The theory and practice of social gerontology has one very big handicap when compared with other areas of social science that focus on specific groups. So far knowledge and theory, particularly theory, are not being built up from within by
the subjects themselves, so we have nothing to compare with feminist theory or black and ethnic studies. This may be inevitable given the social structures that support academic life, but it does mean that it is more difficult to combat ageist knowledge than sexist or racist knowledge. Any set of theories developed by the young and applied to the ‘other ‘ (the old) is bound to be partial. However, critical theory has a lot going for it, and this book is a much needed attempt to stake out the territory in the light of global developments. The editors aim to comprehend aging in terms that include power, ideology, and stratification, and the expanding global reach of such forces ‘ (p. 5). The actual experiences of being old can however easily get lost in the heady analysis of power and oppressions, so a reminder from Dale Dannefer is very welcome: ‘a critical theory of aging should aspire not only to an exposure of oppressive structures and ideological theories but to the articulation of an understanding of how to balance an assault on the “surplus suffering” produced by human ignorance and injustice with the recognition that physical and other personal suffering and loss are … ultimately unavoidable’ (p. 115).
The book has three sections: Dimensions of Social Gerontology; Critical Dimensions of Medicalisation; and Age and Inequality . In the first, the editors update their contributions to critical gerontology theory in chapters that will be useful for teaching. They are joined by Caroll Estes, who writes a powerful call for feminist theoretical approaches, emphasising the huge stake that women have in maintaining state systems of redistribution in income and health. The medicalisation of old age can be seen as one of the major social changes of the last half century. It is a relatively easy target for critical theory and worth a book on its own. Here Stephen Katz questions the dominance of ‘functional age’ as a category and asks, ‘how does one know oneself as functional ?’ (p. 132). Neil King and Toni Calasanti look at the anti-ageing industry and Kathryn Douthit analyses the power factors underlying the processes of medicalisation of Alzheimer’s and the corresponding eclipse of emotional and social aspects of the disease.
In the final section, the authors consider the influence ofmajor social structures and the way they produce inequalities. Larry Polivka and Charles Longino conclude that it is not the retiring baby-boomers, but growing wage inequality and tax policies favouring the rich, that are likely to endanger the future prosperity of American workers and their famili es. Stephen Crystal models a theory of cumulative disadvantage, and Linda Burton and Keith Whitfield present heartrending empirical examples from their study ofpoor families. Sandra Torres sees globalisation as changing the way migration in later life is theorised, and much of what she says applies to non-migrant elders as well. Finally, John Vincent applies critical theory to the global reach of pension funds. In summary this is a stimulating book and well worth reading by all who are not wholly opposed to critical theory.
Ageing & Society, published by Cambridge University Press – Volume 27 Issue 2 – March 2007
—Gail Wilson (London School of Economics)