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张在新

John Zaixin Zhang

 
 
 

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Act Your Age (Text)  

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Act Your Age [1]

Cheryl Laz [2]

Source: Sociological Forum, Vol. 13, No. 1 (Mar., 1998), pp. 85-113

With the aim of contributing to a sociology of age, this essay develops a frame-work for understanding age as accomplished, i.e., as something that is both a process and the outcome of ongoing interactional work. The common expression “act your age” provides the useful metaphor of performance. We perform our own age constantly, but we also give meaning to other ages and to age more generally in our actions and interactions, our beliefs and words and feelings, our social policies. This essay offers two routes to the conclusion that age is accomplished. The first involves drawing parallels between the study of age and the study of gender. The second route uses existing scholarship, which recognizes that age is far more social than chronological. I draw on work in the social constructionist, symbolic interactionist, and life course traditions to develop the framework of age-as-accomplished and to show its potential to organize much of what we already have learned about age and aging.

KEY WORDS: age; aging; gender; symbolic interaction; performance.

INTRODUCTION

To laypersons (and to many sociologists in their unguarded moments) it seems almost absurd to think about age as anything but a chronological fact and as something every individual simply is. Like race and gender, for most people most of the time, age is unproblematic. When asked “How old are you?” we offer the number of years since our birth. When someone directs us to act our age, we know what age is (the number of years since our birth), usually know what is being demanded of us, and often are prepared to account for our “misbehavior.” We assume that as people get older, they will fulfill different roles in a predictable sequence. When the [86] sequence or the timing is altered, we linguistically mark the discrepancy (teenage mothers, nontraditional students), and we want an explanation, an account, for being “off time.”

As with race and gender, the apparently objective and factual nature of age make it ideal for sociological inquiry. Sociologists now understand race as a social construction rather than a biological “fact.” Race is defined by and constituted within social groups (How much “blood” makes one black or Native American?), and it is accomplished by individuals (What does it mean to “pass” as one race and not another?). Moreover, a sociological understanding of race has led us to appreciate more fully the relations of power and the pervasive normative ideas that create and sustain the supposedly biological “fact” of race.

Similarly, sociologists understand gender as a social construction and individual accomplishment. Gender is defined and constituted within social groups (What does masculinity entail for a heterosexual steelworker? a gay bank manager?), and it is accomplished by individuals in interaction (How does a woman in a male-dominated job “act” feminine?). Further, normative cultural ideas traditionally have equated gender with women. We view the dominant group, in this case men, as if its members had no gender.

There is much to suggest that age, like race and gender, is anything but natural and involves much more than the number of years since one’s birth. “Act your age. You’re a big kid now,” we say to children to encourage independence (or obedience). “Act your age. Stop being so childish,” we say to other adults when we think they are being irresponsible. “Act your age; you’re not as young as you used to be,” we say to an old person pursuing “youthful” activities. The sanctioned actions vary, but the command “Act!” remains the same. When we say “act your age” we press for behavior that conforms to norms. However, the saying also expresses a common-sense understanding that age is not natural or fixed, and it implies that age requires work, i.e., physical or mental effort. As such, the saying encapsulates a fundamentally sociological view of age and provides us with the useful metaphor of performance. Age is an act, a performance in the sense of something requiring activity and labor, and age is normative. Whether we do it well or poorly, according to the dominant rules or not, our accomplishment of age--indeed age itself--is always collective and social. However, age is not simply shaped by social forces; it is constituted in interaction and gains its meaning in interaction and in the context of larger social forces. We all perform or enact age; we perform our own age constantly, but we also give meaning to other ages and to age in general in our actions and interactions, our beliefs and words and feelings, our social policies.

[87] This essay develops a framework with which to understand age as accomplished. “Accomplish,” and the closely related “perform,” can refer to ongoing actions as well as to actions finished or carried through to completion. In this essay, I emphasize accomplishment not as the full or final completion of an action, but rather as ongoing action that is ultimately social and public. (Although it also may be private, the accomplishment of age is never only private.)[3] Accomplishing age involves often routine, sometimes impressive, but always ongoing, recurring work.

       The framework of age-as-accomplished is grounded in sociological theories of symbolic interactionism (Blumer, 1969), ethnomethodology (Garfinkel, 1967; Heritage, 1984; West and Zimmerman, 1987), social phenomenology (Schutz, 1970), and the more recent social constructionism (Lorber, 1994; Gubrium et al., 1994). Following Blumer (1969:2), three premises are central:

1. Human beings act toward things on the basis of the meanings that the things have for them.

2. The meaning of such things-objects, people, categories of persons, institutions, activities-is derived from, or arises out of, social interaction.

3. Those meanings are handled in, and modified through, an interpretive process used by the person in dealing with the things he or she encounters.

Symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, and phenomenology are especially useful for their emphasis on agency and creativity. More recent social constructionist work (West and Zimmerman, 1987; Lorber, 1994) expands this by examining how the taken-for-granted concepts of symbolic interactionism (self, role) are themselves cause and consequence of interactional practice. In addition, more recent work attends more carefully to the dynamics of power and privilege and the social structural context within which meaning making, interpretation, and action occur.

The idea of age-as-accomplished also depends on recent work on the life course and life course transitions (Kohli, 1986; Mayer and Muller, 1986; Meyer, 1986; Gubrium et al., 1994; Guillemard, 1996). This work takes a broad view of age and aging as more than just the property of “old folks.” The framework I develop here seeks to integrate two emphases in life course scholarship. One line of research, represented by Mayer and Muller (1986) and Guillemard (1996), examines how the life course has been shaped by macro historical and societal forces (rationalization, the state, [88] work, and the economy). A second kind of work, represented by Kohli (1986), Meyer (1986), and Gubrium et al. (1994), explores how-at the micro level-discourse and assumptions about the life course shape the self.

Finally, the view of age-as-accomplished benefits from recent work in anthropology (Fry, 1980a; Keith and Kertzer, 1984; Fry and Keith, 1986) that highlights the importance of culture and meaning. Anthropologists recognize the duality of culture as providing ideals, values and norms, and as consisting of actual behavior and beliefs. As in anthropology, the view of age-as-accomplished posits people as active and skilled creators and users of culture and requires us to value “emics” (the “inside” view of culture in which the language and judgments of informants frame the issue being investigated). Lastly, like anthropology, this framework aims at holism: understanding meaning and experience in its context.

