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Celebrating 30 volumes of Ageing & Society

During the BSG’s recent annual conference at Brunel University, West London, the achievements of the journal Ageing & Society, which is co-sponsored by the British Society of Gerontology and the Centre for Policy on Ageing, and which during 2010 reached its 30th volume, were celebrated.  There were two events in the academic programme, a symposium and a ‘celebratory’ lecture, and a wine reception  sponsored by the publisher, Cambridge University Press. 

A symposium brought together three of the journal’s five Editors since its inception to address the theme, ‘The impacts of gerontology research and publication’.  Malcolm Johnson, the Founding Editor, began by considering ‘Links between gerontology writing and discourses on ageing’.  His successor as Editor, Peter Coleman, tackled, ‘The impact of gerontology research and publications: reflections on the place of psychology in social gerontology in the UK’, and my own paper asked, ‘Do gerontology research papers influence attitudes, practice or policy?’  Malcolm described the ambitions and the excitement of the founders of the journal during the late-1970s, and recollected his efforts in bringing together the notable team of authors for the first issue (Peter Townsend, Leopold Rosenmayr, Françoise Cribier, Alan Walker and Thomas Wan and Barbara Odell).  That issue rooted from the start the strong international credentials of the journal.

Peter Coleman’s paper reviewed both the strengths and weaknesses of the psychology of ageing in the UK, partly in comparison to other northern European countries.  A persistent problem has been the low prestige in the discipline (as in the British Psychological Society and the research assessment exercises) of ‘developmental psychology’ in comparison to the experimental and neurological branches.  He identified, however, several encouraging signs for the future, including the rising interest among undergraduates in the psychology of ageing, developments in positive psychology, the rising respectability of qualitative psychology, the increased recognition of the value of interdisciplinary research, and the new focus on research impact.

My paper began with the questions: Do we understand the impacts of social gerontology research, writing and opinion?  What are the mechanisms or pathways of the impacts?  How do we develop plausible hypotheses?  What evidence is relevant and available?  Among the matters considered were the low rates of citation of social gerontology papers as compared with those in the clinical, biological, engineering and natural sciences or, in the social sciences, in economics and psychology; and the fact that the mass media broadly ignore (social) gerontology journals, but clearly monitor medical journals, even of the second-rank.  On the other hand, impressive numbers of readers access Ageing Society papers through the Internet.  During 2008-09, there were 2,984 full-paper downloads of Mima Cattan and colleagues’ (2005) systematic review of loneliness interventions, and 2,056 of Peter Townsend’s (1981) foundation contribution to the structured dependency thesis.

Before the wine reception, I delivered a paper cumbersomely titled ‘Understanding the situation of older people in changing societies: new insights from Ageing & Society authors’.  This reviewed the growth and development of the journal over 30 years, beginning with ‘facts and figures’ but giving most attention to the widening disciplinary and national affiliations of the published authors, and to the fresh insights that a ‘new generation’ of researchers are contributing on certain long-standing themes.  The number of annual issues has grown from three at the start, through four in 1984, and six in 1996 to eight in 2009; the number of volume pages has grown from 456 to 1,324; and the number of published main papers has risen from 13 to 62.  The impact factor rose sharply during the middle of the last decade, to bring the journal into eighth slot among all Geriatrics and Gerontology abstracted serials, the highest position of any exclusively socialgerontology title.  The impact factor has since reduced, but I think it will recover – the recent rapid expansion of the journal will have changed the numerator/denominator ratio of citations to published papers and depressed the score.

More valuable than sheer expansion has been the recent increase in submissions and published papers from economists, psychologists, health-services researchers, management studies, and cultural, media and information researchers, and the relative growth of submissions from outside the UK, initially from Europe, North America and Australasia, during the last decade from Asia, and in the last few years from the Caribbean, the Middle East and Africa.

Advances in understanding
The depth of understanding of some issues that have long concerned social gerontologists has I believe advanced strongly over the last decade, with papers inAgeing & Society making a laudable contribution.  There have been many on themes that have long been prominent in the field and that concern practitioners and policy makers, such as attitudes towards and the treatment of older workers, the circumstances of older migrants, the quality of care in residential and nursing homes, and the partly related issue of the care of people with dementia.  Here I draw attention to three rather more specialised topics on which there has been excellent, innovative research.

