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John Zaixin Zhang




Act Your Age (Notes and Bib)  

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[1] An earlier draft of this paper was presented at the American Sociological Association meeting in August 1996.

[2] Department of Sociology, University of Southern Maine, Portland, Maine 04104-9300.

[3] This use of accomplishment resembles R. W. Connell’s (1995) concepts of gender projects and practice and J. Butler’s (1990) idea of performative acts.

[4] Among those who treat age as a social construction are Gubrium (1977, 1993), Gubrium et al. (1994), Guillemard (1996), Hazan (1992), Karp and Yoels (1982), and Karp (1991).

[5] In 1997, section members voted to change the name of the section from “Section on Aging” to “Section on Aging and the Life Course.”

[6] Journals that publish social-scientific work on age/aging include The Gerontologist, Joumal of Aging Studies, Aging, Aging and Society, Research on Aging, Aging and Human Development, Age and Aging, Joumal of Women and Aging, and Joumals of Gerontology. Of the 30 syllabi included in the 1991 edition of the ASA’s Teaching Sociology of Aging (edited by Diana K. Harris and Erdman B. Palmore), only one is for a course called “The Sociology of Age”; several others focus on the life course and life course transitions. The majority, however, are courses with a primary focus on social gerontology, aging, “later life,” “the graying of America,” “the elderly,” and “old age.” Major texts also tend to focus on aging and old age; they include Sociology of Aging (Harris), Aging in Mass Society (Hendricks and Hendricks), Social Gerontology (Hooyman and Kiyak), Social Forces and Aging (Atchley), Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences (edited by Binstock and George), Aging (edited by Moody), and Aging or the Twenty-First Century (edited by Quadagno and Street).

[7] This is especially true of sociology of aging and introductory sociology texts (Macionis, 1997, is one prominent example) and of cataloging systems, such as the one used by our state university library system.

[8] Others also have lamented the state of theory on age and aging (Moody, 1988:23).

[9] The necessity for the study of age and aging to be self-reflexive is the impetus for critical gerontology as it is described by Moody (1988) and Luborsky and Sankar (1996).

[10] Though some highly respected sociologists still maintain the distinction (for example, Epstein, 1988:5-6).

[11] For example, Suzanne Kessler (1990) shows that the designation of the (biological) sex of intersexed infants rests as much on cultural understandings of masculinity and femininity as on the actual anatomical characteristics of the infant. Emily Martin (1991) demonstrates how cultural ideas about passive females and heroic and aggressive males are being written in to “objective” descriptions of egg and sperm in biology and medical textbooks.

[12] A female may dress or appear “male,” and it is also possible that individuals may actually be a sex other than that apparently indicated by genitalia. The case of Agnes is the classic example (Garfinkel, 1967; Kessler and McKenna, 1978).

[13] Christine Fry has used techniques of multidimensional scaling to investigate how individuals cognitively organize age into categories. These techniques enable researchers to determine ethnographically and empirically how individuals conceptualize age categories and their contents (Fry, 1980b, 1986).

[14] The state has designated birth certificates as unambiguous sources of “proof’ of chronological age even though they are not infallible sources. Howell (1986) details problems with and possible solutions to estimating age in the absence of reliable written records.

[15] Dannefer examines the concepts of development and socialization as they are used to un-

derstand aging. While he is critical of the effects of the use of these concepts, he nonetheless acknowledges that “something like each of them is necessary in the study of aging, for each of them attempts to describe something real and fundamental about human experience over time” (1988:364; emphasis in original text).

[16] I am describing general tendencies; there are notable exceptions. For example, those who adopt a political economic approach to age “attempt to turn current thinking about the problem of aging on its head, examining first and foremost the assumptions underlying our current problem definitions and our attempted solutions to those problems. Viewed in such a way, the problem becomes not ‘the aged’ but the needs of capitalist society” (Minkler, 1984:20).

[17] Using multidimensional scaling techniques, Christine Fry (1980b) has found that chronological age does predominate in U.S. society, even though other “age-sensitive” characteristics (including marital status, status of children, residential status, educational and career status) affect the cognitive organization of age.

[18] Karp and Yoels (1982:71) describe the process through which psychological and medical experts have contributed to the contemporary definition of aging as a problem to be solved.

[19] Garfinkel has shown that actors are not required to internalize norms as a condition for action. “[A]ll that is required is that the actors have, and attribute to one another, a reflexive awareness of the normative accountability of their actions,” (Heritage, 1984:117). Put another way, internalizing norms is neither necessary nor sufficient for action. What is necessary is that we recognize (and attribute the knowledge to others) that, whether or not we abide by the norms, we may have to account (offer explanations or excuses) for our behaviors.

[20] Others have discussed similar moments. In relation to gender and sexuality, Denzin describes “epiphanies” or turning point experiences “which radically alter and shape the meanings persons give to themselves and their life projects . . . [focusing on epiphanies] seeks those moments of existential crisis when a person’s sexuality and gender identity are forcefully and dramatically called into question. . . . In these epiphanic moments, the gender order is revealed in ways that are normally not seen” (Denzin 1993:206). I am not concerned here with the particulars of how age is brought to the forefront of our consciousness or of how we make sense of age once it is foregrounded. My purpose here is to observe that such clicks--which at least in my circle of acquaintances are fairly common--reveal the work involved in “doing age.”

[21] Of course, age is not accomplished in isolation from race, ethnicity, gender, class, etc. West and Fenstermaker (1995) have theorized how some of these accomplishments articulate with one another. Empirical work has documented the effects of gender (Rossi, 1985; Shaw, 1996) and race and ethnicity (Gelfand and Barrisi, 1987; Markides et al, 1987) on the life course and age-related events.

[22] These examples have been selected to illustrate how different, but overlapping, kinds of

resources are used in accomplishing age. For each kind of resource, innumerable other ex-[104]amples and citations might have been provided. I remind readers that this is not intended as a review of the literature. Rather, I want to affirm the utility of existing research for understanding age as accomplished and suggest how the idea of age-as-accomplished can be used to reframe earlier work.

[23] For example, Guillemard (1996) sees changes in labor force withdrawal as possibly leading to greater age specialization and less orderly (and less clearly demarcated) transitions into and out of the labor force. She concludes that workers may have more flexibility in formerly age-related transitions without necessarily having more freedom. Mayer and Muller view the state as segmenting the life course and turning the transitions into public life events at the same time that the state integrates and interlocks “organizationally and functionally differentiated institutional domains of society as people flow through them” (1986:242).

[24] West and Zimmerman (1987) demonstrate that in “doing gender,” women “do deference” and men “do dominance.” In other words, we can tease out dimensions of gender (femininity, masculinity, domination, subordination) that are accomplished.




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