Guide to the vibrant and

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approach are that: “(1) aging occurs from birth to

death (thereby distinguishing this theory from

those that focus exclusively on the elderly); (2)

aging involves social, psychological and biological

processes; and (3) aging experiences are shaped by

cohort-historical factors.”

From the early 1980s, neo-Marxist perspectives

such as political economy theory became influential

within studies of aging. Beginning in the late

1970s and early 1980s with the work of Carroll

Estes and Alan Walker, these theorists initiated

the task of describing the respective roles of capitalism

and the state in contributing to systems of

domination and marginalization of older people.

The political economy perspective is distinguished

from the dominant liberal-pluralist theory in political

science and sociology in that political economists

focus on the role of economic and political

systems and other social structures and social

forces in shaping and reproducing the prevailing

power arrangements and inequalities in society.

In the political economy perspective, social policies

pertaining to retirement income, health,

and social service benefits and entitlements are

examined as products of economic, political, and

socio-cultural processes and institutional and individual

forces that coalesce in any given sociohistorical

period. Social policy is an outcome of

the social struggles, the conflicts, and the dominant

power relations of the period. Policy reflects

the structure and culture of advantage and disadvantage

as enacted through class, race/ethnicity,

gender, and age relations. Social policy is itself a

powerful determinant of the life chances and conditions

of individuals and population groups such

as older people.

Another important approach is that of cultural

and humanistic gerontology, sometimes referred

to as moral economy or more broadly as cultural

gerontology. This perspective, first developed by

Thomas Cole and Harry Moody, has gained popularity,

as the classical theoretical opposition of

structure versus agency and culture versus structure

has given way to an appreciation of the interplay

and “recursive” relationships of culture, and

agency and structure. Cultural gerontology is part

of the trend towards theories that reject the sole

determinacy of economics in explaining social institutions

such as the state and old age policy. The

approach provides a re-formulation of the unidirectional

causality implied in the classical base/

superstructure (see ideology) model of Marxism.

What has followed is an intensified focus on

addressing issues relating to meaning and experience

in later life, with critical questions raised

about the efficacy of western culture in providing

adequate moral resources to sustain the lives of

older people.

Biographical perspectives have also emerged as

a significant stream of work within gerontology.

Biographical or “life history” research has an extensive

pedigree in the social sciences (building on

the work of W. I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki,

The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, 1918–20).

Some of the key researchers in the field of aging

using biographical and life history techniques

have included James Birren, Joanna Bornat,

Peter Coleman, Paul Thompson, and Gary Kenyon.

Birren’s influential edited collection Aging and

Biography (1996) took the view that biographical

approaches could contribute towards understanding

both individual and shared aspects of aging

over the life-course. Examining reactions to personal

crises and turning points could, it was

argued, provide researchers with unique insights

into the way individuals construct their lives.

Equally, however, studying lives provides a perspective

on the influence of social institutions

such as work and the employment and the family.

Biographical data thus help in understanding

what Ruth and Kenyon (Biography in Adult Development

and Aging, 1996) refer to as the possibilities

and limits set by the historical period in which

people live.

Finally, theories of aging drawn around issues

relating to identity and the self have also gained in

importance. Mike Hepworth and Mike Featherstone

in The Body (1991) have developed the view

that aging can be best explained as a mask. Here,

physical processes of aging, as reflected in outward

appearance, are contrasted to a real self

that remains young. This theory, which has come

to be known as the “mask of aging,” holds that

over time the aging body becomes a cage from

which a younger self-identity cannot escape. The

body, while it is malleable, can still provide access

to a variety of consumer identities. However, as

aging gathers pace, it becomes increasingly difficult

to “re-cycle” the failing body, which simultaneously

denies access to that world of choice.

Simon Biggs in The Mature Imagination (1999) suggests

that the struggle between inner and external

worlds may result in older people being at war

with themselves, in a battle between a desire for

youthful expression and the frailties generated by

an aging body.

