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Panel on New Directions in Social Demography, Social Epidemiology, and the Sociology of Aging; Committee on Population; Division on Behavioral and Social Sciences and Education; National Research Council; Waite LJ, Plewes TJ, editors. New Directions in the Sociology of Aging. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2013 Dec 26.

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New Directions in the Sociology of Aging.

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, Chair.

Panel on New Directions in Social Demography, Social Epidemiology, and the Sociology of Aging

The aging of the population of the United States is an inexorable demographic transformation. At a time of major economic and social change, the growing elderly population is placing an increasing strain on the federal, state, and local budgets that will almost certainly lead to changes in programs and services. Likewise, the social context within which older individuals and families function is changing the environment for older persons.

Understanding the causes, consequences and implications of these demographic, economic, and social changes is vital to the development of sound social policy. Sociology can be an important aid to this task. It offers a knowledge base, a number of useful analytic approaches and tools, and unique theoretical perspectives that can assist in understanding these complex issues. Because the social and physical environments in which people live shape them, grasping how social systems work, how various social institutions are interrelated, how attitudes and values are formed and transformed, how differences among individuals and groups are reproduced or reduced, and how realities are socially constructed are central to this task.

However, despite the significant potential of the sociology of aging, one indicator that interest in the sociology of aging has declined in recent years is a reported contraction in the number of grant submissions to the National Institute on Aging's (NIA's) Division of Behavioral and Social Research (BSR). In January 2009, a major independent review of BSR recommended that given the changing nature of the social context, BSR should strive “to revitalize the social demography, epidemiology, and sociology portfolios” (Cacioppo et al., 2009, p. 10) as well as to continue research on social networks and their relationship to health (Suzman, 2010).

In response to these circumstances, BSR turned to the National Research Council (NRC) to evaluate the recent contributions of social demography, social epidemiology, and sociology to the study of aging and to identify promising new research directions in these subfields.

Statement of Task

An ad hoc panel of experts will conduct a study and prepare a report that will evaluate the recent contributions of social demography, social epidemiology, and sociology to the study of aging and seek to identify promising new research directions in these subfields. To support the panel's work, 8 to 10 papers will be commissioned and presented at an open workshop. By drawing on the papers, the discussions at the workshop, and the panel's own interpretation of the state of the literature, the panel will seek to identify and recommend to the National Institute on Aging's Division of Behavioral and Social Research promising research directions that can reasonably be expected to have high payoff for the study of aging.

In response, the NRC's Committee on Population (CPOP) established the Panel on New Directions in Social Demography, Social Epidemiology, and the Sociology of Aging. The panel interpreted its charge quite broadly, while understanding that a large part, but not all of aging research, is conducted under the auspices of NIA. Although the panel approached the topic with a broad brush, some topics were not considered germane for the purposes of this report. For example, specific issues, such as those of causality that arise from linkages between social constructs and health outcomes, were not explored in depth.

To gather information, the panel organized a two-day workshop to which it invited a series of leading researchers to offer their perspectives on the state of the field and to reflect upon promising future directions. Members of the panel and NRC staff visited several research centers to better appreciate how researchers from different disciplines working within an overarching model (the transdisciplinary approach) are working on aging issues, what obstacles this approach faces, and, to the extent it is successful, how it might be encouraged. The site visit to the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience (CCSN) at the University of Chicago provided an opportunity to learn about the work of CCSN; the Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study; the Chicago Social Brain Network; and the Arete Initiative. A second site visit to Harvard University included meetings with the Department of Health Care Policy, Department of Sociology, and the Center for Population and Development Studies.

The workshop presentations and discussions, together with these site visits, gave the panel the opportunity to develop the perspectives and articulate the challenges shared here. This two-part volume is the product of that study process. Part I is the final report of the panel. Part II contains revised versions of the papers presented at the workshop.

Part I, initially published in interim prepublication form under the title The Future of the Sociology of Aging: An Agenda for Action (National Research Council, 2013) is divided into four sections: (1) an introduction that documents the various approaches to the study of aging and discusses the role of sociology in what is a wide-ranging and diverse field of study; (2) a proposed three-dimensional conceptual model for studying social processes in aging over the life cycle; (3) a review of existing databases, data needs and opportunities, primarily in the area of measurement of interhousehold and intergenerational transmission of resources, biomarkers and biosocial interactions; and (4) a summary of roadblocks and bridges to transdisciplinary research that will affect the future directions of the field of sociology of aging.

Several themes emerge from the collection of papers in Part II, initially published in an interim prepublication form under the title Perspectives on the Future of the Sociology of Aging (National Research Council, 2012c). First is the need to grapple with the changing nature of the objects of study: social institutions, social networks, social groups, and social forces. These social arrangements vary significantly from generation to generation, and from place to place, and, sometimes even from year to year, leading to changing new and different understandings of how the life course should be organized. Thus, for example, the social factors that influence adults who have recently turned 65 are likely to be quite different from those influencing adults who will turn 65 in two or three decades. The ever-changing, dynamic nature of the subject matter offers special challenges to sociologists that may not characterize other fields. A second theme underscores the importance of recognizing that aging occurs across the entire life span, so research questions related to outcomes in old age cannot be properly understood by focusing solely on what occurs during the later stages of life (Elder, 2002). A third theme acknowledges the vast, largely untapped potential for greater integrated science. Some of the most promising recent research emerges at the interstices between disciplines when, for example, a researcher (or more frequently an interdisciplinary team of researchers) has begun to explore how genetic influences and social environments work in concert to vary the course of aging. These last two themes underscore the importance of adopting fruitful theoretical approaches. The choice of inputs, outputs, mechanisms, and theoretical constructs—and specification of the levels at which they operate—are crucial to the success of any effort, whether it is the development of a model, the collection of data, or the design of an intervention trial.

