Age: sociological theories

  • Created by: holly6901
  • Created on: 10-05-20 07:42


  • Talcott Parsons (1977) used an organic analogy to explain society. Through this, he was making clear the importance of a stable society. Through interconnected roles, the importance of institutions in society is to maintain social stability
  • Certain age groups have norms that could threaten social stability. Functionalists focus on society's role in managing these issues as well as the cause of inequality at this time eg. youth. Parsons and Eisenstadt (1956) focused on youth is a time for individuals to grow up and learn their new adult roles which are imperative for society's stability.
  • Parsons work is usually remembered as youth culture being a bridge from childhood to adulthood. This explains the dysfunctionality of some youth behaviour that can allow a more integrated society in adulthood
  • Formal and informal control mechanisms teach youths how to behave and become functional adults. The stage allows for mistakes and lessons to be learnt
  • Similarly, some elderly people become less physically able to maintain their roles and many take on new roles, particularly in terms of childcare
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Disengagement theory

  • Cummings and Henry (1961) also take a consensus approach
  • The disengagement theory explains age inequality by starting with the idea that all people die
  • With ageing, abilities are likely to deteriorate
  • As this happens, there is a mutual need  (both society and the individual) for the individual to be relieved of some of their responsibilities 
  • Functionalists realise that when people leave a role, it must be filled to ensure social stability
  • A process of disengagement, such as having a retirement age, allows people to fill those roles
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Evaluation: Consensus theories

  • As with all consensus views, a common critique is their assumption of homogeneity when looking at society and inequality. Not all elderly deteriorate at the same age if at all
  • Others claim these views always look on the bright side and largely ignore the negatives of ageing
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Marxism and the reserve army of labour


  • Marxism focuses on the needs of capitalism to explain inequality
  • Youth is both an asset, due to the energy and new skill they provide and a cheap source of labour due to lower wages and an issue
  • Similarly, the elderly provide free childcare, allowing the young to work 
  • Marx and other Marxists didn't talk about age inequality but their ideas can be applied to age inequality

Reserve army of labour

  • It is claimed the 'reserve army of labour' was first used by Engels in 1845
  • Marx stated it was an essential part of capitalism. It is the idea that some parts of society are a secondary source of labour
  • Marx said this was either unemployed or the under-employed, however, it can be applied to other groups such as the elderly or the young
  • These groups can be used as temporary or flexible labour
  • Those in the reserve army of labour are more likely to take on 0-hour contracts
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Legitimation of authority and political economy th

Legitimation of authority

  • Neo-Marxists such as Gramsci discuss the importance of how the bourgeoisie maintains authority
  • His work on political society (rule through force) and civil society (rule through consent) can be applied to understanding inequalities between age groups 
  • False consciousness means people do not realise their exploitation often because of concessions
  • It could be argued child benefit and pensions are concessions
  • This creates a sense of dependency and legitimises the powers of authority

Political economy theory

  • Townsend (1981 and Phillipson (1982) use these ideas to explain inequalities faced by the elderly.  This places the elderly as a burden on the economy as younger workers may be more productive
  • The elderly are forced to become dependant on the state when they retire which lowers their status
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Evaluation of Marxism and neo-Marxism

  • Critics say Marxism and Neo-marxism and research ignore the lack of a homogenous experience of age
    • The studies seem to take a macro approach and ignore other factors that affect the experience
    • In many industries, the elderly can carry on working such as high court judges or political ministers
  • With an ageing population, there has been a growth in the 'grey pound' 
    • With the elderly as consumers, they become an asset to the economy and bourgeoisie
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  • Recent work looking at the unequal position of women seeks to explain the relationship between age and gender and inequality 
  • Arber and Ginn(1991): when looking at women and inequality, factors such as age will affect their power and status
  • Itzin (1990): Women face a double standard as men's status is linked to their employment and women's status is linked to their reproductive cycle. In a patriarchal society, women's status devalues after childbearing age 
  • Older women, regardless of wealth and background, have a lower status
  • Older women feel an immense pressure to fight the signs of ageing (cosmeticisation) which is capitalised on by many industries
  • Daly (1979): This is similar to global rituals women have to endure such as FGM as women are expected to change their appearance but no such pressures are put on men
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Evaluation of feminism

  • Some feel feminist work on age inequality will always focus on patriarchy
    • This may lead to feminists missing the true cause of inequality 
  • The structuralist macro nature of much of feminist's work ignores the fact that females are not a homogenous group and factors such as wealth and class greatly fragment women's life chances
    • Both young and old females show its possible to transcend discrimination
  • Another criticism is males go through similar issues e.g. magazines pressure men to go through cosmeticisation to look younger
  • Some argue cosmeticisation is not forced  but one people take part in willingly
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Weberian theory

