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BSG Founding Fellows: Reflections on the Past, Present and Future of Gerontology Research - The Systemisation of Social Gerontology Research
In 2007, Judith Phillips and I set out some observations on trends in and prospects for (British) social gerontology. It would be superfluous to repeat the points made there and in other commentaries (e.g. Birren 1996; Harper 1999). To add something fresh, this article reports insights from a comparison of 65 main research papers published in volume 30 (2010) of Ageing & Society with the first 65 papers published in the journal during 1981-85. Author details, titles, key words, approaches, data sources and methods of analysis were entered into a database and the Abstracts were read.

Even this simple exercise had difficulties. The early-1980s authors were not asked to supply key words, so these were attributed from the Abstract and paper content. The exercise made clear that key words are ‘hit and miss’. Some authors duplicate words in the titles, but most do not. European and North American authors do not usually specify the place reference. There are other problems too, for the key words reflect current usage and the author’s lexicon. Two usage changes became apparent, from ‘biographical’ to ‘life course (perspective)’, and from ‘pilot, case or ethnographic studies’ to ‘qualitative’. Many subtler changes deserve closer study, e.g. much that 25 years ago was readily described as ‘care’ is now presented as ‘support’ or even as ‘within/inter-generational exchanges’. Similarly much that was formerly described as ‘disabilities’ is now presented as ‘incapacities’ or ‘functional limitations’.

The 64 papers in 2010 were accompanied by 182 keywords. Apart from older people/adults (14 occurrences) and ageing (9), few terms appeared frequently. Intergenerational (with suffixes) was used seven times, health (with suffixes, referring to older people) five times, and long-term care five times. Those with four occurrences were: gender, narrative, qualitative study, retirement, social support and work. No clear trends in subject coverage were identified.

One striking change, however, is that research production has become more systematic, and maybe a more specialised activity – as expected from more grant funding and dedicated research centres. This is shown by changes in the authorship and ‘character’ of the published papers. The mean number of the papers’ authors more than doubled, from 1.5 to 3.1. The rise reflects partly the increased number of international comparisons (one of Latin American countries had 13 authors), and partly increased multi-disciplinarity, but mostly that research is increasingly conducted by teams rather than single scholars.

The approaches and methods of the reported work also changed. During the early-1980s, one-quarter (26%) of papers were research reviews and one-fifth (19%) policy and practice critiques, but by 2010 only four papers were critical commentaries. Instead, the great majority (89%) were principally empirical reports, compared to only 45% in the early-1980s. In both batches of 65, two papers were exclusively literature reviews (electronic search methods were de rigueur in 2010). The geographical provenance of the papers changed somewhat. The percentage from the United Kingdom reduced considerably during the last decade, from 82% in 2002 to 24% in 2010, but a longer-term view reveals a steadier pattern. During the early-1980s, 32 (49%) of the papers were from the UK. The percentage of papers from Europe increased from 57 in the early-1980s to 65 in 2010 and the percentage from North America declined from 31 to 19. The share from East Asia increased from none to 3, and that from West Asia increased from 3 to 5 (in 2010 there were papers from Iran and Lebanon, whereas earlier all were from Israel).

Specifying the main academic discipline of a published paper’s contribution is fraught with difficulties. The boundaries between, for example, sociology and psychology and between public health and health-services research are not sharp and change over time. Moreover the disciplines of the authors who publish in a particular journal alter as new titles are launched. In 2010, for example, there were more journals on ‘mental health and ageing’ and ‘nursing older people’ than 25 years before. Nor does the provenance of a single journal’s papers indicate the volume of gerontology research in different disciplines – only recently have contributions from the long-active field of ‘welfare economics’ appeared more than occasionally in Ageing & Society, mostly from non-British authors.

My subjective allocation found that in both periods, around one-half of the papers were principally contributions to sociological understanding and 12% to health/care-services research. Contributions to psychology decreased from 12% to 8%. Humanities contributions decreased much more, from 12% to 2%, but the special issue in 1984 on the History of Ageing and Old Age edited by Peter Laslett was exceptional. Rising fields of research, as in assistive technologies and building design, are still only thinly represented.

Changing Sources and Methods: More Depth and Rigour?

The strongest impression from the comparison is that published social gerontology research in 2010 had more ‘bite’ than 25 years before. The reasons are substantial developments in data sources and methods of analysis, although there have been enduring features. In both batches, 14 (22%) papers reported findings from original authors’ surveys, and there were few case or intervention-evaluation studies. The clearest change has been the increased use of two types of evidence: papers drawing on qualitative data more than doubled, from 17% to 39%, and the percentage that reported secondary analyses of large survey datasets increased nearly six-fold, from 5% to 29%. The exploited datasets (listed below) reveal much about today’s priority topics and recent changes in gerontology research.

Complementing the newly-favoured ways of accessing data, two ways in which analysis has been strengthened are apparent. Of the 58 empirical papers in 2010, 14 (24%) reported multivariate analyses, whereas just two (7%) of the 29 early-1980s empirical papers did so. While not all multivariate analyses produce new understanding, their raised prevalence indicates a greater ambition to investigate the relationships underlying observed features and variations. An analogous change is seen in reports of qualitative research. Among those in 2010, it was usual to be explicit about the theoretical or conceptual starting points, to report the analytical steps, and to be clear about the insights that ‘emerged’. These finer points were rarely explicated in the early-1980s, as conspicuously in Juliet Corbin’s and Anselm Strauss’s (no less) little-cited 1985 paper, ‘Issues concerning regimen management in the home’. It opens with a substantial research and conceptual review but has neither a distillation of prior hypotheses or theory nor any account of the analysis. Of its method, it reports only that 2-3 hour unstructured interviews were conducted with 20 participants, that the data were analysed using the grounded theory method, and that the report is an ‘analytic discussion’. The text moves directly from the introduction to an annotated selection of quotations from the participants, using sub-heads of unexplained derivation.


This article has compared two batches of main papers published around 25 years apart in Ageing & Society, and so the findings have many limitations. The main facts are, however, that social gerontology research has grown substantially and become more systematic, and that the great majority of today’s published articles have at their core an original empirical report. A strong interest in conceptual refinement and theory development continues in the papers’ introductions and discussions, but policy and practice (or administrative) critiques are rare. A strong recent trend has been the increased exploitation of national and international survey datasets. This has pluses and minuses: most such datasets are high quality because considerable technical expertise is deployed to ensure sample representativeness and the validity and reliability of the items, even those administered in more than one language. Some enterprising researchers make skilful use of the main survey data as a foundation and persuade the survey managers or others to support follow-up, in-depth surveys of a smaller sample. One complement of the out-sourcing of data collection may be a greater responsibility of the researcher to use appropriate and more powerful methods of analysis. From all this, there may be two messages for aspirant researchers in social gerontology – it is a good idea to learn about the content and potential of one or more large multi-user datasets, and study hard to increase your analytical skills.


Birren, J. E. 1996. History of gerontology. In Birren, J. E. (ed.), Encyclopedia of Gerontology. Academic, San Diego, California, 655-65.
Corbin, J. and Strauss, A. 1985. Issues concerning regimen management in the home. Ageing & Society, 5, 3, 249-65.
Harper, S. 1999. Social Gerontology: A Review of Current Research. Nuffield Foundation, London.
Warnes, T. and Phillips, J. 2007. Progress in gerontology: where are we going now? In Bernard, M. and Scharf, T. (eds), Critical Perspectives on Ageing Societies, Policy Press, Bristol, UK, 139-54.
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