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BSG Founding Fellows: Reflections on the Past, Present and Future of Research into Ageing
This is certainly a good time to reflect on the past, present and future of research into ageing. Perhaps all periods seem transitional but this one surely has some classic features suggesting a movement from a defined phase of growth to one more open-ended in the fashioning of the research enterprise. The past has for sure distinctive characteristics – at least in terms of UK social research into ageing. The initial dominance of the welfare state in setting priorities for research was unsurprising: the development of social gerontology (in the 1950s) coincided with the expansion of welfare provision. Social Policy and Administration were key disciplines providing an intellectual focus for shaping the analysis of issues related to ageing. Sociology (notwithstanding the huge influence of Peter Townsend) was relatively insignificant in respect of studies of ageing – at least up until the 1980s. Certainly, as a sociologist doing a Ph.D. in a Sociology department in the (mid to late) 1970s the going was (relatively) hard. Sociology in fact grew at an exponential rate from the 1970s onwards but largely eschewing interest in an ageing population, leaving much of the work to more ‘applied’ disciplines. Much of course was achieved during this ‘past’ which reaches into the ‘present’. A considerable gain was a stronger sense of ‘age’ as socially and subjectively constituted, this insight opening the way for a broader range of studies and disciplines applied to the field of ageing. A greater diversity of approaches is certainly a feature of the present, reflected in the emphasis on inter-disciplinary work – a striking feature of the Cross-Research Council New Dynamics of Ageing Programme. And despite an undoubted crisis in many aspects of funding, the opportunities for research into ageing are positive – at domestic and European levels. But the future suggests some concerns and these might be summarised as in the following.

First, the inter-disciplinary ethos is being pursued with enthusiasm among many researchers into ageing – little surprise given the nature of gerontology. But this can be pursued too far: social gerontologists (to focus on this area) need still to attend to their disciplinary roots – in sociology, geography etc. A lot of social gerontology remains weak because it has moved too far from the disciplines that provide it with nourishment. Finding novel ways of reconnecting with these disciplines will be a key task for the future.

Second, if the influence of gender studies, critical gerontology and other approaches gave a new understanding about the fluidity to ageing, this has surely been reinforced by the break-up of what had passed for a welfare state. The de-institutionalization of welfare has fragmented many of the core features associated with ageing and the identity of being an older person. Two things follow from this: the kinds of research associated with welfare state provision are certainly in the past (or just hanging onto the present). The future will be a far more ‘mixed economy’ of investigation, integrated perhaps with the kind of critical perspectives presently influential in gerontology. But it may also mean that social policy type investigations lose their dominance and social research more broadly (and sociology in particular) becomes of greater significance in research into ageing. What is striking here is how little evidence has been accumulated about the everyday lives of older people. We need for sure a range of studies in the Family Life of Old People tradition – which reach out to people in diverse locations, with diverse identities, and at very different stages of the process of growing old.

Third, does ‘social gerontology’ (and by implication the British Society of Gerontology) have a future? Probably, but rather different from both the past and present. Social Gerontology is needed (along with the BSG) to provide a continued reminder of the importance of studying ageing in a social (broadly-defined) context; it is needed to address the continued danger of ageism and age segregation; and it is needed to challenge what is likely to be the continuing dominance of biomedicine. Social Gerontology is also needed if only to present a different narrative about the journeys people take in reaching what society chooses to call ‘old age’. But social gerontology will be different: demographers, economists, geographers, historians etc etc are now coming into the field of ageing studies at a rapid rate. The BSG itself should do as much as possible to stimulate this development but not be surprised if it is left relatively isolated by disciplinary and professional interests elsewhere.

But at a less parochial level what will be the key drivers transforming social gerontology in the future? These can only be guessed at but likely candidates include: First, the challenges posed by ageing in the global south. This area has been highlighted as a key demographic issue but with a few exceptions has yet to be properly analysed in terms of the implications for cultural, social and economic institutions across the world. In this context, the appreciation of ageing as a ‘global’ phenomenon remains limited, with research still overly stuck within national boundaries. New studies of ageing in a transnational context would help here (starting with many of our minority ethnic groups) but great attention to what is happening in China, sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, is vital for the future of gerontology.

Second, social gerontology will certainly be changed by the interaction between new cohorts of older people on the one side and a changed political economy on the other. Research into ageing was given a particular shape by a (relatively) homogenous group of older people and assumptions about the steady growth of a welfare state. Neither will be characteristic of the future and this will raise complex issues concerning both the ‘subject’ and ‘object’ of research into ageing. Social gerontology will have to cope with the absence of an obvious ‘centre’ which can bring together all the disciplines and interests it seeks to represent. This will not eclipse the value of the enterprise; rather, it will require more creative thinking about ageing really means.

Third, a key driver influencing the future will be a new cohort of researchers who will almost certainly transform many aspects of research into ageing. But the link with the present is to ensure the building of research capacity; to equip researchers with the necessary range of skills – theoretical as well as methodological; and to ensure the maintenance of a viable network of research groups. And not least to pass on a continued passion for the subject of research into ageing: this remains a key responsibility for those working in the present which they themselves took from those working in the past.

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