14 February 2013

Aging: getting rid of prejudices

5 books on the liberalization of aging

Dmitry Rogozin, "PostNauka"Despite the significant contribution of Russian researchers to the study of the elderly, it cannot be said that Russia sets the tone in theoretical and empirical approaches to understanding aging.

The few monographs on the nature of older age written by domestic authors rather reflect the perspective of half a century ago, in which an elderly person was assigned only the role of an object of social manipulation. He must be protected, protected, and taken care of. Help, support and protection – this is the triad of good deeds that construct a helpless, incapacitated citizen. At the same time, the liberal turn in the social policy of the leading world powers has brought new (for the modernized Western society) ideological constructs to the agenda.

Older age carries not only losses and hardships, but also experience, stability and prudence, not inherent in youth. Objective deterioration of health is often aggravated by the subjective construction of infirmity, and the reduction of the circle of communication is an artificial exclusion from social relations. Active old age is a political construct that does not cause surprise or rejection in Russian public opinion. However, its theoretical interpretation is still alien and incomprehensible to many Russian-speaking intellectuals, especially civil servants. The term "survival period", monstrous to ordinary ears, has taken a firm place in the thesaurus of social programs in which older age is associated only with decline and incapacity. The reviewed books, which have no analogues in Russian yet, are devoted to the liberation from such prejudices and social stigmata.

1. Vincent J. Old age (London: Routledge, 2003)After analyzing hundreds of studies and analytical texts on aging, John Vincent identified a key dichotomy that defines the position of older people as the liberalization of aging and the liberalization of aging.

In the first variant, there are practices of avoiding old age, people try in every possible way to shorten the aging period, ignoring or neglecting changes in the body, perception of the world and social relations. In the second, there are internal resources in aging itself, considered as a new opportunity, as a special, albeit final stage of life, without which the latter would lose its meaning. The main feature of modern ideas about old age, J. Vincent calls the primacy of medical interpretations. The Institute of Medical Practice has completely redefined ideas about old age, displacing other social or religious interpretations. Old age is considered as a period of illness and approaching death. The loss of working capacity and the gradual deterioration of health, up to complete helplessness, can only cause a feeling of fear and despair. There is no future or present in such a worldview position. The liberalization of aging is a response to emerging demographic trends. One should not run away from old age, but look for meaning, exceptional opportunities and prospects in it.

First of all, this is the liberation of older age from stereotypes accumulated over a century, the rejection of a total technogenic perspective based on medical diagnoses, the discovery of new identities based on years lived, experience unavailable at an earlier age. As paradoxical examples for the traditional consciousness, J. Vincent writes about the liberation from gender stereotypes due to the end of the fertile age, the rooting of independence and self-realization practices through liberation from the dictates of permanent employment, rethinking the role of the family and younger generations as distancing from the material problems associated with the upbringing and arrangement of already grown children. In other words, the older age according to J. Vincent, like any other, is a period of unlimited opportunities, the main barrier to the realization of which are stereotypes rooted in society, and not the natural and inevitable physiological signs of older age.

2. The Cambridge Handbook of age and aging / Ed. by M.L. Johnson; In association with V.L. Bengston, P.G. Coleman, T.B. Kirkwood (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2005)Over the past decade, the most comprehensive collection of works representing the current state of gerontology as an interdisciplinary knowledge combining social, medical and biological sciences.

The scope of the undertaking undertaken by the Cambridge publishing house is impressive: 80 original articles by leading researchers from sixty countries and five continents. Russia is not on this list. For the first time I saw the collection from Theodor Shanin, the president of the educational consortium (think tank) created by him, which has long been referred to as Shaninka. "There is a lot in this book to stop playing theorizing and contrasting theory and practice, politics and science," Theodore told me at the time. The collection is divided into seven parts: 1) introduction and review of theoretical approaches; 2) aging body; 3) aging consciousness; 4) aging self-understanding (identity); 5) aging and social connections; 6) aging and society; 6) social programs to support the elderly. The organization and content of the presented materials accurately represent the current state of science, describe current achievements and identify problem areas (for science, these are points of growth).

Firstly, the last two decades have been dominated by medical and biological interpretations of older age, it was in these sciences that it was possible to preserve the increase in knowledge, to form a body of refutable theories (according to Popper). Secondly, the emphasis on medical interpretations and the technogenic way to overcome them has led to the emergence and powerful development of a critical direction that focuses on social norms, habits and attitudes. The social theory of aging increasingly resembles a critique of medicalization, or the physiological stigmatization of the older generation. Thirdly, being aware of the enormous potential inherent in the social understanding of the third and fourth ages, leading researchers state the extreme weakness and inconsistency of the theoretical apparatus developed by humanitarians. Thus, Malcolm Johnson, the editor of the collection, notes that generalization of field research, surveys and measurements of social policy, interviews and ethnographic descriptions of the daily life of the elderly dominate in gerontological projects. Theoretical descriptions are often so artless and inelastic that many researchers have a desire to abandon them altogether.

At the same time, when a social researcher faces a real problem, tries to establish some communicative space, theoretical interpretations become the only tool for solving it. Maintaining the sense and understanding of the current situation shared by the participants of communication, developing joint actions, developing strategies, and social policy are impossible without a common theoretical framework, the construction of which is devoted to the collection.