I have been especially impressed by the papers that are leading to a more subtle understanding of the relationships between social isolation, living alone and the experience of loneliness among older people.  They (along with others published elsewhere) are increasing our knowledge of the components of loneliness, and of which can be ameliorated by interventions.  Reading the sequence of Ageing & Society papers on the topic in order of publication is not far short of taking a structured course (Victor et al. 2002, 2005; Cattan et al. 2005; de Jong Gierveld and Dykstra 2008; Drennan et al. 2008; Yang and Victor 2008).  Another topic well represented in the journal (and pursued vigorously in continental European journals) has been the relationship between state-provided or financed personal and social care services and family support, which many know as the ‘crowding out versus complementary’ debate (Motel-Klingebiel, Tesch-Roemer and von Kondratowitz. 2005; Sundström, Malmberg and Johansson 2006; Dunér and Nordström 2007; Verbrugge and Chan 2008; Litwin and Attias-Donfut 2009; Haberkern and Szydlik 2010).  Distinctive features of this line of research have been the extensive use of large comparative national European survey data, and only occasional contributions by British researchers. 

I also draw attention to a small set of highly original and valuable papers on older volunteers that have begun the important task of building knowledge about the circumstances that promote and impede volunteering among older people, and about the benefits and drawbacks for the volunteers (Narushima 2005; Fraser et al.2009; Warburton and McDonald 2009; Choi and Chou 2010).  The special issue on Childlessness and Intergenerational Transfers commissioned by Martin Kohli and Marco Albertini had six excellent papers that also provide valuable evidence, analysis and interpretations of altruism and generativity in later life (published in November 2009, vol. 30, part 8).

Fresh insights from ‘new generation’ researchers
Social gerontology capacity and expertise has developed substantially over the last 10 years in China, South Korea and Taiwan, and in Europe, in Italy and Spain.  As early as the 1980s, gerontology on South East Asia’s Pacific fringe was being directly stimulated by United States National Institute of Aging funding and through collaboration with US researchers, and that has been followed by more autonomous developments, both in that region and in China, southern Europe, the Indian sub-continent, and the Middle East.  As social gerontology research becomes established in different regions of the world, there are increasing signs, as among the papers recently published in Ageing & Society, of independent thought and novel approaches. 

A striking example is the papers that explicitly or in content have examined one or more propositions of ‘ageing and modernisation’ theory.  The theory originated through 30 or so years of concerted research by Donald Cowgill (1972, 1974, 1986).  It is both an elaborate synthesis and comprises multiple generalisations and hypotheses.  Cowgill’s generalisations and hypotheses were much influenced by his background as a social anthropologist and by a precursor work, Leo Simmons’s (1945, 1946) The Role of the Aged in Primitive Society.  Both authors emphasised the contrasts between primitive and relatively simple societies, on the one hand, and industrial or modern societies on the other: ‘One of the more significant hypotheses (is) that the status of the aged is high in preliterate societies and is lower and more ambiguous in modern societies’ (1972: 310).  ‘While (societal and technological changes) eventually result in relatively aged populations, these societies have been slow and faltering in adapting their institutions to this new demographic phenomenon … the results have been injurious to the dignity and status of the elderly’ (Cowgill 1974: 17-8).

Cowgill’s ideas had enormous impact, and stimulated much debate and empirical investigation from the mid-1970s, as by Vern Bengtson, Thomas Cole, Tamara Hareven, Nancy Foner, Chris Gilleard, Ken Manton, Erdman Palmore, Peter Stearns, Christina Victor and many more.  Subsequently it has been eclipsed, particularly in the UK, by the hegemony successively of structuralist theory, ‘post-modernist propositions’ and ‘the cultural paradigm’.  The label ‘modernisation’ does not help its cause.

A full critique and discussion cannot be attempted here, but the more I have read, the more I am persuaded that Cowgill’s propositions should not be comprehensively dismissed but rather that they merit continued appraisal, elaboration and refinement.  I believe that Cowgill and his secondary proponents have made a consistent error, in that generalisations about the status of older people in societies, or in political and community groups, have been translated or elided into propositions about older people’s status in their own families that I think have no basis in evidence.  The ‘location’ of the message has repeatedly been switched from ‘decreased economic roles and status (or power) in societies and communities’, to ‘decreased regard, respect and love from children and the family’.  At its simplest (and most often reproduced), the central proposition of the theory became ‘modernisation decreases the status of older people’, and that has been translated in Asia and elsewhere to ‘modernisation decreases filial piety’.