In developing the framework of age-as-accomplished, I make five claims. First, the sociology of age is less well theorized and researched and less frequently studied and taught than the sociology of aging. And while the view of race and gender as socially constructed and accomplished may be familiar, sociologists’ understanding of age as similarly constructed is less well-developed. I am not suggesting sociologists never conceptualize age as a social construction. Some most certainly do.[4] Still, much sociology is dominated by a focus on aging (defined as a time following an early period “growth and development” and a middle period of “maturity”) and “old” age (the elderly, the aged, older persons, later life, etc.). Second, recent work on age stratification, the political economy of age, and the life course provide the foundation for a sociology of age which is distinct from studies of particular age categories (especially old age) and from gerontology. Third, assumptions which haunt the sociology of aging--age as an objective chronological fact, age as an individual attribute, old age and aging as social problems, and age as either self-determined or overdetermined--impede our ability to conceptualize age as a social construction. In this

respect, the study of age has much in common with the study of gender. Fourth, since the sociology of gender has begun to address these assumptions, a sociology of age can learn from the sociology of gender. Finally, there is a rich body of literature from which we might draw to develop the idea of age as accomplished. This essay is not intended as a comprehensive review of the literature on age or aging; rather, I draw selectively from existing literature to build the framework of age-as-accomplished and to show its potential to organize much of what we have already learned about age and aging.

 

[89] SOCIOLOGY OF AGE AND SOCIOLOGY OF AGING

 

The sociology of age is less well theorized and researched, and less frequently taught, than the sociology of aging. The American Sociological Association (ASA) supports a section on aging but none on age,[5] and the word “aging” appears much more frequently than “age” in monographs, journal titles, textbooks, and courses in the ASAs Teaching Resources guide.[6] More significantly, the word “aging” frequently functions as a synonym for “old age.”[7] As a consequence, the sociology of aging as a field overlaps extensively and is often indistinguishable from the field of gerontology. In addition, when sociologists study age categories other than “old,” they do so under the auspices of sociology of childhood, youth, adolescence, etc.

Finally, as Passuth and Bengtson (1988) observe, the study of aging itself lags behind sociological theory in general. They attribute this to the influence of gerontology on sociological theories of aging (in particular to the concern in gerontology with studying predictors of elderly life satisfaction) and to the dominance of structural-functionalism in social gerontology (1988:346).[8]

Despite the emphasis on aging and “old” people, recent theoretical developments provide the foundation for a sociology of age distinct from (but drawing on and overlapping with) sociological studies of aging, old age, childhood, and other age categories. For example, stratification theory developed by Matilda Riley, Anne Foner, and their colleagues examines the organization of age categories in society, the relationships between and among age categories, and the effects of cohort and history on members of age categories. Work on the social construction of the life course simi-[90]larly addresses a broad range of age categories as it seeks to understand how the life course is produced in the context of macro social forces and interaction.

In short, I imagine a sociology of age, roughly analogous to the sociology of gender, in which we theorize and study empirically how age as a concept and institution is created, maintained, challenged, and transformed; how assumptions and beliefs about age in general and about particular age categories inform and are reinforced by social statuses, norms, roles, institutions, and social structures; and how age patterns individual lives and experiences even as individuals accomplish age. In proposing a distinctive sociology of age, I do not want to minimize the value of scholarship on aging or on particular age categories. Rather, following Matilda Riley, I suggest that a focus on age broadens the scope of study and has the potential to reshape sociology. As Riley concludes in her 1986 Presidential Address to the ASA,

 

 I see the emergent field of age as reflecting the sociological vision and as illustrating how a single sociological specialty can contribute to its realization. Like other special fields, the sociology of age can reemphasize, clarify, and specify sociological axioms.

It can add new facets and formulate new questions while discarding useless ones.

It can revitalize dormant areas of sociology and speed the work in rapidly developing

areas. It can help dramatize the sociological perspective and stimulate its utilization.

But the task is only beginning. (Riley, 1987:11)

 

I thus propose that we use available resources inside the field currently designated as “the sociology of aging” and outside of it, especially in the sociology of gender, to conceptualize age as an accomplishment. To fully exploit these resources, we need first to attend to assumptions that limit our ability to see age as socially constructed. In the next section, I outline these assumptions and draw parallels to the sociology of gender. The parallels with gender study--probably familiar terrain for most readers--illustrate how recognizing these assumptions is preliminary to theoretical advances.

 

AGE AND GENDER

 

Four overlapping assumptions haunt sociologists’ understanding of age: age as objective chronological fact, age as individual attribute, age and aging as social problems, and age as self-determined or as overdetermined. Like shadowy figures, they are difficult to see and hard to capture. But examining assumptions is crucial since they provide ways of seeing that guide behavior and interaction at the micro level and at the macro level shape public policy and academic discourse (Dannefer, 1988; Hockey and [91] James, 1993). Their implicit and often unacknowledged presence impedes the development of a sociological understanding of age.[9] Let me be very clear. I am not suggesting that all sociologists adopt all of these assumptions. Quite the contrary. There is much work in sociology, some of which I highlight below, that critiques these premises and/or offers alternatives.

 

Age as Objective Chronological Fact

 

Embedded in sociology is the assumption that age is an objective chronological fact. Coupled with this is the more sociological insight that chronological ages have attached to them diverse and variable cultural meanings. The distinction between “objective fact” and social and cultural meaning is analogous to the distinction made in the 1960s and 1970s between sex and gender. Sex, we told students, was an ascribed characteristic and an objective fact; it referred to the anatomy, chromosomes, and hormones fixed by biology. Gender, in contrast, was an achieved status that involved learning the social and cultural expectations for biological males and females (Stockard, 1997:213; Farley, 1998:117).

