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The process of aging can be explained and better understood through three perspectives. This lesson will cover the structural-functional, symbolic-interaction and social-conflict perspectives of aging as well as the associated theories that function within those perspectives.

Aging

Aging, the process of people growing older, can be better understood through three perspectives that examine the process from a social point of view.

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Sociologists identified three perspectives: structural-functional, symbolic-interaction, and social-conflict. This lesson will explore and differentiate between the three types of perspectives and the theories of aging associated with each perspective.

Structural-Functional

The structural-functional perspective views society as a complex system that has singular parts within that system that work together to meet individuals’ needs. According to this perspective, social structures meet social needs.

These structures promote stability and cohesion necessary for society to exist over time.Within the structural-functional perspective, there are three differing theories of aging:

  1. The disengagement theory
  2. The activity theory
  3. The continuity theory

The disengagement theory of aging, developed by Cummings and Henry in the late 1950s, proposes that as people grow older and realize death is near, they begin to disengage from their previously held social roles in society. In return, society recognizes the inevitable and prepares to function in the absence of that individual.The theory proposes:

  • That it is rational for aging populations to disengage because they have witnessed friends of their age die, and they begin to anticipate their own death.

  • That men and women disengage from society in different ways. Traditionally, men have a larger impact through their careers and women have a larger impact on societies that are socio-emotional in nature. As people age and retire, they lose skills and knowledge they gained by being part of the workforce and lose credibility and/or respect on a personal level in family and friend relationships.

In response to the disengagement theory, Robert J. Havighurst developed another aging theory, the activity theory. The activity theory claims that staying mentally and physically active will increase happiness among older adults.

He argued that instead of an elderly person disengaging from their community, they should remain active and social. These active lifestyles allow aging populations to socialize with others, which increases feelings of self-worth and pleasure that are both important for life longevity.The continuity theory states that aging adults will usually maintain the same activities, behaviors, personality traits, and relationships as they did in the earlier years of life.

They maintain both:

  • Internal structures, such as personality traits, ideas, and beliefs
  • External structures, such as relationships and social roles

The theory is criticized for not considering the influence chronic diseases, such as Alzheimer’s or cancer, may have on the aging person that may not be able to maintain social roles or relationships.

Symbolic-Interaction

The symbolic interaction perspective proposes that age is socially constructed and determined by symbols resembling social interactions. This perspective does not have associated theories, but it does propose:

  • While aging itself is a biological process, being deemed old or young is a social construction.
  • Culture attaches meanings and certain behaviors to age groups. For example, an elderly person engaging in a dangerous activity, such as rock climbing, may be deemed inappropriate, but the same activity would be appropriate for someone younger.
  • Aging is viewed differently in different cultures.

    For example, in most eastern cultures, age is associated with wisdom, but in Western cultures, aging is viewed in a more negative light. Many people in Western cultures attempt to hide their physical age with plastic surgery or makeup.

Social-Conflict

The social-conflict perspective emphasizes competition between differing age groups. Competition, in this perspective, means competition for jobs, money and power.The conflict theory has three main arguments:

  1. Society is comprised of different groups that compete for resources (young adults, middle-aged adults, and elderly adults).

    The conflict perspective proposes that middle-aged adults are the most powerful, leaving young adults and elderly adults competing for scarce resources.

  2. A continual power struggle exists between social groups as they pursue their own divergent and competing interests.
  3. Social groups will use resources to their own advantage in pursuit of their own goals, even if it means taking advantage of another group. In this case, the middle-aged members act as gatekeepers of jobs, resources, and power and act in their own interests first.

Lesson Summary

Aging, which is the process of growing old, can be understood through the lens of three different perspectives.The structural-functional perspective proposes that social structures meet social needs and these structures promote stability and cohesion necessary for society to exist over time. Within this perspective, three theories emerged.The disengagement theory proposes that as people grow older and realize death is near, they begin to disengage from their previously held social roles in society.

The activity theory claims that staying mentally and physically active will increase happiness among older adults.The continuity theory states that aging adults will usually maintain the same activities, behaviors, personality traits, and relationships.Taking a different approach, the symbolic-interaction perspective proposes that age is socially constructed and determined by symbols resembling social interactions; specifically, society deems what it means to be old or young.Finally, the social-conflict perspective argues that different groups in society compete for scarce resources.

The gatekeepers, usually the middle-aged members of society, use resources to their own advantage, and there is a continual power struggle as groups pursue different interests.

Learning Outcomes

After you have finished with this lesson, you’ll be able to:

  • Define aging
  • Describe the structural-functional, symbolic-interaction and social-conflict perspectives on aging
  • Identify the three theories of the structural-functional perspective
  • Explain the arguments of the symbolic-interaction and social-cultural perspectives
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