My interest in the issue has been long standing but was re-awakened by Isobella Aboderin’s 2004 paper, ‘Modernisation and ageing theory revisited’, which derived from her University of Bristol doctorate – later published as Intergenerational Support and Old Age in Africa (Aboderin 2006) (for my book review, see vol. 28 (1): 140-2). It is the only exclusively theoretical contribution published in the journal during my term as Editor, and a strong paper.  Among many other things, the paper attempts to demonstrate how a decline in status at the communal or societal level translates into reduced status at the familial level, but I am not entirely convinced.  Simmons, Cowgill and others have enumerated the many ways in which older people in primitive and agricultural societies roles bestowed benefits and welfare on their children that no longer apply, but no one has fully identified or weighed the many ways that older people in very affluent and highly-developed societies benefit their children and grandchildren, and little attention has (or can?) be given to the importance of emotional and lineage ties.

Given my increasing fascination with the issues, two recent papers have been of considerable interest.  Cheung and Kwan’s (2009) paper, ‘The erosion of filial piety by modernisation in Chinese cities’, focuses on the role of education – one of Cowgill’s propositions was that levels of education increase with modernisation and contribute to the declined status of older people (perhaps having in mind the the oral transmission of knowledge about cultivation practices in pre-literate societies).  Cheung and Kwan analysed the relationships between the levels of modernisation and education in six Chinese cities on relationships between older parents and adult children.  They found that filial piety and cash payments to parents were lower when the citizen was in a city with higher or more advanced modernisation, but that the reduction was less among citizens with higher education.  They concluded education can be a means to sustain filial piety in the face of modernisation.

The second paper that has recently engaged me is Brauner-Otto’s (2009) ‘Schools, schooling and children’s support of their ageing parents in rural Nepal’.  This seeks to understand how the spread of mass education influences children’s support of their parents through multilevel logistic regressions of the relationships between schooling, exposure to schools (living in a settlement that had acquired a school), and the likelihood of couples giving to their parents.  Brauner-Otto found that schooling and exposure to schools had independent and opposite effects on the support of older parents.  Higher levels of husbands’ schooling associated with a higher likelihood of having given support to husbands’ parents, possible explanations being that children with more education have higher income, and that they feel more indebted to their parents.  On the other hand, increased exposure to schools for husbands and wives associated with a lower likelihood of having given to wives’ parents. 

The two papers are but small contributions to a vast research agenda, namely documenting and assessing how relationships between older people and their adult children not only vary in different societies but also change through different societal transformations, some of which are widespread or global, and others specific to time and place.  The critical literature rightly emphasises the heterogeneity of older people’s and families’ situations, and upcoming social gerontology researchers outside Europe are beginning to describe and analyse the specific socio-economic, political and cultural conditions that change older people’s lives.  They do not find a uniform picture of ‘decreasing dignity and status’ with modernisation, but rather, for example, that the effects of school education are confounding.  By increasing the child’s debt to their parents (as predicted by the exchange reciprocity thesis) and increasing available resources, in particular circumstances both material andemotional support for older people increase with education.  Our ignorance of how older people’s lives change as the societies around them transform is much greater than our understanding.  It is a fascinating, challenging and important research agenda.

I have resigned as Editor of Ageing & Society from the end of August 2010.  My term has been immensely stimulating rewarding, and moving on will be a major transition. I warmly thank all those who have advised, encouraged and supported me since 2001, particularly Mima Cattan and Jim Ogg as Associated Editors, Jean Wilkinson and Miles Lambert as Editorial Assistants, Gill Manthorpe as Chair of the Editorial Board, Patrick McCartan and Rebecca O’Rourke, the Commissioning Editors at Cambridge University Press, Mim Bernard, Judith Phillips, Joanna Bornat, Julia Johnson, Caroline Holland and Josie Tetley, the Review Editors, and the vast army of referees.

Aboderin, I. 2004.  Modernisation and ageing theory revisited: current explanations of recent developing world and historical Western shifts in material family support for older people.  Ageing & Society , 24, 1, 29-50.

Aboderin, I. 2006.  Intergenerational Support and Old Age in Africa. Transaction, New Jersey.