In relation to sex and gender, the distinction began to break down in the 1970s, and by the 1980s, maintaining it became increasingly untenable.[10] “The relationship between biological and cultural processes was far more complex-and reflexive-than we previously had supposed,” (West and Zimmerman, 1987:126). The “objective” biological “fact” of sex, it turns out, is premised on shared (cultural) understandings of masculinity and femininity,[11] and “certain structural arrangements, for example, between work and family, actually produce or enable some capacities, such as to mother, that [were] formerly associated with biology” (West and Zimmerman, 1987:126). The end result in the sociology of gender was to see both gender and sex as products of ongoing, continuous, conceptual, social, and cultural work (West and Zimmerman, 1987; Lorber, 1994).

A similar process of understanding the reciprocal relationship between “objective facts” and cultural meanings has begun in the study of age. Laypersons treat age as an objective fact defined chronologically by the [92] number of years a person has lived. Social scientists sometimes do this (as when they use age as a variable or use designations like “elderly” or “the aged” unproblematically) but increasingly recognize the social nature of chronology. Some researchers (Rose, 1980; Kastenbaum et al., 1980) use measures of “functional” or “social” age to account for the disjuncture between the number of years lived and a person’s physical functioning, psychological health, or social roles. While such measures incorporate social factors, they nonetheless maintain the distinction between “subjective” or “functional” age and “objective” (i.e., chronological) age, and they assume that chronological age is unambiguous.

More recently, anthropologists, social constructionists, and life course theorists have refused to take chronology for granted-to treat it as an objective fact. They argue instead that chronological age is made important in particular social and historical contexts and in interaction. Gubrium et al. (1994), for example, describe non-Western, nonchronological ways to conceptualize time to show that “[w]estern notions of an aging process are based on several fundamental assumptions about chronology,” especially assumptions about age as passing in a linear fashion (1994:35). Their point is not that chronology does not exist; rather, they argue, we give chronology meaning by using it (and not some other conception of time) as an organizing principle for individual and social life. Others have argued that chronology as a measure of age is a development of modern industrial society (Kohli, 1986; Chudacoff, 1989; Keith, 1990).

Problematizing chronology and refusing to see it as natural or objective enables sociologists to raise important questions about the meaning of age and the experiences over the life course. Guillemard (1996), for example, argues that changes in the mechanisms that regulate labor force withdrawal have “deinstitutionalized” and “dechronologized” the life course by eroding the organization of the life course into three distinct periods (education, work, and leisure).

Much of the work that problematizes chronology, including those just described, takes a macro, historical view to identify variations in the meaning of chronology. It leaves largely unexamined the way that chronology is taken for granted in contemporary contexts, in academic discourse, and in ongoing interaction. Sociologists can extend the analysis of chronological time and age by exploring how, at the micro level, we feel about and act on the basis of the shared meanings of chronological time.

A parallel with gender study is instructive. West and Zimmerman show that designation of sex and gender in everyday interaction involves more than the simple determination of anatomical “fact.” Most people assume genitals are the crucial feature differentiating females from males; yet, in everyday interaction we almost never observe genitals before making attri-[93]butions of sex. Instead, we rely on “identificatory” displays or appearance (posture, gesture, clothing) that are usually, but not always, consistent with genitals (West and Zimmerman, 1987:127).[12] West and Zimmerman thus distinguish between (biological) sex (itself a social category, though often treated as “natural”) and sex category (a classification in which we use displays rather than genitals to make our determination).

We can similarly distinguish between chronological age and age category. Chronological age, like sex, is treated as if it were an objective fact, and this is true even when we appreciate its historical specificity. Culturally defined identificatory displays associated with particular chronological ages and articulated as norms and expectations (for example, clothing style, hair color, posture, social roles) are used to assign people to age categories and to guide behavior. In everyday interaction, we do not ask to see a birth certificate or some other “proof” of chronological age before we categorize and treat an individual as a child, an age peer, an elder. We rely on visible cues and social statuses.[13] Sometimes, however, people can and do dress, appear, act, and feel older or younger than their chronological age (and may even be an age other than that evidenced by a birth certificate or other generally accepted indicator of age such as a driver’s license). Expressions such as “S/he looks so old” or “But you don’t look…” and our emotional reactions (admiration, disbelief, sympathy, surprise) come from the mismatch between chronological age and age category. Of course in other contexts (applying for a driver’s license or Social Security benefits), “proof” of chronological age is required,[14] just as “proof” of sex is required in some settings (for example, in athletic competition; see Lorber, 1994:41).

In sum, just as sociologists have distinguished the “objective” and the ‘‘social” components of sex and gender and at the same time analyzed their reciprocal relationships, so we have begun this same line of analysis in age study. Sociologists recognize the historical specificity of chronological age and detail the way that the passage of time is in much of contemporary Western society treated as an objective fact. Following the lead of gender study, sociologists can examine how individuals use the presumably objective fact of age to locate themselves and others in age categories and to [94] act accordingly (and to study how, under what conditions, and with what consequences individuals refuse to “act their age”).

 

Age as an Individual Attribute

 

Because age, like gender, is not fixed or natural, sociologists have used the concepts of status, role, norm, and socialization to understand age and gender as cultural and learned, rather than as biological and given. Biology sets the outer limits; then with expectations provided by culture and learned through socialization, men become masculine and women become feminine; children become teenagers; teenagers become adults; adults become elderly. In this view, age and gender become attributes of individuals as they learn, internalize, and ultimately act in accordance with norms associated with particular roles. Age and gender become objective and factual characteristics of individuals-something people are.

Viewing age and gender as consisting of statuses and roles to which we are socialized presupposes a set of discrete categories-women, men, the young, the middle aged, the elderly. Such categorization highlights and exaggerates differences and minimizes similarities among groups.

The socialization framework and “individual attributes” view have been influential in the study of gender and age. We teach students about the pervasive and often unconscious process of gender (or sex) role socialization in which girls and boys learn the expectations of femininity and masculinity, internalize those norms, and ultimately act as feminine and masculine people (Lips, 1995).

