Sincronía Spring 2009


Taking Aim at Gerontology: From Biomedical Science to Social Science– A Sociological Journey


Jason L. Powell, University of Liverpool



Gerontology can be defined as the scientific and social analysis of aging (Phillipson, 1998). The discipline of gerontology or ‘aging studies’ is concerned with understanding age and aging from a variety of perspectives and integrating information from different social science and human science disciplines such as psychology and sociology. The concern of gerontology is in the definition and theorization of age. In western societies, a person’s age is counted on a chronological or numerical foundation, beginning from birth to the current point of age, or when an individual has died. Chronological aging is a habit we all engage in: birthdays and wedding anniversaries for example. Counting age is a social construction because it is a practice underpinned by the development of industrial capitalism.

Age has three main focal points of interest to gerontology. First, the aging of an individual takes place within a particular period of time and space.  By virtue of this, individual experiences of age are enabled or constrained by their location in time, space and cultural uniformity. 

Second, as individuals, society has a number of culturally and socially defined expectations how people of certain ages are supposed to behave. As individuals, society has a number of culturally and socially defined expectations how aging impacts upon how people are compartmentalized into the “stages of life”. Historically, the stages of life were presented as a religious discourse which formed the basis for the cultural expectations about behaviour and appearance. The life stage model is still used in taken for granted popular usage in society which impinges on how our lives are structured.

Thirdly, age and aging have a biological and physiological dimension, so that over time and space, the appearance of physical bodies change.

This latter definition has been illustrated by ‘bio-medical gerontology’, advocating scientific explanations of ageing.


Gerontology as a scientific discipline has been dominated with a pre-occupation with bio-medical sciences and its constituent elements of ‘decline’ models of biology and psychology. Gerontology based on social explanatory models sees aging as a socially constructed category with differential epistemological prisms: for example, functionalism and feminist gerontology. However, whilst both definitions are fundamental to the complexities of aging in the social world, the theoretical interpretations of aging are in their ‘infancy’ when compared to the analysis and attention afforded to class, ‘race’ and gender in sociological theorising.


     If we take the scientific and social dimensions of gerontology, we can illuminate both the relevance and importance they have for understanding constructions of aging. We can suggest that Gerontology has two focal points in its broad conceptualization:


Gerontology as ‘Scientific’ approaches

Psychological aging processes include changes in personality and mental functioning. According to Kunkel and Moran (1999, 5) “changes are considered a ‘normal’ part of adult development, some are the result of physiological changes in the way the brain functions”. What is meant by “normal” development? The “decline” aspect of aging is something which was picked up by the historical rise of scientific discourse and enlightenment discourses of truth and rationality. Indeed, age and aging have a biological and physiological dimension, so that over time and space, the appearance of physical bodies change. Physical aging, for the bio-medical gerontology, is related to changing characteristics on the body: the greying of hair, wrinkling of the skin, decrease in reproductive capacity and cardiovascular functioning. An interesting question is whether these physical changes are inevitable, ‘natural’ consequences of aging?


Biological aging is related to changes of growth and decline within the human body. For example, Bytheway (1995) suggests the notion of ‘growth’ is a central scientific discourse relating to the true changes associated with human aging to the biological body. Growth is seen as a positive development by biologists (Bytheway, 1995) in that a ‘baby’ grows into a ‘child’ who grows into an ‘adult’ but then instead of growing into ‘old age’ the person declines. This scientific sanctioned perception is that growth ‘slows’ when a person reaches ‘old age’ and is subsequently interpreted as ‘decline’ rather than as ‘change’ that is taken for granted with earlier life-course transitions.


     The effects of the decline analogy can be seen in the dominance of bio-medical arguments about the physiological ‘problems’ of the ‘aging body’. The 'master narrative' of biological decline hides the location of complex web of intersections of social ideas comprising an aging culture. Indeed, a distinctive contribution of sociology as a discipline has been to highlight how individual lives and behaviour which was thought to be determined solely by biology (Powell, 2005) are, in fact, heavily influenced by social environments in which people live and hence are heavily socially constructed.


Gerontology as social approach

     The broad pedigree of sociological perspectives of ageing can be located to the early post-war years with the concern about the consequences of demographic change and the potential shortage of 'younger' workers in USA and UK.  ‘Social gerontology’ emerged as a field of study which attempted to respond to the social policy implications of demographic change (Phillipson, 1982). Such disciplines were shaped by significant external forces.  First, by state intervention to achieve specific outcomes in health and social policy; secondly, by a political and economic environment which viewed an aging population as creating a 'social problem' for society.


     This impinged mainly upon the creation of functionalist accounts of age and aging primarily in US academies. Functionalist sociology dominated the sociological landscape in the USA from the 1930’s up until 1960s. Talcott Parsons was a key exponent of general functionalist thought and argued that society needed certain functions in order to maintain its well-being: the stability of the family; circulation of elites in education drawing from a “pool of talent” (Powell, 2005). Society was seen as akin to a biological organism – all the parts (education/family/religion/government) in the system working together in order for society to function with equilibrium.