Globalization is another significant issue

affecting both theories of aging and the daily lives

age age


of older people. An important development at a

macro-level arises from the interplay between

demographic change (notably longer life expectancy)

and the trends associated with political and

cultural globalization. Awareness of living in an

interconnected world brings to the fore questions

of cultural diversity, different understandings

about what it means to grow old, and the issue

of who we take to be an older person.

The tendency in studies of aging has been to use

western models of development to define old age,

these taking sixty or sixty-five as the boundary set

by conventional retirement and pension systems.

But in some continents (notably sub-Saharan

Africa), old age may be more meaningfully defined

as starting from fifty (or even earlier). Access to

pension systems to mark the onset of old age is

itself a culturally specific process. Relevant to

western contexts (though changing even here

with privatization), it has little resonance in countries

such as China where, out of 90 million people

aged sixty-five plus, just one-quarter have entitlement

to a pension. In a number of senses the

traditional formulation of “aging societies” is unhelpful,

given global inequalities. Global society

contains numerous demographic realities – aging

Europe, to take one example, as compared with

increasingly youthful United States, and falling

life expectancy in Russia and sub-Saharan Africa.

Such contrasts create significant variations in the

construction of growing old – national, transnational,

subcultural – producing, as a result,

new questions and perspectives for research in

the field of aging. CHRIS PHILLIPSON

age differentiation

– see age.

age group

– see age.


– see age.

agency and structure

Beginning in the 1970s, the expression “agency

and structure” has been employed to thematize

the relationship between the enactment of social

practices on the one hand and large-scale and

historically enduring social phenomena on the

other. Language is often used to illustrate several

important issues in agency–structure relations.

On the one hand, language exists as an observable

reality only when actors use language (converse,

read, or write) in specific ways at particular

moments in local settings. On the other hand,

from a structural point of view, a given language

exhibits general patterns (for example, syntax, semantics,

grammar) that are never fully realized in

any single conversation or piece of writing, although

they are presupposed by all of them. In

the case of language, the problem of agency and

structure focuses on the relationship between the

enactment of linguistic practices on the one hand

and the large-scale structure of language on the


In terms of the agency–structure problem,

agency implies enactment rather than autonomy

or empowerment, which in other contexts the

term sometimes implies. The term structure is

used in several different ways. Language is only

one example of cultural structures, a category

that also comprises culinary cultures, religious

cultures, cultures of dominant and subaltern

groups, and so on. Material structures are relevant

as well. For example, a capitalist market, no matter

how extensive and dynamic it may be, exists only

so long as traders engage in acts of exchange of

material resources. If acts of exchange were to

cease, say following the collapse of the value of

instruments of credit, then even the most massive

and structured market would come to a halt and

ultimately cease to exist. Fields of the distribution

of scarce resources can be framed in terms of the

agency–structure problem as well. For example,

the practice of continuous reinvestment of profits,

about which Max Weber wrote, enables entrepreneurs

and investors to accumulate large quantities

of capital. Skillful reinvestment can

ultimately concentrate large amounts of capital

under the control of a very small group while the

majority of a population is not very prosperous.

But if profits are not skillfully reinvested in practice,

then the structure of inequality may change.

Finally, social networks and other patterns of articulated

social relationships may be understood

in terms of the agency–structure problem as well.

For example, the networks of weak ties at the

center of Mark Granovetter’s well-known research

may be understood as a set of casual, intermittent

interactions among acquaintances, during which

useful information is discussed and thus transmitted.

Each link in the network is an enacted set of

conversational practices, and the form of the

network is produced one link at a time as these

conversations occur.

To appreciate the specificity of the agency–

structure problem, it must be understood in contrast

to the problem of the relationship between

the individual and the collectivity. This second

age differentiation agency and structure


problem, which is one of the oldest and most

intractable dilemmas in social theory, restates in

sociological terms the philosophical conundrum

of free will versus determinism. Are individuals so

constituted and constrained by their structural

circumstances that they have little or no free

will at all, as E´mile Durkheim, for example, maintained?