Sociologists also examine age norms, the process of socialization over the life course, and norms governing life course transitions. Some conclude that expectations regarding age-appropriate behavior form a pervasive system of rules that govern the timing of major life events and constrain social interaction (Neugarten et aL, 1965). Others lament the absence of effective socialization to norms among “the elderly” (Rosow, 1974). Still others look forward to the disappearance of age norms (Riley and Riley, 1994). While they disagree on the significance of age norms and roles, the framework of roles and socialization retains its appeal. At some level, of course, this framework is an accurate description of social processes and an important contribution to understanding how the life course and its transitions are patterned.[15]

[95] But the tendencies described (age and gender as individual attributes, socialization-to-roles, and the presumption of distinct categories) can have some troublesome results. One consequence of viewing age as an individual attribute is that age, especially old age, serves as an independent variable (Dannefer, 1984:104). Although sociologists know not to mistake correlation for causation, when it comes to age, such cautions often are overlooked. Age is used to explain other phenomena (for example, voting

behavior or labor force participation) when, in fact, we might well investigate how social structural forces result in associations between age and the particular phenomena (Riley, 1987:2). Using age as a variable in this way encourages descriptive work (for example, on age differences) “while deflecting attention from the need for a more explanatory emphasis that would seek to identify the processes underlying descriptive outcomes,” (Dannefer, 1988:366).

A second consequence of viewing age as an individual attribute is that age becomes the property of older people, as something inherent in only a part of the population, just as gender was something that only women had and race was of concern only to blacks. (This probably accounts for the emphasis on “old age” in the sociology of aging.)

The roles-and-socialization framework has been critiqued as inadequate for theorizing gender (Epstein, 1988; McIlwee and Robinson, 1992; Thorne, 1993); it is similarly inadequate for theorizing age (Marshall, 1980; Dannefer, 1988). Gender and age do not consist simply of roles “located in a particular site or organizational context. In practice, they often serve as ‘master statuses’ (Hughes, 1945), cutting across a variety of social situ-

ations,” (West and Fenstermaker, 1993:154). Moreover, the norms associated with gender or age roles are not necessarily internalized, nor must they be internalized in order for someone to act in accordance with them. There may be other compelling reasons (economic incentives, informal group pressure, formal sanctions) for individual conformity to norms in the absence of their internalization.

Finally, and most crucially, the focus of an analysis of roles and socialization is the individual. We can study age as an attribute of individuals, but that attribute is realized in interaction. Assumptions about age and gender pervade and organize all interaction, institutions, practices, and policies. A focus on age norms, roles, and socialization makes it difficult to see the ways in which age shapes and reflects social organization, social institutions and practices. We might instead explore the way that the meanings of age organize and pattern behavior and the ways that meanings also are challenged, resisted, reconstituted, and reconstructed in interaction.

 

[96] Age as a Social Problem

 

A “social problems” approach has dominated the sociological study of aging. This approach focuses on old people, often regarding old age as

negative and consisting of decline and debilitation. The tendency is to see elderly people as “a mass of material exigencies” (Hazan, 1994:15) and to focus attention on the various difficulties (economic, social, psychological, physical, etc.) confronting old people. This view is accompanied by the observation that for aging to be seen as a social problem, “it had to be defined as such by influential and powerful people,” (Conner, 1992:45). Ironically, what results is the simultaneous critique and embrace of age as a social problem. For example, Conner recognizes that social problems are created or constructed, and simultaneously contributes to that construction by accepting as legitimate the social problems framework for understanding age/aging.[16]

This same irony has marked gender study. For instance, liberal feminism often has focused on “women’s issues” (discrimination in the workplace, sexual harassment and violence, unequal division of labor within households, negative cultural images) which can be remedied by providing women with civil rights and educational opportunities equal to those afforded men. At the same time, they recognize that “women’s issues” is a misnomer which falsely implies that discrimination, harassment, etc. only affect women. Moreover, even when feminists take issue with liberal feminism as a theoretical framework, many nonetheless support the policies which follow from it.

The social problems approach undoubtedly has some positive effects; applied to the study of age or gender, it can increase awareness of inequality and dispel stereotypes and can stimulate pragmatic social change. Liberal feminism undergirds pay equity, affirmative action policies, and policies guiding educational equity. The social problems approach to age has produced a variety of services for older people including transportation, housing, and social services.

However, the social problems approach also has some less benign effects. Even with the recognition that social problems must be defined as such, this approach reinforces the view that age and aging are issues (indeed, difficulties) for a selected segment of the population. Aging becomes a synonym for old just as, until the mid-1980s, gender was seen as a code [97] word for “women” and “men [thought] of themselves as genderless, as if gender did not matter in the daily experiences of [their] lives,” (Kimmel and Messner, 1992:3).

Second, in highlighting old people for special attention, the social problems approach reinforces their difference from the not elderly. It makes similarities between older and younger people difficult or impossible to see, and obscures heterogeneity among old people (Dannefer, 1988). These tendencies are reinforced by the use of categories such as “the aged” and “the elderly” to refer to older people. Such terminology reinforces the view of age as objective chronological fact and reifies categorizing people by (chronological) age to the exclusion of other characteristics.[17]

This issue of difference--whether it is “best” to see women and men as essentially similar or different--has long divided gender study. Cynthia Fuchs Epstein frames the issue as a debate between the “maximalists” and the “minimalists.” Maximalists emphasize the distinctions between women and men and tend to see the differences as deeply rooted and unchangeable, that is, “natural.” Minimalists stress the similarities between women and men and argue that the differences are deceptive in that they are socially produced and thus changeable (Epstein, 1988:25). In an attempt to bridge the two sides, Barrie Thorne describes a “gender-sensitive” perspective that “recognizes that in some situations and circumstances we may need to emphasize gender in order to promote equality” (1993:171). Although the debate is far from resolved when it comes to gender theory and gender politics, in the sociology of age, it is scarcely recognized as an issue.

Finally, a social problems perspective, in combination with an individualist focus, often supports the existing distribution of power and authority and legitimizes the control of subordinate (non normative) groups like old people and women. A social problems approach to age contributes to the power and authority of those, like social workers and medical personnel, whose job it is to “help” “the aged.”[18] At the same time, this perspective denies legitimacy and power to the subjects. Stereotypes of the aged as helpless, dependent, and passive are embodied in and reinforced by this social problems approach.

Age and aging may be viewed-as in gerontology-as social problems. I propose, however, that sociologists can focus their attention, not how aging-as-social-problem is constructed, but rather how age itself is socially constructed.