An key point to note is that theories often mirror the norms and values of their creators and their social times, reflecting culturally dominant views of what should be the appropriate way to analyse social phenomena. The two functionalist theories contrasted here follow this normative pattern; disengagement and activity theories suggest not only how individual behaviour changes with aging, but also imply how it should change.  


Disengagement theory is associated with Cumming and Henry (1961) Growing Old: The process of disengagement who propose that gradual withdrawal of older people from work roles and social relationships is both an inevitable and natural process: '...withdrawal may be accompanied from the outset by an increased preoccupation with himself: certain institutions may make it easy for him' (Cumming and Henry 1961: 14).


Such withdrawal prepares society, the individual older person, and those with whom s/he had personal relationships for the ultimate disengagement: death (ibid, 76).  For this variant of functionalism, this process benefits society, since it means that the death of individual society members does not prevent the ongoing functioning of the social system. Cumming and Henry further propose that the process of disengagement is inevitable, rewarding and universal process of mutual withdrawal of the individual and society from each other with advancing age – was normal and to be expected. This theory argued that it was beneficial for both the ageing individual and society that such disengagement takes place in order to minimise the social disruption caused at an ageing person’s eventual death.


Retirement is a good illustration of disengagement process, enabling the ageing person to be freed of the responsibilities of an occupation and to pursue other roles not necessarily aligned to full-pay of economic generation. Through disengagement, Cumming and Henry argued, society anticipated the loss of ageing people through death and brought “new blood” into full participation within the social world.


A number of critiques exist: firstly, this theory condones indifference towards 'old age' and social problems. Secondly, disengagement theory underplays the cultural and economic structures have in creating, with intentional consequences of, withdrawal. In order to legitimise its generalisations, disengagement theory self-praised itself to objective and value-free rigour of research methods: survey and questionnaire methods of gerontological inquiry. In a sense, by arguing for ‘disengagement’ from work roles under the guise of objectivity is a very powerful argument for governments to legitimise boundaries of who can work and who cannot based on age.


The second functionalist perspective in Gerontology is called Activity theory that is a counterpoint to disengagement theory, since it claims a successful 'old age' is can be achieved by maintaining roles and relationships. Activity theory actually pre-dates disengagement theory and suggests that aging can be lively and creative experience. Any loss of roles, activities or relationships within old age, should be replaced by new roles or activities to ensure happiness, value consensus and well-being.  For activity theorists, disengagement is not a natural process as advocated by Cumming and Henry. For activity theorists, disengagement theory is inherently agist and does not promote in any shape or form ‘positive ageing’. Thus, “activity” was seen as an ethical and academic response to the disengagement thesis which re-casted retirement as joyous and mobile.


Despite this, Activity theory neglects issues of power, inequality and conflict between age groups.  An apparent 'value consensus' may reflect the interests of powerful and dominant groups within society who find it advantageous to have age power relations organised in such a way (Powell, 2005). Such functionalist schools in Gerontology are important in shaping social theory responses to them, such functionalist theories ‘impose’ a sense of causality on ageing by implying you will either ‘disengage’ or will be ‘active’.


     Marxist gerontology or Political economy of old age was coined as a critical response to theoretical dominance of functionalism. This critical branch of Marxist gerontology grew as a direct response to the hegemonic dominance of structural functionalism in the form of disengagement theory, the biomedical paradigm and world economic crises of the 1970s. As Phillipson (1982) pointed out in the UK huge forms of social expenditure were allocated to older people. Consequently, not only were older people viewed in medical terms but in resource terms by governments.


     This brought a new perception to attitudes to age and ageing. For example, in the USA, Political Economy theory was pioneered via the work of Estes (1979) The Aging Enterprise. Similarly, in the UK, the work of Phillipson (1982) Capitalism and the Construction of Old Age added a critical sociological dimension to understanding age and ageing in advanced capitalist societies. For Estes (1979) in the U.S.A, the class structure is targeted as the key determinant of the position of older people in capitalist society. Estes’ political economy challenges the ideology of older people as belonging to a homogenous group unaffected by dominant structures in society.

A critical evaluation of ‘political economy of old age’ is that is over-concentrates analysis of the treatment of older people in terms of class relations within capitalist societies and neglects differences between capitalist societies in the treatment of older people. Political economy of old age approach homogenizes and reifies older age by discounting potential for improvements in the social situation of older people. Hence, the complexity of social life is more of a continuous, never-ending project with variable outcomes than the Political Economy theory gives credence.


     Another emerging perspective in Gerontology is feminist gerontology. Whilst in recent years there has been a small but growing body of evidence – in mainstream sociological theory the inter-connection of age and gender has been under-theorised and overlooked. 'Maintream’ refers to dominant theories in the gerontological field such as functionalist and Marxist theory who could be accused of being ‘gender blind’. In their pioneering work, Arber and Ginn Connecting Gender and Aging (1995) point out – there exists a tiny handful of feminist writers who take the topic of age seriously in understanding gender. They suggest that the general failure to incorporate women into mainstream theoretical perspectives on ageing is a reflection of our resistance to incorporate women into society and hence, into sociological and psychological research. They further suggest that because older women tend to occupy a position of lower class status, especially in terms of economic status than men of all ages and younger women, they are given less theoretical attention.