3. Handbook of theories of aging / Ed. by V.L. Bengston, D. Gans, N. Putney. 2nd ed (New York: Springer, 2009)The main editor of the collection was Vern Bengston, perhaps the most authoritative and influential sociologist who studies generational issues and human maturation from the point of view of a social perspective.

In recent decades, significant international conferences devoted to gerontological research have rarely been held without his participation, and in the collections of leading publishers V. Bergston is necessarily invited, if not as a co-editor (see the previous book), then as the author of detailed texts on the theoretical elaboration of the problems of aging. The first edition of the collection was published in 1998. The second is supplemented with works reflecting more radical views about human nature, which has much less connection with the physiological and biological characteristics of the human body than previously thought.

Despite the great harmony and elaboration of the natural science approach to older age, sociology becomes the central disciplinary area constituted by the collection. Biodemography, immunology of aging, neurophysiology, cognitive plasticity of age, emotional well-being and dozens more theoretical approaches and directions are comprehended through the integrative role of social gerontology, the foundations of which are found in sociological theories of aging. Public policy and older political science are no longer conceivable without legitimizing the plurality of perspectives, rejecting the dominant role of the state as the central agent of social transformations and reforms. The future of theorizing about age, to which the final article of the collection is devoted, lies in the construction of explanatory interdisciplinary models for the liberation of old age from accumulated stereotypes, the transition from industrial interpretations to an institutional description of aging and scientific forecasting of new ways of organizing sociality in older age groups.

4. Skinner B.F., Vaughan M.E. Enjoy old age: A practical guide (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 1997)The founding father of behaviorism, the grand theory of the sixties, the organizer of the school of experimental psychology, 80-year-old Berres Frederick Skinner and a colleague offer practical recommendations on how to feel free and happy in old age.

Despite the pragmatic orientation of the book and its positioning as a manual on active aging, it traces the theoretical and analytical understanding of older age, conceptualizes the position of an open and critical view of the phenomenon under study. An elderly person is considered by the authors both as an active subject, responsible for his own life, and as an object of close analysis by researchers, bearing all the features and peculiarities of a living organism. The book is an operand of Skinner's theoretical heritage. Techniques of behavior modification, changes in the social environment, improvement of society are possible not only and not so much through the development and implementation of state programs, but through the mobilization of internal human resources, change (possibly through social programming) his everyday practices of dealing with the outside world.

The first edition was published during the scientist's lifetime, in 1983, the analyzed one was already edited and supplemented after his departure (B.F. Skinner died in 1990). Due to the plume of behavioral interpretations, which in the 1990s were considered by many to be long-refuted and bygone theoretical constructions, the book was met with ambiguity. Some criticized for the excessive abstraction of conclusions and the departure from the genre of the "cookbook", others – for continuing to work with theoretically untenable provisions of behaviorism. At the same time, there is no more vivid example of the fact that the liberalization of aging is not a newfound construct and not an invention of a new generation of politicians. This is a very respectable direction of humanitarian reinterpretation of human life and especially its final period, by a strange coincidence, stigmatized in Western culture.

5. From exclusion to inclusion in old age: A global challenge / Ed. by N. Scharf, N.C. Keating (Bristol, UK: Polity Press, 2012)The theoretical dichotomy of exclusion and inclusion of older age is central to the conceptual understanding of the liberalization of aging.

The collection consists of ten articles dealing with both the main factors limiting the social activity of older people and the features of building an inclusive environment for them. Economic and demographic transformations, globalization of social exchanges, migration processes, changes in the institution of the family, the organization of new, mobile social environments and the actualization of human rights as an updated agenda of developed countries – all this directly affects the constitution of the image and role of the older generation. From the 1960s, the period of introduction of exclusive-inclusive opposition into scientific circulation, the 1980s, the period of economic instability and the emphasis on exclusive practices, the present time (since the 2000s), according to the authors of the collection, differs in the emphasis on the construction of national programs on aging, the political actualization of the inclusion of the older generation in the economic, social and cultural environment. Although social exclusion is strongly determined by the presence of economic crises and upheavals, it cannot be reduced to issues of pensions and material security of citizens who have entered old age.

Ashgar Zaidi's article on the exclusion of older age from material exchanges is supplemented by works that put social determinants on the agenda. Jim Ogg and Sylvie Reno analyze the exclusion of the elderly from family relationships, the restriction and minimization of communication with grown-up children, the loss of attention from relatives. David Philips and Kevin Cheng focus on the transformation of the value system and worldview positions about older age in modern society, including the views of the elderly about their place and role in social relations. Astrid Stackelberger, Dominique Abrams and Philippe Chastonay consider age discrimination as a source of exclusive practices, focusing on policy decisions to protect the rights of older people. Rethinking inclusive strategies is conceptualized in the collection in the perspective of multiple decisions, the central figure for which is the elderly person himself. Liberation from the dictates of political will, economic determinism and medical stigmatics is a triad of a liberal approach that has already become the main trend in the development of social policy of the leading world powers for the next decade.

About the author:

D.Rogozin – Candidate of Sociological Sciences, Director of the Center for the Methodology of Federative Studies of the RANEPA, Dean of the Faculty of Social Sciences of the Moscow Institute of Social Sciences, Senior Researcher at the Center for Fundamental Sociology of the Higher School of Economics

Portal "Eternal youth" http://vechnayamolodost.ru14.02.2013

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