Or are social structures merely the epiphenomenal

consequences of what actors do as

they each pursue their personal interests and desires,

as can be inferred, for example, from the

writings of Adam Smith (1723–90)? The dilemma

here is that the sociologist is virtually compelled

to assume a reductionist position. Either individuals

are epiphenomenal to structures or structures

are epiphenomenal to individuals. The

agency–structure problem does not compel the

sociologist to reduce one phenomenon to another.

This is because, from an agency–structure point of

view, the individual is no longer a counterpoint to

structure. Instead, the counterpoint to structure is

social praxis, that is, the enactment of forms of

social conduct or behavior. Enacted forms of behavior

generate (that is, construct or produce) the

realities of social life, whether they be cultural,

economic, distributional, or network patterns.

The same cannot be said of individuals. Individuals

may want to act in certain ways in order to

achieve their interests or wants, but they may lack

the competence or resources to do so. In other

words, individuals in a given setting may not be

able to enact certain practices, even if motivated

to do so. Conversely, actors may generate aspects

of social reality (for example, cultural domination

as Pierre Bourdieu suggests) though they are unaware

they exercise agency in this regard.

How is the agency–structure problem amenable

to non-reductive solutions? To begin, consider not

a single locally enacted practice, but rather a single

form of practice, which is to say a form of practice

that may be enacted each day by numerous actors

in different settings and may be enacted as well by

successive generations of actors. Now we can

introduce the idea of social reproduction, which

is to say the recurrent reenactment of similar

forms of practice. Of course, no two instances of

enactment are entirely the same: for example,

when conversing, people make grammatical and

syntactical mistakes, or engage in creative wordplay

rather than speaking in conventional forms.

Nonetheless, over many instances, people use language

in broadly similar ways, and this is what it

means to say that forms of linguistic practice are

reproduced. But, as previously mentioned, no

single form of practice can generate a large-scale

structure such as an entire language or market.

Large-scale structures are generated when many

different forms of practice are reproduced. Since

this reproduction takes place over some duration

of time in a variety of different locales, sociologists

can analyze structures best by abstracting

structural properties of praxis they find to be

associated with one another. Indeed, the same

set of interactions may help to generate a number

of different structures. For example, a capitalist

market is generated in ongoing sequences of commercial

practices and economic exchange. But the

same practices generate a network of business

acquaintances. Practices may also result from

the use of a common language or dialect, and so

on. Which of these structures is of interest is an

analytical choice on the part of the sociologist.

We now can see how structured practices (practices

that are reproduced in broadly similar forms)

can sustain large-scale structures, but what part

do these structures play in the enactment of practices?

The issue here turns on social competencies.

Babies and newcomers to a culture or society do

not arrive knowing how to speak a given language

or how to execute a market trade. Individuals gain

agency (the ability to enact given practices) as they

learn how to perform the forms of conduct that

are a matter of routine in a given group. From this

point of view, the structured form of social practices

precedes and shapes how that practice is

performed. Looked at from a broader perspective,

the set of practices that form a language or a

capitalist market or a network of weak ties precedes

any given round of social reproduction. In

the end what we have is what Anthony Giddens

terms in The Constitution of Society (1984) a “duality

of structure.” That is to say, there is an ongoing

reciprocal relationship between structure and

agency. Structural circumstances provide the

means to reproduce social practices, but when

social practices are reproduced they perpetuate

the structure, making it a social reality in a new

historical moment. In very stable social groups,

for example tradition-bound villages, this reciprocal

relation between structure and agency in

social reproduction may go on for generations.

Reductionism may not be inevitable when social

life is conceived in terms of the connection between

agency and structure, but it is still a potential

pitfall. Symbolic interactionists, for example,

sometimes reduce structures of all kinds to the

practices through which they are produced without

regard for the structural properties of practices

that have been reproduced many times over

in the past. Structure, in effect, is reduced to

agency and structure agency and structure


enactment. It is symptomatic of this problem

that symbolic interactionism stresses the prospect

of creativity in interaction and other social

processes. In a more balanced view, the structural

conditions of praxis, including all necessary competencies

and resources needed to engage in social

conduct, both enable actors to perform actions in

certain ways and thereby also limit actors to performing

according to their competencies. However,

creativity and resistance to established ways

of doing things are not thereby ruled out. Indeed,

many practices, especially those found in the

modern era, permit and sometimes require some

degree of innovation. This is vividly illustrated in

the fine arts, where structured practices (for

example, techniques for painting, musical composition,

dancing, and so forth) are employed to

produce novel works, or, more radically, new artistic

genres. Similar possibilities exist in many walks

of life, including, of course, politics, where resistors

and rebels may resist oppressive practices to

oppose and replace the powers that be.