The emergence of these common themes is particularly noteworthy given the wide variety of approaches and perspectives that the papers in Part II of this volume represent. The authors of these papers come from a range of disciplines: from sociology and demography to social genomics and public health. A close reading of these papers in this volume should give readers a better understanding of where the field of the sociology of aging stands today and how it may be gainfully advanced in the future. In addition, taken collectively, the papers highlight the assortment of tools and perspectives that can bolster understanding of aging processes in ways that can guide policy.

This report and the papers were prepared with the assistance and close cooperation of many individuals. I would like to first express appreciation to the members of the committee. Despite having many other responsibilities, they generously donated their time and expertise to the project. Members contributed to the study by providing background readings, leading discussions, making presentations, drafting and revising chapters, and critically commenting on the various report drafts. The perspectives that members brought to the table were instrumental in synthesizing ideas throughout the committee process.

Drafting the report was a collaborative enterprise. Special thanks go to Amy Smith (Social Insight) who synthesized drafts written by the committee to produce much of the body of the final report portion of this publication. A special note of appreciation is owed to those who contributed papers, polished them, and willingly made revisions in response to the external reviews.

Several members of the staff of the National Academies made significant contributions to the report. The panel was established under the auspices of CPOP, directed by Barney Cohen, who was instrumental in developing the study and providing guidance and support to the staff from project initiation through August 2012. Thanks are due to Keiko Ono, who served as a project officer for the project until July 2012; Robert Pool for research and writing assistance; Jacqui Sovde for logistical support; Danielle Johnson for report preparation; Kirsten Sampson Snyder for guiding the volume through review; Paula Whitacre for editing; and Yvonne Wise for managing the production process. Tom Plewes, the incoming director of CPOP, provided oversight of the preparation of the report for publication.

The project was undertaken at the request of the BSR at NIA and funding from NIA made this publication possible. Particular thanks go to Richard Suzman who was the intellectual catalyst for this project, and we are grateful to him and to NIA for their support.

This report has been reviewed in draft form by individuals chosen for their diverse perspectives and technical expertise, in accordance with procedures approved by the NRC Report Review Committee. The purpose of this independent review is to provide candid and critical comments that will assist the institution in making its published report as sound as possible and to ensure that the report meets institutional standards for objectivity, evidence, and responsiveness to the study charge. The review comments and draft manuscript remain confidential to protect the integrity of the deliberative process.

The review was conducted in two parts—with independent reviews conducted for each of the parts of this volume. The following individuals reviewed Part I of this final report: Nancy Adler, Departments of Psychiatry and Pediatrics, University of California, San Francisco; Jeffrey A. Burr, Department of Gerontology, McCormack Graduate School of Policy and Global Studies, University of Massachusetts, Boston; Deborah Carr, Department of Sociology, Rutgers University; Peter T. Ellison, Peabody Museum, Department of Human Evolutionary Biology, Harvard University; Fran Goldscheider, Department of Sociology, Emerita, Brown University, and professor, University of Maryland, College Park; Theodore J. (Jack) Iwashyna, Department of Internal Medicine, University of Michigan Health System; Scott M. Lynch, Department of Sociology and Office of Population Research, Princeton University; and Angela M. O'Rand, Trinity College of Arts and Sciences, Duke University.

The following individuals reviewed the volume of papers that appears as Part II of this final report: John T. Cacioppo, Department of Psychology, University of Chicago; Andrew J. Cherlin, Department of Sociology, Johns Hopkins University; Brian M. D'Onofrio, Department of Psychological and Brain Sciences, Indiana University; Fran Goldscheider, Department of Sociology, Emerita, Brown University, and professor, University of Maryland, College Park; Melissa Hardy, The Gerontology Center, Pennsylvania State University; Mark Hayward, Population Research Center, University of Texas, Austin; Theodore J. (Jack) Iwashyna, Department of Internal Medicine, University of Michigan; Hillard S. Kaplan, Department of Anthropology, University of New Mexico; Scott M. Lynch, Department of Sociology and Office of Population Research, Princeton University; James Nazroo, School of Social Sciences, University of Manchester, England; Jill Quadagno, Pepper Institute on Aging and Public Policy, Florida State University; Burton H. Singer, Emerging Pathogens Institute, University of Florida; and Mai Stafford, Department of Epidemiology and Public Health, University College London School of Life and Medical Sciences.

Although the reviewers listed above have provided many constructive comments and suggestions, they were not asked to endorse the contents of this volume before its release. The review of the report in Part I of this report was overseen by Jane Menken, Institute of Behavioral Science, University of Colorado, Boulder. The review of the papers in Part II was overseen by Barney Cohen, then director of CPOP.

Appointed by the NRC, they were responsible for making certain that an independent examination of this report was carried out in accordance with institutional procedures and that all review comments were carefully considered. Responsibility for the final content rests entirely with the authors and the institution.

Copyright 2013 by the National Academy of Sciences. All rights reserved.
Bookshelf ID: NBK184367


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