     In all known societies the relations of distribution and production are influenced by gender and thus take on a gendered meaning. Gender relations of distribution in capitalist society are historically rooted and are transformed as the means of production change. Similarly, age relations are linked to the capitalist mode of production and relations of distribution. “Wages” take on a specific meaning depending on age. For example, teenagers work for less money than adults, who in turn work for less money than middle-aged adults. Further, young children rely on personal relations with family figures such as parents. Many older people rely on resources distributed by the state.


     There is a "double standard of aging" with age in women having particularly strong negative connotations. Older women are viewed as unworthy of respect or consideration (Arber and Ginn 1995). The double standard of aging as arising from the sets of conventional expectations as to age-pertinent attitudes and roles for each sex, which apply in patriarchal society. These roles are defined as a male and a female 'chronology', socially defined and sanctioned so that the experience of prescribed functions is sanctioned by disapproval. For example, male chronology hinges on employment, but a woman's age status is defined in terms of events in the reproductive cycle.


     Unfortunately, feminist theories that focus upon the social problems of older people may have promoted the agism of which many are arguing against. Old age as a term can no longer be used to describe and homogenise the experiences of people spanning an age range of 30 to 40 years.  The pace of cohort differentiation has speeded up, with different age groups reflecting cohort differences in life chances that are created by period specific conditions, policies and economic transformations.  Hence, there is differentiation of subjective experiences of aging in the lifestyles of older people.


     As a reaction against macro theories of gerontology such as functionalism, political economy of old age and feminist theorizing, postmodern gerontology has emerged as a school of thought. The work of Featherstone and Hepworth (1993) and Featherstone and Wernick (1995) are important in the emergence of ‘postmodern gerontology’, and their work has fed into wider debates on postmodernism in Canada and USA. They expose and deconstruct both the scientific gerontology and macro stances about old age, particularly its claims of objectivity and truth about bodies. Featherstone and Hepworth (1993) maintain that old age is a mask that conceals the essential identity of the person beneath.  That is, while the external appearance is changing with age, the essential identity is not, so that one may be surprised that one looks different than the unchanging image in one’s head. Furthermore, Gilleard and Higgs (2001) claim that life course models that propose universal stages of life are fundamentally flawed.  To exemplify the fluid and blurred nature of aging identity, Featherstone and Hepworth (1993) argue that in Western society, “children” are becoming more like adults and adults more childlike. There is an increasing similarity in modes of presentation of self, gestures and postures, fashions and leisure time pursuits adopted by both parents and their children.  If correct, this can be seen as a move towards a uniage style. The “private sphere” of family life is becoming less private, as children are granted access to adult media such as television where previously concealed aspects of adult life (such as sex, death, money, and problems besetting adults who are anxious about the roles and selves they present to children) are no longer so easy to keep as a secret.  A uni-age behavioural style is also influenced by the advent of media imagery that, as a powerful form of communication, bypasses the controls that adults had previously established over the kinds of information formerly believed to be suitable for children. Coupled with this, Katz (1996) Disciplining Old Age and Powell (2005) Social Theory and Aging have developed Foucauldian Gerontology in analysing power relations, surveillance and governmentality in their applicability to understanding aging.


As a critique of postmodern gerontology and its emphasis on deconstructing universal narratives of aging, Chris Phillipson (1998) Reconstructing Old Age suggests that in a restructuring of social gerontology we should acknowledge how the ‘global’ and the ‘local’ articulate and recognise that globalization is unevenly distributed and is also a western phenomenon indicative of the unequal power relations between the ‘west and the rest’. Phillipson suggests that occidental globalization impinges on the poverty status of older people universally.


Gerontology is then multidisciplinary and is the principal instrument of orthodox theorising about human aging. It provides a space for the search for meaning about what it is to be 'old' in modern society and for issuing prescriptions but alternative interpretations about aging.





Arber, S. and Ginn, J. (eds.) (1995). Connecting Gender and Ageing: a  sociological approach.  Milton Keynes: Open University Press.

Bytheway, W (1995) Ageism, OUP, Milton Keynes.

Cumming, E. and Henry, W. (1961). Growing Old: The process of disengagement. Basic Books: New York.

Estes, C (1979) The Aging Enterprise, Jossey Bass, San Francisco

Featherstone, M. & Hepworth, M. (1993). ‘Images in Ageing’, in Bond, J & Coleman, P. (Eds.) Ageing in Society. London: Sage.

Featherstone, M. and Wernick, A. (1995). Images of Ageing. London: Routledge.

Gilleard, C. & Higgs, P. (2001) Cultures of Ageing, Prentice Hall: London

Katz, S (1996) Disciplining Old Age, Charlottesville: UPV.

Kunkel, S. and Morgan, L. (1999) Aging: The Social Context, Pine Forge: New York

Phillipson, C (1982) Capitalism and the Construction of Old Age, Macmillan, London.

Phillipson, C (1998) Reconstructing Old Age. Sage: London

Powell, J.L. (2005) Social Theory and Aging. Rowman and Littlefield: Lanham


Sincronía Spring 2009