An age-old experience that provides us with social bricks

Aging and Everyday Life. First edition
March 2, 2001

This book is a reader that brings together a fascinating collection of 30 published texts on a comprehensive range of topics within the sociology of old age. It is refreshing to read a textbook that treats old age as a general social phenomenon and not as one that requires intervention or treatment.

Although social-policy students and trainee health and welfare professionals would do well to dip into its pages and understand its perspective, it is not a standard gerontological textbook. Such students might well expect a textbook to contain details of policy debates, best practice, or examine the issues or social problems associated with ageing.

This book, however, is constructed within the tradition of the "sociology of everyday life". It is about how people create the meaning of what they are doing in the routines of everyday life, rather than being concerned with macro-institutional frameworks or historical social processes. In the editors' words: "How people themselves interpret and discern what it's like to grow older and be old in today's world."

The selected readings draw on ethnographic and qualitative studies that illustrate the social construction of specific aspects of the old-age experience. So, for example, in the section on "Death and bereavement", they do not present material on the psychology or management of grief, mortality statistics, or the structure of the funeral industry. Rather, they reproduce an ethnographic account of the creation of a ritual drama about the death of a Jewish elder in California, a personal account of the death of a mother from a care professional and an analysis of accounts of grief as part of a qualitative study of middle-age bereavement.

The overall effect is to demonstrate, using detailed empirical materials, the ways in which people construct their social world: in these cases, the experience of the death of someone close.

The editors start with a ten-page introduction in which they set out their approach to old age. There are then sections on: conceptualising the ageing experience, ageing and identity, work and retirement, interpersonal relationships, living arrangements, the ageing body, the ageing mind, caring and care-giving, and death and bereavement.

Each section generally has contributions from three authors. There are no editorial introductions or conclusions to the sections, but each has a short unannotated bibliography of further reading. Thus, the book is not a systematic coverage of all the ideas one might want students of social gerontology to cover. It is, however, in cumulative effect, a powerful statement of the value of the "social construction" perspective.

The book is American in orientation. This is significant given the small-scale localised nature of the accounts of everyday life. However, the book will serve a very useful purpose if it brings to the attention of a wider British audience the wonderful pioneering anthropology of Barbara Myerhoff on ritual, Arlie Hochschild on communal living and Joyce Stephens on social distinction.

John A. Vincent is senior lecturer in sociology, University of Exeter.

Aging and Everyday Life. First edition

Editor - Jaber F. Gubrium and James A. Holstein
ISBN - 0 631 21707 X and 21708 8
Publisher - Blackwell
Price - £60.00 and £17.99
Pages - 483

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