Gero-Punk Preoccupations: How do we know gerontology when we see it?

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?




About Jenny Sasser, Ph.D.

I am a freelance educational gerontologist, writer, community activist and facilitator. I am former Chair of the Department of Human Sciences and Director of Gerontology at Marylhurst University. I joined the faculty as an adjunct member of the Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies program in 1997 and since that time, I've been involved in designing many on-campus and web-based courses and programs for adult learners, including in Gerontology. As an undergraduate I attended Willamette University, graduating Cum Laude in Psychology and Music; my interdisciplinary graduate studies at University of Oregon and Oregon State University focused on the Human Sciences, with specialization areas in adult development and aging, women’s studies, and critical social theory and alternative research methodologies. My dissertation became part of a book published in 1996 and co-authored with Dr. Janet Lee--Blood Stories: Menarche and the Politics of the Female Body in Contemporary US Society. Over the past twenty (or more!) years I have been involved in inquiry in the areas of creativity in later life; older women's embodiment; sexuality and aging; critical Gerontological theory; transformational adult learning practices; and inter-generational friendships and cross-generational collaborative inquiry. I am co-author, with Dr. Harry R. Moody of Aging: Concepts and Controversies (now in its 10th edition!) and first author, also with Moody, of the recently published Gerontology: The Basics, as well as author/co-author of several book chapters, articles and essays. I am on the Portland Community College Gerontology Program faculty.
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3 Responses to Gero-Punk Preoccupations: How do we know gerontology when we see it?

  1. Don Groves says:

    “… 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.”

    I immediately grabbed onto this sentence because it reflects so exactly my feelings about academia in general. One reason I love Marylhurst as I do is getting the same feeling from several members of Marylhurst’s faculty. The idea of codify+standardize+institutionalize seems to be far too prevalent and, to me, runs counter to the idea of exploration that should dominate graduate work and possibly upper division undergrad courses, leading directly to rigidity and entrenchment of ideas and realities such as “science advances one death at a time.”

    As for defining gerontology as a field of study, aging happens all along the life course. I’ve met those in their 50s who seemed old and those in their 90s who seemed young. So where is the line drawn, if such a line can be realistically drawn? Then there are those whose genetics predispose them to early physical aging. Are they suitable gerontology subjects?

    Great blog and let’s keep the conversation flowing…

  2. Erica says:
    Hi Jenny, I thought this was a perfect example of the questions you’ve raised here. Is this author “doing gerontology”? I would say no, mainly because I don’t think that was his intention as a writer. You say “aging is everywhere and nowhere at the same time”, so maybe we are all doing gerontology even if we don’t know it! xo erica

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