 

[98] Age as Self-Determined and Age as Overdetermined

 

Sociologists have long struggled with the theoretical and practical links between the individual and society or between agency and structure. Indeed, this may be the central problematic in current sociological theory. Some work-more common in gerontology- overstates agency. At the extreme, age becomes self-determined; you are only as old as you feel. Gerontologists (and advertisers) stress choices (“mature” or “older”) individuals can make to enhance their likelihood of “successful” aging. These choices include “lifestyle factors” like exercise, diet, not smoking, and long-term planning, especially for retirement. The message is “you have the potential to make the future what you want it to be,” (Ageless America, 1984).

More common in sociology is an emphasis on the effects of social structure; age is overdetermined. Experiences of aging (for example, physical and psychological health, social and economic well-being) are patterned by race, ethnicity, class, and gender, and ultimately by political and economic forces that give rise to the institutions, practices, and policies that create and reinforce these patterns (George, 1990:190; Dannefer, 1984).

Neither view is incorrect. Indeed, one thing that sociologists studying age and aging seem to agree on is the need to theoretically integrate micro processes and macro structures (Sherrod and Brim, 1986; Kohli, 1986; Dan- nefer, 1988; Passuth and Bengtson, 1988; Moody, 1988), though they disagree about how to do this. Since our discipline is probabilistic, sociologists are well placed to bridge this gap between agency and structure and to conceptualize age in a way that avoids the reductionism of self-determination and the reductionism of overdetermination.

In the sections that follow, I briefly outline West and Zimmerman’s notion of “doing gender.” I then develop an analogous framework for “doing age” and highlight existing work to suggest how the idea of age-as-accomplished provides a useful way to organize what we have already learned about age, aging, and the life course.

 

“DOING GENDER”

 

In “Doing Gender,” Candace West and Don Zimmerman argue that gender is an accomplishment: an emergent feature of social situations that is both an outcome of and a rationale for the most fundamental division of society (1987; also West and Fenstermaker, 1993:151). Rather than viewing gender as a role, identity, or individual attribute, gender is a feature of social situations. It is embedded in and constituted by everyday interaction. We do gender in the actual or virtual presence of others, even when it seems irrele-[99]vant or unrelated to interaction. Casual conversation (Henley and Freeman, 1989), making dinner (Devault, 1991), working as an engineer (Mcllwee and Robinson, 1992) or a flight attendant (Hochschild, 1983) are occasions for doing gender at the same time that they are conversations, meals, and work.

This distinctively sociological view is grounded in ethnomethodology, which “proposes that the properties of social life which seem objective, factual, and transsituational, are actually managed accomplishments or achievements of local processes” (Zimmerman, 1978, cited in West and Fenstermaker, 1993:152). To see “the objective reality of social facts as an ongoing accomplishment,” ethnomethodologists and other sociologists treat the commonplace and unproblematic as unfamiliar or “anthropologically strange” (Garfinkel, 1967:vii).

West and Zimmerman show how even the most taken-for-granted aspects of social life (like the “fact” that there are two, and only two, sexes) are actually the result of socially guided conceptual, interactional, and micropolitical processes (1987:126). That we describe, explain, rationalize, justify--account--for ourselves and our actions is central to these processes (Heritage, 1984:136). Further, we act with an eye toward accountability; that is, we anticipate how our actions may be characterized, understood or misunderstood, excused, condemned, etc., and act in ways that will minimize the need for accounting (since accounting holds the possibilities of being misunderstood, discounted, or contradicted). As a result, we often conform to dominant norms and conceptualizations, including those related to age and gender, even if we question or reject those norms.[19]

In West and Zimmerman’s view, when individuals do gender “right” (i.e., in accordance with dominant beliefs about women and men, masculinity and femininity), gender becomes invisible. As we collectively “do it right,” dominant assumptions about gender become natural. Indeed, gender itself is naturalized. Moreover, “If we do gender appropriately, we simultaneously sustain, reproduce, and render legitimate the institutional arrangements that are based on sex category.... [Ultimately,] an understanding of how gender is produced in social situations will afford clarification of the interactional scaffolding of social structure and the social control processes that sustain it,” (West and Zimmerman, 1987:146-147). West and Zimmerman are, in the end, less interested in the production of a gendered self than they are in the production of gender itself. They intend for this formulation to overcome the [100] twin dangers of self-determination and overdetermination by pointing out the reciprocal relationship between interaction and social structure, between choice, negotiation, and constraint.

 

DOING AGE

 

West and Zimmerman explain how gender is constituted in and through interaction and how its accomplishment sustains social organization and social order. Like gender, age is accomplished-not in the sense of something completed, but in the sense of something “brought to pass” or continually carried on. In accomplishing age, we create and maintain selves, roles, and identities. But we also participate in and constitute a larger shared universe in which we impart meaning to age in ways that influence but transcend us as individuals. In this section, I outline the idea of age-as-accomplished in relation to the assumptions about age described earlier.

Although age often feels like something we simply are, it feels this way because we enact age in all interactions. Since we usually act our age in predictable ways-predictable given the particular context-we make age invisible. We make age seem natural.

Of course, age is not always invisible; occasionally it comes to the fore- front of our consciousness and we must deliberately make sense of age, often in the context of particular events or milestones (birthdays, anniversaries, deaths of parents), changes in our physical appearance or physical condition, or social roles and norms (Eisenhandler, 1991; Karp, 1991). David Karp describes between ages 50 and 60 as “a decade of reminders . . . during which people, more sharply than before, are made to feel their age.... Contextual events giving rise to distinctive consciousness are correlated with age, but not determined by age” (1991:67, 69). At these moments, age is momentarily denaturalized; its meaning cannot be taken for granted.

Feminists in the 1970s referred to moments when gender or sex inequality was foregrounded in individual consciousness as a “click.” “Clicks” are significant because they represent the point at which one can no longer take existing knowledge, relations, and practices as “givens.”[20]

[101] While such reminders may be more frequent and intense at later ages, younger people are not exempt. During informal conversations over the past several years, colleagues not infrequently share their “age-click” anecdotes. One colleague (now in her mid-40s) confessed that the first time she refused to tell someone her “real” (i.e., chronological) age, something clicked; she was forced to examine what age meant to her personally and to women in general in the context of her social circles and in the larger society. Another relates the following anecdote. “Fifteen or 20 years ago (that makes me 30-35) I was sitting on the front step with D- and A-, and one of the children came up asking for a conflict resolution. I was all of a sudden struck by the fact that we were the ‘grown ups.’ I was shocked.”

