurement scales, such as those used by most survey researchers. Sharon Kaufmann (1994) examined how frailty is socially produced through the interaction of older individuals, their caregivers, and their health professionals. One critique of social constructionist theories is that their micro-level focus obscures macro-level effects such as cohort, historical, and age stratification influences. As well, this perspective ignores structure and may minimize the role of power.

Feminist Theories of Aging Feminist theories of aging, or feminist gerontology, give priority to gender as an organizing principle for social life across the life span that significantly alters the experience of aging, often in inequitable ways (Calasanti, 1999). This theoretical perspective also challenges what counts as knowledge and how it functions in the lives of older women and men. Current theories and models of aging are regarded as insufficient because they fail to address gender relations, the experience of women in the context of aging and caregiving demands, or issues of race, ethnicity, or class. At the macro-level of analyses, feminist theories of aging combine with political economy and critical perspectives to examine differential access to the key material, health, and caring resources that substantially alters the experience of aging for women and men. For example, feminist researchers seek to explain the higher rates of poverty among older women compared to men and propose changes in the ideologies and institutions that perpetuate it. From a feminist perspective, family caregiving can be understood as an experience of obligation, structured by the gender-based division of domestic labor and the devaluing of unpaid work (Stroller, 1993). At the micro-level, feminist perspectives hold that gender should be examined in the context of social meanings, reflecting the influence of the social constructivist approach.

Political Economy of Aging Theory This perspective, which draws originally from Marxism (Marx, 1967), conflict theory (Simmel, 1966), and critical theory (Habermas, 1971), attempts to explain how the interaction of economic and political forces determines how social resources are allocated and how variations in the treatment and status of older adults can be understood by examining public policies, economic trends, and social structural factors (Estes, 2001). A political economy perspective applied to aging maintains that socioeconomic and political constraints shape the experience of aging, resulting in the loss of power, autonomy, and influence of older persons. Life experiences are seen as being patterned not only by age but also by class, gender, and race and ethnicity. These structural factors, often institutionalized or reinforced by economic and public policies, constrain opportunities, choices, and experiences of later life. Another focus of the political economy of aging perspective is how ageism is constructed and reproduced through social practices and policies and how it negatively affects the well-being of older people (Bytheway, 1995).

Critical Theories of Aging Critical perspectives are reflected in several theoretical trends in contemporary social gerontology, including the political economy of aging, feminist theories, theories of diversity, and humanistic gerontology. Coming primarily out of the Frankfurt School of Critical Theory (Habermas, 1971), and poststructural-ism (Foucault, 1977), these perspectives share a common focus on criticizing the process of power as well as traditional positivistic approaches to knowledge. Critical gerontology has developed two distinct patterns, one that focuses on humanistic dimensions of aging and the other on structural components. Harry Moody (1993) postulated four goals of the humanistic strand of critical theory: (a) to theorize subjective and interpretive dimensions of aging, (b) to focus on praxis (involvement in practical change) instead of technical advancement, (c) to link academics and practitioners through praxis, and (d) to produce emancipatory knowledge.

A second strand emphasizes that critical gerontology should create positive models of aging focusing on the strengths and diversity of age, in addition to critiquing positivist knowledge (Bengtson et al., 1997). To reach the goals of critical gerontology, researchers focus on the key concepts of power, social action, and social meanings in examining the social aspects of age and aging. Social constructionism, feminist theories, and critical perspectives have gained prominence in social gerontological theorizing, mirroring theoretical developments in sociology and the humanities. Not uncommonly, social gerontologists combine insights from all three perspectives to guide their research and interpret findings. At the same time, these theoretical perspectives pose a challenge to the scientific assumptions that have traditionally guided gerontological research.

Postmodernist Theories Postmodernist perspectives in aging, sometimes referred to as a postpositivist or post-Enlightenment perspective, follow the work of Michel Foucault (1926-1984), Jean-François Lyotard (1924-1998), and Richard Rorty (1931-2007). There are various strands of postmodernism (economic, feminist, cultural, and deconstructionist), but almost all challenge the Enlightenment’s emphasis on individual freedom, rationality, progress, and the power of science to better the human condition. They see science and knowledge as inexorably linked to social control and power. Most postmodernists reject the canons of science; the assumption that reason can provide an objective, reliable, and universal foundation for knowledge; and the idea that reality has a unitary nature that can be definitively observed and understood. This position of extreme relativity toward truth causes postmodernists to challenge the relevance or even the possibility of theory. Postmodernism has been strongly attacked for its antitheoretical stance and for having provided a great deal of criticism of existing theory but offering little that can actually replace it. What postmodernism has contributed is to make social theorists aware of the limits of using a modern metaphor to understand contemporary circumstances and the limits of methodological approaches developed under the modernist metaphor (Pescosolido & Rubin, 2000).


The goal in this entry was, first, to examine the state of theory and knowledge building in social gerontology and assess its prospects for future development and, second, to present an overview of the major theories in the field. Although theory development remains crucial from the perspective of science, many in social gerontology seem to question the importance, or even the validity, of theory. Others may see theorizing as an impediment to getting on with practical matters of solving the problems widely experienced by older people and their families.

In the quest to understand the diverse phenomena of aging, social gerontologists focus on three sets of issues: aging, the aged themselves, and age as a dimension of structure and social organization. Societal aging poses new problems for gerontologists. Developing knowledge that informs policies that can effectively deal with the challenges posed by growing numbers of elders will be crucial in the coming decades. There are good reasons for theory development in the field of social gerontology.

Yet theory development has lagged. This entry then identified specific problems that impede the development of theory and cumulative knowledge building. First, researchers need to make explicit their assumptions and theoretical orientations when presenting their results and interpretations. Second, there has been a proliferation of single aspect research findings—too frequently generated by overly narrow research inquiries—that lack theoretical grounding and explanation. There is a need to raise these empirical generalizations to an explanatory level and integrate explanations and understandings with previous knowledge and explanations. Third, there is the need to cross disciplinary boundaries and develop multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary causal explanations of broader theoretical scope. Fourth, researchers need to be more sensitive to the social dimensions of scholarly research and values that imbue paradigmatic frameworks, affecting the kinds of questions asked, the analytic approaches and methods chosen, and the interpretations put forth. This entry then provided an overview of the major theories in social gerontology.

In the 1990s and 2000s the scientific approach to knowledge in social gerontology has been criticized by those who espouse social constructionist or critical approaches. They argue that general explanatory laws cannot account for people’s day-to-day experience and meanings and such laws are rendered impossible because of individual choice making. More fundamentally, critical and postmodernist theorists reject the Enlightenment ideals of reason and progress; they critique science as a source of subordination. Within social gerontology, debates over epistemology and the limitations of science and positivism continue.

Yet it may be possible to accommodate these seemingly incommensurate epistemological positions. Perhaps explanation and understanding in the complex field of social gerontology should draw from a range of theories and theoretical perspectives, depending on the problem at hand. This diversity of theoretical perspectives can offer complementary insights. However, in order for this to happen, it is important that researchers pay more attention to the accumulated knowledge of the field and to be explicit in their theoretical perspectives and insights. After all, there is nothing so practical as a good theory.