  • Weber studied inequality and was considered a disciple of Marx but felt inequality was more complex than Marx suggested
  • He said to understand someone's social position you need to consider 3 parts of their life
    • Class - social class
    • Party - organized power
    • Status - Value in society
  • Weber also looked at the importance of market position which can be used to explain the low status of youth and the elderly 
  • If someone does not have the relative skills in the marketplace (elderly and technology)they will suffer low status
  • However if someone upper-class becomes elderly they will not suffer as they have enough money to live a comfortable life regardless of skills
  • For example, the Queen is an elderly female but hasn't lost her status due to her wealth and social position
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Negatively privileged status groups

  • Parkin (1968) discussed the idea that some people suffer in negatively privileged status groups
  • This means ethnic minorities can be kept out of high-status groups due to social segregation
  • The elderly are often socially segregated in many ways
    • In the media through the invisibility of positive portrayal
    • In employment through retirement
    • In living arrangements through care homes
    • Other structurally caused inequalities
  • It is easy to explain how this theory relates to age inequalities as well as ethnic inequalities
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Activity theory and exchange theory

Activity theory

  • Some activists believe staying mentally and physically active will increase one's happiness
  • Similar to functionalism, this idea looks at what happens when social norms withdraw social interaction from individuals
  • Maintaining these social interactions reduces the negative experience of ageing
  • Havinghurst (1961) published this as a criticism of disengagement theory, arguing the inequality is more about social interaction than just age
  • Statham's research on grandparents providing childcare may mean that continued social interaction may change the inequalities faced by some elderly who are isolated

Exchange theory

  • Turner (1989) argues inequality is best understood in terms of status. In the West, the elderly and youth are stigmatised as they do not have high status
  • Through Turner's;reciprocity-maturation curve of ageing' we can see if groups are dependent, they have low status
  • However, in a gerontocracy, the elderly have high status so status depends on the culture 
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Interactionists: Labelling

  • All interactionists question the social construction of inequality
  • Negative labelling and stigmatization of both the elderly and the young by the media and other agents of social control and socialisation could be said to create a self-fulfilling prophecy
  • If the elderly are labelled as useless, lonely, dependant and unable to learn (Victor 1994) maybe those ideas become reality
  • Looking at age discrimination in the media, media creators think the public think the elderly are useless, lonely, dependant and unable to learn  and therefore replace them with younger people
  • This then makes the elderly useless, lonely, dependant and unable to learn
  • Stan Cohen's 1972 work on moral panics would be good to explain discrimination against young people in the media
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Evaluation of social action theories

  • Some believe that while these ideas attempt a micro approach, considering the effects of other factors, they still fail to recognise the structural causes of inequality such as patriarchy and capitalism
  • Approaches such as activity theory are criticised for ignoring the institutional ageism of many laws and practices within a society 
    • Structuralists would question what conclusions could be drawn from the ideas
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  • Postmodernism is not a macro theory, so, like social action theories, the many various micro studies do not make one conclusion when it comes to explaining age inequality.
  • Some look at the disparity of experience while some point to the advantages of ageing in the modern world
  • Postmodernists often blame the media's creation of 'youth culture' for inequality amongst youth agreeing with Stan Cohen's 1972 work on folk devils
  • Polemus (1997): youth is a non-homogenous group shopping at the 'supermarket of style'
  • There is not one single postmodernist view on inequality but lots of smaller studies
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Old age as a positive time of life and the mask of

Old age as a positive time of life

  • Much of the social research of ageing ignores the changes in the contemporary UK
  • While much research looks at the marginalisation of the elderly, acronyms such as SKIER (spending the kid's inheritance and GRUMPY (grown-up urban professionals used in the advertising industry show a different view
  • Laczko and Phillipson(1991): The inequality faced by some elderly people was due to their wealth and not their age
  • Featherstone and Hepworth(1993): Traditional explanations of age inequality focus too much on imaginary bounds of age 
  • Blaikie(1999): Positive ageing, there is a fourth age filled with active but leisure pursuits

The mask of old age

  • J.B Priestley (yes that one): ageing was like someone kidnapped me and made me old yet I still have the same thoughts as  when I was younger 
  • These ideas have been seen as similar to wearing a mask 
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New technology and the fight against ageism and gl

New technology and the fight against ageism

  • Not all grow old gracefully, some fight it with cosmetic surgery
  • Powell and Biggs(2000): This allows some to continually recreate themselves
  • Generally, those who can afford this don't suffer as much inequality due to wealth


  • Postmodernists recognise globalisation as a key source of social change, as Britain becomes more multicultural ageism changes
  • Some countries are a gerontocracy, in countries such as Kenya, an elderly person's experience may be very different from an elderly person in Britain, this suggests that the cause of age inequality relies on a culture
  • Similarly, children in the UK have a higher status than other cultures
  • This shows it is not necessarily chronological age that causes inequality but the norms and values in society
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Age is a complicated stratum for explaining inequa

While some believe age can result in inequality that it is an undeserved social construction based on labelling,  others believe it is directly linked to what someone has to offer to society. What is clear is that the idea of homogenous age groups all given the same high or low status ignores differences related to ethnicity, social class and gender.

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