Perhaps the click comes from realizing that we are not acting our age or from noticing how effectively and unconsciously we have been acting our age. Or maybe we realize that we are “ahead of” or “behind time” (for example, more or less advanced in our careers or family lives in comparison to other people of the same chronological age or of the same cohort; observe the multiple ways to measure age). “Clicks” often require us to offer accounts to others or to ourselves, and accountability is social and interactional. Sociologists can study disruptions of “the normal,” like the “clicks” described above, to explore how normalcy is accomplished, how “the natural” becomes natural.

Conceptualizing age-as-accomplished does not ignore the “fact” of chronology. Rather, it enables sociologists to examine the process by which chronology is made “factual” and to view the consequences of our acting as if chronology were natural. Moreover, viewing age-as-accomplished does not require rejecting the concepts of age norms or roles. Rather, it enables us to clarify how norms and roles work in social situations. Norms and roles are resources that individuals draw on in interaction. They are among the tools we use to act our age; they do not themselves constitute age. Conceptualizing age-as-accomplished also helps bridge the self-determined/overdetermined dichotomy by making explicit the “interactional scaffolding of social structure and the social control processes that sustain it” (West and Zimmerman, 1987:146-147). The reciprocal relationship between actors acting and structural factors constraining and enabling action is central. Finally, the idea of age-as-accomplished radically transforms the notion of age as a problem. If age is accomplished, then it is not a social problem in the sense of a troublesome condition requiring solution. It is, instead, a problem in the sense of a situation that presents uncertainty or difficulty that can be managed or negotiated, at best temporarily resolved, though never permanently eliminated.

 

[102] RESOURCES FOR DOING AGE

 

If age is something everyone does, then how to act one’s age is a “problem” each of us faces in innumerable encounters every day. How we act our age in any given situation is the product of the interpretations and choices (often unconscious) we make among available individual, cultural, and institutional resources. What are the resources from which we may choose? How do we choose among them? What shapes our accomplishment of age?

Ann Swidler has proposed “the image of culture as a ‘tool kit’ of symbols, stories, rituals, and world-views, which people may use in varying configurations to solve different kinds of problems” (1986:273). When people solve problems they construct strategies of action-persistent (but not fixed or immutable) ways of ordering action through time. Culture is significant, “not in defining ends of action [i.e., providing values or goals], but in providing cultural components that are used to construct strategies of action. . . . To adopt a line of conduct, one needs an image of the kind of world in which one is trying to act, a sense that one can read reasonably accurately . . . how one is doing, and a capacity to choose among alternative lines of action” (Swidler, 1986:273, 275).

This conceptualization has the advantage of seeing individuals as active and skilled users of culture, rather than as passive “cultural dopes,” (Swidler, 1986:277). It has the advantage of seeing how “action is necessarily integrated into larger assemblages [strategies of action]” (Swidler, 1986:276) rather than seeing actions as something people choose one at a time according to their values or interests. It admits the potential for using culture in new, challenging, or unpredictable ways at the same time that it explains continuities and order. And it bridges the self-determined/overdetermined dichotomy by positing active and skilled users of culture who nonetheless construct persistent ways of ordering action.

 

The Tool Kit

 

Our culture provides us with multiple images of and resources for doing age. These images and resources shape our consciousness of age, our expectations about the life course and life course changes, our behavior and feelings about our experiences, and our life chances.[21] We draw on [103] resources of different types from the most individual and personal-our bodies and interpersonal relations-to the organizational and institutional.

Resources are not simply “out there” waiting to be used in identical ways by all. Rather, in interaction we draw on and give meaning to available resources, then use that meaning as a guide to action. Arlie Hochschild’s work on the sociology of emotions helps us understand how we make use of the available resources. Hochschild argues that emotions are culturally shaped and publicly displayed; the choice of display is constrained by macro social and cultural forces and by individual concerns for impression management and self-concept. Actors do “emotion work” in deciding how to feel and act in particular situations. In addition, Hochschild (1989) argues that emotions mediate between what people believe, say, and actually do; feelings mediate between ideals, goals, values, and actions and thus are crucial for understanding “strategies of action.” In short, emotions function to transform available resources for acting one’s age into the actual accomplishment of age.

I visualize available “age resources” as a set of concentric circles with the inner circle(s) consisting of personal and highly individualized resources--the body and interpersonal relationships. The outer circles consist of cultural, bureaucratic, institutional, and structural factors available to larger groups of people. Since individuals draw simultaneously on more personal (and possibly idiosyncratic) resources and impersonal bureaucratic and structural resources as they actively construct strategies of action, their strategies are ultimately patterned by age without being determined by age. Sociologists can thus generalize about age categories and age-related behaviors and statuses and at the same time appreciate variation and “deviance.”

At the individual level, our bodies (appearance, physical capabilities, and changes) are a source of age consciousness and a resource for doing age. We interpret “internal” messages conveyed by bodies (stiffness in the morning, decreased agility) in the context of age. In addition, we get “external” messages about bodies (people comment on the presence or absence of grey hair or wrinkles). But the resources provided by our bodies require interpretation, and the experience and interpretation of bodies in relation to age is situational. For the “aging” table dancers-most in their late teens and early twenties-studied by Carol Ronai (1992), setting and situation, more than chronological age, give meaning to “old.” Studies of nursing home residents (Gubrium, 1977, 1993; Diamond, 1992) also illustrate how the body and its functions are variously interpreted and acted upon.[22]

Interpersonal interactions provide resources for and constraints on the accomplishment of age. For example, Gubrium et al. (1994:139) show how juvenile delinquents “act their age” in encounters with the police. Officers exercise a great deal of discretion and, in interaction with juveniles, demeanor is a crucial factor shaping officer response. “Those who act their age-appearing neither overly immature nor worldly beyond their years are generally not seen as problems,” (Gubrium et aL, 1994:139). In this example, not acting one’s age appropriately-appearing too immature or too worldly-might very well get one taken into custody. In the field of aging, research on housing and living arrangements (e.g., Margolis, 1990), care giving (e.g., Abel, 1991), and nursing homes (Gubrium, 1977; Ross, 1977; Hazan, 1992) shows the ways that formal and informal attachments within and to social organizations and networks provide the setting for interpersonal relations and interaction, influence our feelings about age, and ultimately shape how we act our age.

