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Gerontology and Social Exchange Theory Essay


The fundamental biological problem that all theories of aging seek to explain was stated very elegantly in 1957 by Williams when he wrote, “It is indeed remarkable that after a seemingly miraculous feat of morphogenesis, a complex metazoan should be unable to perform the much simpler task of merely maintaining what is already formed.” The difficulty in attempting to establish an understanding of aging is that it is not a single physiological process. It is multifaceted and hierarchical in its expression with subtle changes occurring simultaneously at the molecular, cellular, tissue and organ levels. The variety of characterizes many species, particularly humans, and the complexity of environmental interactions results in an enormous phenotypic variability being associated with aging. This variability is frequently confounded by the symptoms of underlying pathology and invariably increases between individuals with aging.

First Transformation of Theory

The beginning of social gerontology began as general perspectives on aging rather than as actual scientific theories. Prior to 1961, social gerontology attempted to explain how individuals adjusted to aging from role and activity perspectives. Growing old was seen as an inevitable process that led to the development of problems an individual experienced overtime. It wasn’t until 1961, with the development of disengagement theory, that there was an actual theory being used as a basis for scientific research. A basic assumption of the theory was that all societies have to transfer power from an aging population to a younger one. Disengagement attempted to explain this process of power transfer and complimented gerotrancendence, another theory from what is considered to be the first transformation of theory. Gerotrancendence follows the beliefs of Jung and Erikson that as a person ages, they withdraw from the external world to an internal world focused on spirituality, wisdom, self-acceptance and purpose. Both disengagement and gerotrancendence theories attempted to explain what social gerontologists thought aging should be. They did not try to develop a universal theory to explain the variety of experiences of people as they age (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2011).

In the case of disengagement, this withdrawal from power was believed to be a universal experience that transcended gender and culture. Death was inevitable; decline in abilities was probably. It was only natural that others would have lowered expectations for aging individuals. In the case of gerotrancendence, this withdrawal resulted from an individual not achieving ego identity. An individual would either attain this ego identity, a positive regard for their life, or withdraw as a symptom of despair (Andrus Gerontology Center; University of Southern California, 2005) A third theory of the time period was continuity theory, which postulated that “individuals tend to maintain a consistent pattern of behavior as they age, substituting similar types of roles for lost ones and keeping typical ways of adapting to the environment” (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2011, p. 319).

Individual satisfaction was dependent on how consistent a person was able to maintain the same patterns of behavior. Though attempting to challenge previous theories based on activity and disengagement perspectives, it also did not address any personality differences among aging individuals, nor did it address any political, social, historical or cultural influences on the experience of aging (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2011). It is interesting to note that though continuity theory attempted to challenge the activity theory, it was similar to the activity perspective that that was a positive relationship between social roles and life satisfaction (Howe, 1987).

Alternative Theoretical Perspectives

Alternative theories based on a symbolic interaction perspective were developed to address external issues affecting aging while also attempting to connect the disparate theories of activity and disengagement. Symbolic interaction perspective is based on the premise that as an individual interacts with his environment; his experiences of aging are shaped by these interactions. Three of these alternative theories are: age stratification theory, social exchange theory, and the political economy of aging. There are many similarities and differences between these theories. Age stratification and political economy theories are based on the belief that as people age, the differences in their aging experience is significantly influenced by stratification. Age stratification acknowledges the differences experienced by those sharing a similar history. Similarities among life events and societal changes experienced by these historical cohorts affect these individuals in similar ways.

In contrast, political economy theory rejects all previous theories and posits that differences between individual experiences of aging are determined by social class. Socioeconomic and political factors determine the disparity between different groups in an aging population. Social exchange theory is based on an economic cost-benefit model of social interaction. It could be said that there is a similarity between social exchange and political economy in that disparities experienced are social in nature. Whereas in social exchange theory, an individual is thought to be able to influence or change one’s environment as one adapts, political economy believes that inequalities are built into the political system. Political economy critiques the current system which lulls the individual into believing one has to adapt to circumstances, rather than changing society’s structural inequalities.

Of the alternative theories, social exchange is the only one to address the influence of culture on the experience of aging. Social exchange theory believes that people interact with those whom they believe the rewards outweigh the costs of the relationship (Taylor, Peplau, & Sears, 2006). Though social exchange theory acknowledges that though a person may no longer have the same economic value when older, that the older individual possesses other non-materialistic assets such as wisdom, love, and time for service. As our society modernized, these assets have been overlooked by a culture that now places importance on efficiency and productivity (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2011).

The Second Transformation

The second transformation was developed in the early 1980’s. This transformation includes the following approaches: social phenomenology, social constructivism, and social constructionism. Both of which discuss the influence of social perceptions, rather than actual facts. Social phenomenology is an interpretative approach to an individual’s social life on a day to day basis. The purpose is to gain a better understanding of the aging process and how it is influenced by social definitions and social structures. This approach can be a very helpful guide when gaining understanding of an individual’s social life, depending on how the information is obtained. The outcomes for this approach will be solely based on the interpretations of the individual (s) obtaining this information. Not everyone has the same social definition and or social structures, which could result in numerous interpretations (Hooyman& Kiyak, 2011). Social Constructionism and Social Constructivism are both phenomenological approaches that focus on social phenomena development, but are very different. Social constructionism is the sociological perspective and focuses on the social contexts and structural development.

