Social Policy Review of ‘Aging, Globalization & Inequality’

My interest in the book was originally focused upon the questions posed around the themes of globalisation, inequality and critical thinking; the book did not disappoint in these areas. It is a collection of papers that had its origins in a meeting of the International Sociological Association in Bielefeld, 1994, which generated thinking about new paradigms within critical gerontology. The authors state in their introduction that, ‘in contrast to the traditional lament of a dearth of theory, social gerontology is now courted by numerous theoretical suitors’ (p. 3). The book draws upon a range of underpinning concepts, in the attempt to generate ‘new’ thinking, which demonstrate the importance of both the macro and micro levels of analysis and which emphasise the key role of power and it interrelatedness to these two levels of analysis. In doing this they seek to build upon more traditional aspects of critical gerontological thought.

The book is organised into three sections. The first sets out the ‘dimensions of critical gerontology’. Baars begins by setting out his analysis of the risk society. The intellectual force of this is that its theorising (including Beck, 1992; Giddens, 1999) results in an individualisation of inequality, and as a consequence leads to greater individualising of social theory around inequality. He lucidly shows that the dominance of neo-liberalism is a form of ‘colonisation’, where care is commodified, human relationships become primarily defined in terms of ‘capital’ and the worth of people is related to their capacity to take care of themselves. In his attempt combine the macro and micro forces he argues that there needs to be a development of narrative approaches to understand the personal meanings of aging within structurally organised paradigms (p. 38). These ideas are further developed by Walker, who reviews the contribution of political economy. Much of Walker’s chapter has a far broader application than gerontology as he develops a response to the critiques of political economy and structure, arguing that the move towards interactionist and ethnographic accounts over emphasise agency, at the expense of structure, and thereby ‘diverted attention from the sources of inequality’ (p. 69). This leads to largely uncritical accounts, supports neo-liberalism and rests on a false dichotomy between agency and structure. In between these chapters, Chris Phillipson, accepting the ‘radical’ approach to globalisation establishes this as the context for future political action. The contradictory nature of globalisation and the different roles of the nation state (weakened) and multi-nationals (extended) sets the context for political engagement. The section ends with chapters by Estes and then Dannefer. Estes outlines a feminist position, which argues that traditional (critical) theories have ignored providing care as ‘non-work’ and she explores how this has underpinned the neo-liberal economic resurgence. Her conclusion is that, despite feminist scholarship, there is a ‘missing feminist revolution in social policy and aging’ (p. 96) which needs to be developed as a matter or urgency. Dannefer’s chapter concludes the section in a way that, perhaps unintentionally, draws the dominant strands of the preceding work together. The constant theme has been the tensions between micro and macro, agency and action, even scholarship and action and Dannefer stresses the need for ‘meaning’ to be located within their ‘structural moorings’ (p. 110), re-asserting Marx’s observation that whilst history is made by people they do not make it in conditions of their own choosing.

The second section, dealing with medicalisation helps to extend the ‘conditions’ further beyond the economic and cultural into health and medicine. King and Calasanti provide a highly interesting analysis of ‘empowerment’ for older people, by examining the anti-aging movement. The authors identify the shared history of both the anti-aging industry and critical gerontology and note that both offer a way out of ‘stigmatised dependency’ (p. 146). The anti- aging lobby seeks to empower through individualised market-oriented consumption, whilst critical gerontology seeks to address collectively structural inequalities. The truly globalised aspect of this chapter occurs in its short concluding section, which points how the extent to which the development of the Global South is dependent upon aspects of consumerism and ‘Northern’ ideology, which for many in the South are seen as corrosive of more traditional community-based values. The power of ‘the North’ is evidenced in Douthit’s chapter about how dementia of the Alzheimer’s type has developed along biopsychiatric paths, noting how the possible denial of human contact in such ‘remedies’ is to the disadvantage of many people who experience it. The analytical framework here is expressly Weberian, although it could just as easily been fitted into the more critical paradigms of other chapters.

The final set of chapters deal more explicitly with the theme of inequalities and the interplay of local, national and global dynamics. Here the focus of the book moves into a more policy- oriented domain. These are useful for social policy, but perhaps lack some of the originality of other chapters, in that much of the research confirmed earlier findings about inequality in older- age. Burton and Whitfield’s contribution about health, aging and America’s poor illustrated the well-documented evidence of the multiple impacts of inequality with good narrative material, providing research evidence of the paradigms developed in the first section. Torres’ chapter, outlining challenges to ethno- and anthropogerontology of globalisation also returns one the specific themes of the book. Here important questions are raised about how globalisation makes minorities more, not less, visible, despite the tendency towards the hybridisation of cultures.

There could have been more specific focus upon the Global South, since, despite some of the assertions, the text is still — perhaps inevitably — biased towards the ‘North’. All the authors are based in either the USA or Europe and the text could have been better served by a greater diversity of contributors. Perhaps, however, this merely reflects the nature of the topic. Whilst the chapters cover a range of material, some of it is presented in a very technical manner, which makes it difficult for those who come to the text with only minimal prior knowledge. For example, one page of Douthit’s chapter contains 15 abbreviations, necessary for the analysis, but not easy for the reader. Much of the early material is written for a Master’s or final year undergraduate audience and sadly this could result in the book being overlooked by some student groups who could really benefit from it. The material could make a strong contribution to a number of specific social welfare courses, especially social work, yet it does not seem to be written with a wider readership in mind. This is a pity, but does not ultimately detract from a useful volume which should be read by those who routinely engage on a professional basis with those in older-age, where its theoretical rigour provides a useful antedote to the sadly all-too-familiar social work mantra of empowerment through choice, which this book helpfully reveals to be the mantra of neo-liberalism.

— Graeme Simpson, University of Wolverhampton

Journal of Social Policy, published by Cambridge University Press – Volume 37/2 (2008), p. 330-331.