It is also possible to reduce agency to structure.

This happens when practices are conceived as so

completely derived from structural conditions

that their social reproduction is inevitable. This

form of reductionism can be observed in the

works of Bourdieu. Bourdieu often investigated

how it happens that groups of actors who are

disadvantaged and subordinated to others somehow

participate in the reproduction of their own

disadvantages and subordination. He conceives

the practices in which they engage (key elements

of their habitus; see habitus and field) as unselfconsciously

reproducing a field of inequality. It is

symptomatic of Bourdieu’s structural reductionism

that he conceives very few opportunities for

actors to resist or rebel or, for that matter, even to

recognize the ways in which they reproduce the

structural conditions of their own inequality.

While agency only denotes the enactment of practices

in the agency–structure duality, it leaves

open the possibility, given the proper situation,

that actors may seize the moment to devise new

practices that improve the conditions in which

they live.

Giddens’s structuration theory as expressed in

The Constitution of Society (1984) and discussed in Ira

Cohen’s Structuration Theory (1989) is widely regarded

as the most thoroughly developed set of sociological

concepts that pivots on the relationship

between agency and structure. Giddens’s work

has influenced numerous empirical works, and

new, substantively oriented innovations in structuration

theory are currently under development

by the British sociologist, Rob Stones. Giddens’s

structuration theory has also attracted a great

deal of criticism, most extensively from another

British sociologist, Margaret Archer. She argues,

inter alia, that Giddens is guilty of a peculiar form

of reductionism in which structure and praxis are

inextricably linked. She believes that structure

and practices must be distinct objects of sociological

analysis. However, in her main criticisms,

in Realist Social Theory (1995), Archer appears to

misconstrue the level of analysis on which Giddens

addresses the agency–structure link. Giddens

writes in ontological terms, that is, in terms of

how the duality of structure and agency generates

social life at large. Archer seems to make an epistemological

argument in which she calls for separate

sociological analyses on the structural and

praxiological levels. If this is taken into account,

Archer’s position may differ from those of Giddens’s

less than may at first appear.

A more difficult problem, for Giddens and

others who theorize in terms of agency and structure,

is what to do about the individual’s wants

and interests that they originally set aside. Giddens

and Bourdieu, along with most others who

theorize along these lines, rely on tacit and unconscious

motives to account for social reproduction.

But it is empirically demonstrable that at

least some segments of social actions are consciously

driven by actors’ interests, desires, and

attachments to others. Where do these motives

come from? Are they freely chosen or are desires

and interests socially derived and reproduced?

Here the problem of individual versus collectivity

reemerges. In the future, theorists may feel challenged

to find a way to address the problem of

agency and structure and the problem of individualism

and collectivism from an integrated point of

view. I RA COHEN


– see age.


The process whereby people become estranged

from the world in which they are living, the concept

is associated with Karl Marx’s early works,

especially Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts

(1844) and his critique of W. G. F. Hegel and

Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72). For Hegel, people

created a culture, which then confronted them

as an alien, objectified force. Human activity was

the expression of Spirit, of Geist, whose creations

were not self-transparent to their creators,

agency and structure alienation


although they would become so at the end of

history. The work of Feuerbach, a “Young Hegelian”

was also significant. Ludwig Feuerbach (1804–72)

criticized what he called Hegel’s reduction of

Man’s Essence to Self-consciousness, and developed

a critique of religion as “self-alienation.” Rejecting

Hegel’s idealistic philosophy and advocating materialism,

Feuerbach emphasized the individual,

purely “biological” nature of humans, in which

thought was a purely reflective, contemplative

process. But in religion, the human potential for

love, creativity, and power were alienated into the

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