This approach would view how an individual structures their life which shapes their old age experiences. Social constructivism is interpreting the meaning of an individual’s social context, psychologically. From this approach the researchers want to know more information on why a person chooses a specific context and how an individual does decide a specific social context (Hooyman& Kiyak, 2011). Critical Theory and Feminist Perspectives are also influenced by phenomenology. Critical theory refers to the biomedical model of aging, but focuses on structural and institution factors. This theory is suggesting that those (older people) participating in research studies should be allowed to come up with the questions they are requested to answer. For instance, research conducted regarding retirement would recommend a series of questions complied by other retirees (Hooyman& Kiyak, 2011). The Feminist Theory concludes that age related research outcomes involve inequalities against women.

This theory suggests that women haven’t been included in research studies as they should be. It’s even been stated that men have been favored over women. Due to these inequalities all other theories of aging are insufficient. These inequalities also include gender with race, social class, sexual orientation, and disabilities, all of which aren’t discussed as much as they should be (Hooyman& Kiyak, 2011). These theories are all based on assumptions, rather than actual facts. The text states, “To positivist, phenomenological theories may seem impossible to test and closer to assumptions about meanings than propositions that can be proved or disprove” (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2011, p. 326).Society has a huge impact on our perceptions of life, which aren’t consistent and change over time. A huge factor of perception is that it’s not necessarily reality and lacks proven facts. If the information being evaluated isn’t consistent, lacks factual information, and is based on assumptions it shouldn’t be used for practice, but could be a beneficial guiding tool (Hooyman& Kiyak, 2011).

Postmodernist Theory

Postmodernist theory represents a decisive break with modernity or a positivist scientific approach to an “objective” truth (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2011, p. 331). Postmodernism focuses on how our world appears today, rather than focusing on how an individual wishes for the world to be seen. Postmodernist theory reviews the whole of a person’s experiences during their life time and examines the body not from a biological standpoint, but rather by everyday social and cultural practices built overtime to construct the identity of the individual. The individual will physically change overtime, but their essential identity develops based on achievements and future goals. An area that continues to develop in postmodernist theory focuses on biomedical technology that can provide options for reconstructing failing body parts to slow the process of aging. Postmodernist and social constructivist theories share the link of knowledge as a socially constructed element and each individual’s social life events create who they are. This diversity of perspectives alerts social gerontologists to be concerned with the connections between scientific inquiry and the social milieu at particular influential points in time (Putney, Alley, & Bengston, 2005, p. 95).

Both areas focus on an individual’s construct based on a cultural framework of customs, traditions, and beliefs. Social constructionism and postmodernist take into account how individual experiences alter an individual’s aging process allowing the person to develop their own reality. Each area stresses the importance of the individual’s social framework to help sustain their self-worth as they age. In contrast to political economy of aging, postmodernists focus on the well-being of an individual not from a social class or political standing, but from their life experiences. Structural factors of gender, sexual orientation, functional ability, race, age and class can have negative effects that limit an individual’s later opportunities. According to Hooyman & Kiyak (2011), these structural factors—often institutionalized and reinforced by public policy—limit the opportunities and choices of later life, resulting in cumulative disadvantages in old age, which are further exacerbated by retirement (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2011, p. 323).

These differences force aging individuals to change themselves and their lifestyles to fit income, health and physical care policy constraints forced on them. Increased reduction in public health and social services creates a barrier for individuals to affectively age and receive proper care. Postmodernist theory follows the same framework of individual aging. It develops with the individual to meet their needs on a personal level and takes into consideration what the body and mind have both gone through as they have aged. According to Powell (2011), older people are usually ‘fixed’ to roles without resources which does not do justice to the richness of their individual experiences and multi-facets of their personalities (Powell, 2001, p. 6). Postmodernism clearly focuses on the importance of an individual’s ability to develop overtime through experience and uses biomedicine to provide options for maintaining an individual’s physical body. This provides a solid framework for aging that meets the needs of an individual from both physical and mental capacities.


While these are the dominant theories, many other theories are in varying stages of development. In addition, theories are constantly being tested and modified as new data from aging research emerges. It is only in the last half-century that researchers have begun to focus their attention on older adults as a population worthy of special consideration. While earlier theories of aging were few in number, narrowly focused, and generally negative, recent theories have emerged that establish aging as a multidimensional process. These theories view aging as characterized by positive as well as negative qualities and are more interactive in nature. They emphasize the interaction of biological, physical, and social factors in each individual’s age trajectory, and attempt to explain how older adults can minimize the negative and maximize the positive aspects of aging, in order to more fully enjoy the increased life span that comes with living in the 21st century.


Andrus Gerontology Center; University of Southern California. (2005). The Psychology of Aging: Lecture Part II. Retrieved from Hooyman, N. R., & Kiyak, H. A. (2011). Social Gerontology, ninth edition. Boston: Allyn and Bacon. Howe, C. Z. (1987). Selected Social Gerontology Theories and Older Adult Leisure Involvement: A Review of the

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