Remembering My Hat

13th September 2013

British Society of Gerontology, 42nd Annual conference, Oxford UK, Part 1

I only attended for one day this year, partly to launch these two books in the CABS/CPA methodology series. One is on Secondary Analysis and the other on working with existing older people’s groups. Both are available from the CPA for a bargainaceous £10 each.

What follows is my usual idiosyncratic note-form post from a conference. As usual, this is in no sense intended to be a complete representation of what any speaker actually said, just some things that I found interesting and managed to capture. Things I thought or things I need to follow up are in square brackets.

Symposium on Ageing and agency: Developing new theoretical perspectives for critical gerontology.

Based on book Ageing, Meaning and Social Structure [investigate for possible K118 Reader chapters]

(cc) crowt59

Amanda Grenier and Chris Phillipson
Agency in the ‘Fourth Age’ (or the problem of ‘Active Ageing’)

Gilleard & Higgs article 2010 Ageing without Agency, Jnl of Aging and Mental Health [find this]: The problem with the notion of the 4th Age is that it becomes a terminal destination, not a life stage or a cohort.

Attempts to give dignity at End of Life have failed because of perception of lack of agency in 4th Age. Assumption that agency is something you either have or don’t, but actually it’s much more complex and nuanced than that.

Grenier 2007 and 2012 discusses ways in which ‘4th Age’ has been used differently (e.g. age 80+ OR intersection of age and impairment OR objective measurement)

If 4th Age is about ‘decline and dependency’, how can you have active agency?
Impairments may make perception of having agency more difficult e.g. verbal / cognitive impairments.

Health and impairment are unhelpfully polarised anyway. 4th Age conceptualised as ageing without agency increases / sustains that.

If agency is increasingly important now that we are all supposed to have individualised post-modern lifecourses, that gets really important for ageing and the fourth age in particular.

Seeing people as having low agency increases their vulnerability to abuse and neglect.

So how can you increase /restore perceptions of agency in 4th Age?

  1. Develop new cultural narratives and frameworks for partic conditions e.g Alzheimers George and Whitehouse 2010 in Handbook – don’t let medical narratives dominate
  2. Agency may look different in later life (active ageing narratives don’t help)
  3. ‘Reduced’ or ‘diminished’ agency might be a better way of thinking about it than ‘present’ or ‘absent’. Also thinking about how it’s being constructed as reduced [that sounds really interesting to me].

Other possible things that might help:

  • Positively look for agency
  • think about inhibiting or encouraging conditions.
  • Allow for more passive and less active notions of agency (structural to personal)
  • Challenge underlying assumption of health.

Contingency rather than ‘lack of agency’ may be better description of late old age.
Settersten & Trauten chapter 2009 in Bengston Handbook of Aging

[There was an excellent moment in the middle of this paper when the presenter, Chris Phillipson, moved his hand into the light stream from the projector and the word ‘agency’ appeared appositely across his gesticulating hand].


Jan Baars, University of Humanistic Studies): Agency and Autonomy: Beyond
Links to old debates on autonomy. Interdependency is more characteristic across life course [could do Activity getting students to think about way they are interdependent with others – leading on to recognition of it being a continuum – wd also help to address worry about otherising OP]

Competency – how tested? What if someone refuses to take test? Are they then seen as incompetent? What about emotional, social, dialogic skills – they are seldom tested in the way that recall is.

Authenticity as a marker of competence – feeling someone is taking decisions that are ‘not like them’

Regarding yrself as having power and competency to make decisions [but this isn’t nec the case for younger people too. Can have life stages when have less at any point]. Ageist practices reduce this.

Suggested better definition of competency: Capacity to make adequate decisions as person sees it, which are responsive to situation and others. [But who gets to define ‘adequate’ and ‘responsive’]
Dignity as another key concept

Return to this in Discussion: is dignity separable from agency? Can you really have dignity if you have ceded control (or had it taken from you)?


Joseph Dohmen
Ethics, art of living, lifestyle (also chapter in the book)

Life politics (Beck, Giddens, Bauman) wanting to lead a life of your own
1. A promise,
2. daily struggle,
3. collective experience in Western world,
4. remnant of our communal feeling
(Beck and Beck-Gernsheim)

Martha Holstein 2010 – if autonomy is ultimate good, what does that do for OP?

Agency tends to talk about ‘life choices’ whereas structure more about ‘life chances’

Wants to moralise lifestyle. Make it about more than consumerism and health. Claims ‘lifestyle’ bridges gap b/w structure and agency [the philosopher’s stone! How many different theories are there that claim to bridge the structure / agency gap?!]

  1. Reflective distance – exploring one’s biog and social scope. Taking distance from directions about how you should grow older (e.g. Active Ageing)
  2. Expropriation – trying to relate yrself to yr own biog. Free yrself from own unhelpful influences. Future may restore the past
  3. Appropriation – autonomy as about positive freedom to make substantial choices in later life. Identifying with deepest desires.
  4. Authentic orientation – what makes life really valuable and meaningful. Strong evaluation of this.
  5. Engagement – how and why to (dis)engage. Relational autonomy
  6. Integration – coherence of life: maximal (classically), minimal (liberally or more p-mly), contextually, or not aiming for coherence but reliability in episodic life (Margaret Walker)
  7. The tragic condition – 1-6 are modes of active ageing but life is also passive ageing. The good life is the vulnerable life. Can’t escape in later life. We have to make tragic choices. There are always losses. Our passions can destroy our lives and the lives of others.

Everything in life is finite. This implies continuous dynamic b/w mourning and accepting losses and new beginnings.

Discussion: overlaps with Disability arguments e.g. ‘autonomy’ not as about independence. Also lit on Ethics of Care.

Relational autonomy changes as you age, esp into 4th Age – people don’t understand you, yr partner dies, you are mainly relating to much younger people. So you get less relational autonomy as you grow older. CP- paper by Elder on autonomy across life course. How does agency work in life course transitions? Do you reach a point when you can’t rework your agency?




  1. […] Partial and personal notes from some parts of this conference. Part one here […]

    Pingback by BSG 2013, Oxford, Part 2 | Remembering My Hat — 13th September 2013 @ 15:50 | Reply

  2. […] and particularly incomplete notes from a conference. Part one here and part two […]

    Pingback by BSG 2013, Oxford, Part 3 | Remembering My Hat — 13th September 2013 @ 16:08 | Reply

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