What do gerontologists think they are doing when they do gerontology? What makes gerontology different from other academic disciplines and fields of study and practice? (That is, how is gerontology distinct from other related disciplines and fields, such as geriatrics, psychology, sociology, social work, etc.?) How do we know that gerontology is being done when we see it?
What are the questions, issues, and problems around which gerontology organizes and institutionalizes itself? How are these question, issues, and problems specifically Gerontological, rather than something else? What is the “lens” through which we look when we are doing Gerontological theorizing, inquiry, and practice? How do you know a gerontologist when you see one?
How does gerontology cohere as an academic discipline and field of practice when increasingly other disciplines and fields are taking on issues of aging, old age, and later life? What constitutes gerontology’s purview or territory when aging is everywhere and nowhere at the same time? And guess what? Not only are academic disciplines and fields outside of gerontology taking on the questions, issues and problems that have traditionally been under the aegis of gerontology (Do a literature search, as I had my students do last week, and you’ll see the proliferation of research and theory work being done around aging, old age and later life outside of gerontology proper.), but there’s been a proliferation of niche services, products, business and marketing strategies targeted at boomer and older populations (but with little or no grounding in Gerontological knowledge).
What can we say about the state of “Gerontological knowledge” any way? And should gerontologists (Perhaps at some point we should have a conversation about who gets to call themselves a “gerontologist.”) be the arbiters of what counts as legitimate knowledge about aging, old age and later life, and the praxis that follows from this knowledge? Should those of us trained as gerontologists determine the criteria for services, products and businesses targeted at the issues of aging, old age, and later life?
I’ll admit it–I have such strong mixed feelings about all of this! I’m at heart a gero-anarchist. As I’ve written elsewhere, I’m committed to freedom and creativity as we travel through the life course more than I am committed to codification, standardization, and institutionalization of ideas and practices around the human aging journey. And. I am a gerontologist. I am. I have been for more than half of my life this time around. But. I am a gerontologist of a certain style– a critical, contemplative, and anti/de-disciplinary style. And as we’ve been exploring so far in my Gerontology course this term (Theorizing and Researching in Gerontology), the field of gerontology is so complex, so diverse, there are many styles of being a gerontologist, and, thus, many versions of gerontology. So maybe there is room for me.
Though quite possibly — actually, I know this with certitude — some of my gerontology colleagues would disagree with my assertions and would willingly and with confidence offer a definitive and straightforward definition of gerontology and description of the work to which we gerontologists commit ourselves.
Alas, I know for a fact that my version of gerontology, my life as a gero-punk, is far from normative.
So be it.
But the deal is — and this is undeniable, it really is – that aging is an emergent phenomenon. And human beings are living longer than ever before in the history of this planet. And human aging is a complex, multi-faceted process that unfolds over a long period of time (e.g., over the entire human life course) and thus invites, even demands, a multi-faceted approach predicated on a nuanced relationship to time/place/space. As such, how on earth could the academic discipline and field of study devoted to this wild, emergent, and complex phenomenon be anything but wild, emergent, and complex?