Our culture, in the forms of language and cognitive and conceptual categories, provides yet another resource for accomplishing age. Hockey and James (1993:10) show how metaphors of childhood (with their assumptions of dependency) provide frames of reference for everyday encounters with people in multiple age categories and lay the foundation for treating physically dependent adults as childlike. Gubrium et al. (1994) examine the ways that images of the life course are used by mental health and social service professionals with serious consequences (hospitalization or release, course of treatment, etc.) for individuals.

Institutions such as the media, advertising, education, medicine, and religion depend on and sustain our consciousness of age, and they provide us with additional resources. For example, from the mass media we get images of different age categories with which to compare ourselves. These messages are not always consistent, nor are they necessarily desirable or attractive, as studies of ageism and stereotyping (Butler, 1996; Scrutton 1996) have shown. Yet, we situate ourselves vis-a-vis these images and as a consequence feel guilty or proud, ashamed or delighted, at our ability to “measure up.”

Our legal system uses chronological age to regulate education, sexual intercourse, marriage, and labor force participation, to name just a few examples. Law, public policy, and bureaucratic requirements provide a resource for age consciousness and for actually accomplishing age since [105] formal requirements enable and constrain strategies of action (Buchmann, 1989). For instance, much of how kids accomplish age is shaped by the requirements of teachers and administrators, the school day, and the academic year (and this is historically specific; see Chudacoff, 1989). In addition, their accomplishment of age outside of school also is patterned by compulsory education. For example, for kids, getting older means getting to stay up later at night. But getting older also means an earlier start to the school day. During the school week, then, a 14-year-old’s ability to act “grown up” and stay awake late is circumscribed.

Trends in the economy, employment, and labor markets influence life chances and the meaning and accomplishment of age. For example, the creation and extension of Social Security and employer pension plans make it possible (though not inevitable) to think of oneself as a retiree or future retiree. Conversely, assumptions about age, the typical life course, and life course transitions (especially education, marriage, child-bearing, work, and retirement), in conjunction with assumptions about class, race/ethnicity, and gender, shape labor market practices and public policies such as Social Security.

In her studies of changes in labor force participation rates and early withdrawal (through disability, unemployment, and pension systems), Guillemard (1996) has found that “the age when persons stop working has been lowered significantly” in many Western industrialized countries. “The chronological thresholds used both to determine personal identities throughout the life course and to organize the transition to old age have been torn up during the last fifteen years” (Guillemard, 1996:180).

Guillemard argues that together welfare systems and work/retirement policies have had the effect of reorganizing the life course (1996:181). Mayer and Muller (1986) argue that both the modem, bureaucratic welfare state and the contemporary life course are joint products of the same processes of societal development (rationalization, social differentiation, and social control).

 

Choosing from Among the Tools

 

Life course scholars offer mixed assessments about the changes they describe.[23] In general, the focus is on the way that macro societal forces [106] pattern and circumscribe age roles, events, and statuses. The age-as-accomplished framework enables us also to investigate the extent to which individuals accept, reject, or negotiate the meanings of age that come “packaged” with state policy, national welfare systems, and labor markets.

Accomplishing age requires that individuals use and interpret available resources, have emotional reactions, and act accordingly. As a result, ideologies (beliefs about age and aging including roles and norms), “objective” factors (such as chronological age or physical condition), and macro societal policies or trends (for example, opportunities for early labor force withdrawal) provide clues but do not tell us how individuals actually will feel about and accomplish their age. Instead we can examine how, in particular contexts, individuals constitute and respond to the meaning of available resources.

It is worth observing that people do not necessarily act their age in an explicit or self-conscious manner. Rather, the accomplishment of age is mediated though characteristics we assume to be related to age categories (for example, dependence and independence, competence, maturity). These attributes, themselves social constructions, serve as proxies for age.[24] Thus, elementary school students and nursing home residents, each in their own way, act their age by demonstrating, in interaction and with the help of others, their “competence” (i.e., their ability to do the things that someone “of that age” should be able to do) (Gubrium et aL, 1994:118-154).

Two recent studies of old-age home residents illustrate both the complex process of “doing age” and a variety of possible outcomes. In his study of an Israeli old age home designated for the “able bodied” aged, Haim Hazan describes residents as deliberately demonstrating “functioning” to other residents, staff, and administrators. In this case, “functioning” serves as a proxy for age. Because of the great number of applicants, the director is compelled to remove as large a number of “nonfunctioning” aged as often as possible. And because the cost of other institutions is much greater and because residents know transfer denotes physical deterioration, residents feel compelled to demonstrate their functioning. They know that administrators look favorably on officially sanctioned group activities. Hazan’s description of the Talmudic study in the synagogue group is especially telling.

 

The teacher [hired specifically for this purpose] reads and interprets in Yiddish,

despite the fact that some ‘students’ do not understand the language. No questions

are asked, and if remarks are made, these are usually digressions. Some participants

do not even turn the pages . . . some whisper between themselves . . . [one] hums  

[107] oriental melodies quietly to himself and glances at his watch every now and then,

in order to see if the time has come for the lesson to end. He also does not turn

over any pages--sometimes reading aloud a line or two, irrespective of what the

teacher is saying.... It is absolutely clear that the participants do not comprehend

the content of the lessons.... Nevertheless, many of the congregants wanted the

treasurers to organize more lessons on weekdays . . . (Hazan, 1992:129)

 

In addition to their participation in sanctioned group activities, residents demonstrate their functioning in the public lobby, hallways, elevators, and dining room, in the possession and circulation of photographs, and in their clothing and appearance.