Andreas Motel-Klingebiel, A., Tesch-Roemer, C. and von Kondratowitz, H.-J. 2005.  Welfare states do not crowd out the family: evidence for mixed responsibility from comparative analyses.  Ageing & Society256, 863-82.

Brauner-Otto S.R. 2009.  Schools, schooling and children’s support of their ageing parents in rural Nepal Ageing & Society297, 1015-39.

Cattan, M., White, M., Bond, J. and Learmouth, A. 2005.  Preventing social isolation and loneliness among older people: a systematic review of health promotion interventions. Ageing & Society25, 1, 41-67.

Cheung, C.-K. and Kwan, A. Y.-H. 2009. The erosion of filial piety by modernisation in Chinese cities. Ageing & Society292, 179-98.

Choi, N.G. and Chou, R. J.-A. 2010. Time and money volunteering among older adults: the relationship between past and current volunteering and correlates of change and stability.  Ageing & Society304, 559-81.

Cowgill, D. O. 1972.  ‘A theory of aging in cross-cultural perspective’, and ‘The theory in review’.  In Cowgill, D. O. and Holmes, L. D. (eds), Ageing and Modernization. Appleton-Century-Crofts, New York, 1–14 and 305-23.

Cowgill, D. O. 1974. Aging and modernization: a revision of the theory. In Gubrium, J. F. (ed.), Late Life. Thomas, Springfield, Illinois, 123–45.

Cowgill, D. O. 1986. Aging Around the World. Wadsworth, Belmont, California.

Drennan, J., Treacy, M., Butler, M., Byrne, A., Fealy, G., Frazer, K. and Irving, K. 2008.  The experience of social and emotional loneliness among older people in Ireland. Ageing & Society288, 1113-32.

Dunér, A. and Nordström, M. 2007.  The roles and functions of the informal support networks of older people who receive formal support: a Swedish qualitative study. Ageing & Society271, 67-85.

Fraser, J., Clayton, S., Sickler, J. and Taylor, A. 2009.  Belonging at the zoo: retired volunteers, conservation activism and collective identity.  Ageing & Society29, 3, 353-70.

Haberkern, K. and Szydlik, M. 2010.  State care provision societal opinion and children's care of older parents in 11 European countries.  Ageing & Society302, 299-323.

de Jong Gierveld, J. and Dykstra, P.A. 2008.  Virtue is its own reward? Support-giving in the family and loneliness in middle and old age. Ageing & Society282, 271-87.

Litwin, H. and Attias-Donfut, C. 2009. The inter-relationship between formal and informal care: a study in France and Israel. Ageing & Society291, 71-91.

Narushima, M. 2005. ‘Payback time’: community volunteering among older adults as a transformative mechanism.  Ageing & Society, 254, 567-84.

Simmons, L.W. 1945.  The Role of the Aged in Primitive Society.  Yale University Press, New Haven, Connecticut.

Simmons, L. W. 1946.  Attitudes toward aging and the aged: primitive societies.  Journal of Gerontology1, 2, 41-48.

Sundström, G., Malmberg, B. and Johansson, L. 2006.  Balancing family and state care: neither either or both? The case of Sweden.  Ageing & Society265, 767-82.

Townsend, P. 1981.  The structured dependency of the elderly: a creation of social policy in the twentieth century.  Ageing & Society1, 1, 5-28.

Verbrugge, L. M. and Chan, A. 2008. Giving help in return: family reciprocity by older Singaporeans.  Ageing & Society281, 5-34.

Victor, C.R., Scambler, S.J., Bowling, A. and Bond, J. 2005. The prevalence of and risk factors for loneliness in later life: a survey of older people in Great Britain.Ageing & Society256, 357-75.

Victor, C.R., Scambler, S.J., Shah, S., Cook, D.G., Harris, T., Rink, K. and de Wilde, S. 2002.  Has loneliness amongst older people increased? An investigation into variations between cohorts.  Ageing & Society225, 585-97.

Warburton, J. and McDonald, C. 2009. The challenges of the new institutional environment: an Australian case study of older volunteers in the contemporary non-profit sector.  Ageing & Society296, 821-38.

Yang, K. and Victor, C.R. 2008. The prevalence of and risk factors for loneliness among older people in China.  Ageing & Society283, 305-27.

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