The dominant sociological approach (and a mainstream gerontological approach) might view these behaviors as indicative of some actual level of functioning or as signs of the necessity for certain kinds of programs or activities. Hazan, in contrast, sees them as ways that group members organize their own world of meaning in the context of power relations in an institutional setting. Each resident takes into account features of the organizational setting (the authority of the director; the director’s obligation to transfer nonfunctioning adults), beliefs about age, health, and physical condition (functioning is defined by the director as “able-bodied”), and her/his own physical capabilities (Can I move about unassisted? Am I physically able to eat with others in the dining room?). Each resident has an emotional reaction (fear of being transferred, determination to participate in activities, pride in abilities) and acts accordingly (attending Talmudic study group).

In contrast to the residents Hazan studies are the residents of Les Floralies, an old-age home in a Parisian suburb where anthropologist Jennie-Keith Ross lived and did field work. Les Floralies residents make very different choices about how to act like old-age home residents. Health condition is a characteristic that residents often talk about, but unlike in the Israeli home, health and “functioning” are not the dominant principles for social organization and interaction. Instead, “sex and political identification are important principles of social organization in this community” (Ross, 1977:54-55).

The residents of Les Floralies are similar in some ways to the residents Hazan studies. Both groups are of similar ages (most residents are between 70 and 79 years old) and have similar (working) class and educational backgrounds. Their context for interaction, however, is significantly different. The Israeli home is much larger than Les Floralies (400 vs. 150 residents) and, most importantly, Les Floralies does not transfer “non able-bodied” residents. These features have significant effects on the meaning and nature of interaction among and between residents, staff, administrators, and “outsiders.” The juxtaposition of these two studies (and the variations within each group of residents) illustrates how people [108] can nonetheless accomplish age very differently given the combination of, and their reaction to, available resources.

 

CONCLUSION

 

While a great deal of research has uncovered the sociological dimensions of aging, sociologists have paid less attention to age itself as a social construction. With the larger aim of contributing to the development of a sociology of age, this essay offers two routes to the conclusion that age is accomplished. The first route involves drawing parallels between the study of age and the study of gender. Examining similarities among the dominant assumptions in age study and gender study and the strategies for theorizing gender that seek to counter the dominant assumptions provides a model, not yet exploited, for age study.

The second and more often traveled route involves building on existing scholarship which recognizes that age is far more social than chronological. Some life course theorists, historians, and sociologists have shown that chronological age itself is given meaning in social and historical contexts. The framework of age-as-accomplished developed here is indebted to this work but extends these insights further in order to examine how age is given meaning and significance in interaction and in the context of macro societal forces. Research on structural factors provides insight into one set of resources for acting our age. But the view of age-as-accomplished also seeks to understand how individuals interpret, organize, accommodate, create, and alter social structure. This framework seeks to credit societal members with agency as they enact, perform, and accomplish age again and again. Thus examining the accomplishment of age at the micro level clarifies how we create and sustain social structure. This view sensitizes us to human agency and the potential for variability and change at the same time that it attends to regularities in the performance of age that function as both cause and consequence of social structure. The meaning and salience of age, like the meaning and salience of gender, are situation specific and not fixed.

Other sociologists have adopted a similar interactionist perspective; the metaphor of acting is not unique. But, as others have argued (Dannefer, 1984, 1988; Moody, 1988; Luborsky and Sakar, 1996), this view is in the minority in sociology and almost invisible in gerontology despite its promising possibilities. By way of conclusion, I outline some of the potential contributions of the view of age-as-accomplished.

Like gender, age is “potentially omnirelevant.” This means that age is not the property of “the elderly”; it is potentially relevant to people of all [109] (chronological) ages. One effect, then, of the view of age-as-accomplished is to shift the focus away from “the elderly” to broader social processes that affect people in multiple age categories throughout their lives.

The second implication of age as “potentially omnirelevant” is that, although we continually “act our age,” age is not always or equally relevant--i.e., salient--in all situations. Qualitative research has revealed the ways that individuals notice, feel, and experience their age in varying ways in different settings and at different points in the life course (e.g., Luborsky and Rubinstein, 1987). Moreover, statistical portraits, first-person and ethnographic accounts (Ross, 1977; Hazan, 1992), and age theory (e.g., Dannefer, 1988) attest to diversity within age categories. The view of age-as-accomplished can deflect attention away from “success” in aging (so often the focus of gerontology) in order to devote more attention to diversity and the appreciation of variability.

In giving credit to actors and in granting them agency, I do not want to minimize the extent to which performances are constrained. Representations of age and the life course not only are resources but also are used as means of control (Gubrium et al., 1994). Beliefs about age and the life course permeate our mechanisms of formal control and are institutionalized in law, medicine, psychiatry, and education (Karp and Yoels, 1982; Buchmann, 1989). The familiarity of the phrase “act your age” and the frequency with which it is used to direct the actions of others (and ourselves) testifies to the pervasiveness of beliefs about age as a method of informal social control. In short, age is never accomplished outside of relations of power.

The emphases of the age-as-accomplished framework have implications for research agendas. The effort to counter the dominant assumptions may be a guide for research into age-as-accomplished. The refusal to take chronological age as fixed or determinate and a focus on group process (in contrast to individual attributes) generate a variety of research possibilities including historical studies, ethnography, and cross-national comparisons as well as research into cognitive and conceptual categories. Relatively small-scale, ethnographic, and qualitative studies will enable sociologists to investigate the nuances of acting one’s age. Secondary analysis involving comparisons between and among ethnographic studies will enable sociologists to understand patterns and sources of variation in the construction and accomplishment of age. Historical, statistical, and macro level studies, because they tend to stress structural factors as opposed to meaning, interpretation, and interaction, will not be supplanted by the age-as-accomplished framework. Rather, the framework of age-as-accomplished will benefit from and complement these studies.

 [110] In sum, the metaphor of acting and the idea of age-as-accomplished can make explicit what often goes unrecognized in the sociology of age: the performative, interactive work of accomplishing age, the emotion work involved in “becoming” and “being” an age, and the strategies people develop and use as they create and display themselves as aged (that is, as being of a particular age). To understand “age” as situated, contingent, and negotiated, and as continually constituted in interaction, provides the foundation for a sociology of age.

 

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