Sociology Unit 4

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Age disadvantage

Inequality in health. Older people suffer discrimination in health treatment. All women who are aged 50-70 and registered with a GP are automatically invited for breast cancer screening every three years. Meanwhile younger women cannot be screened on the NHS for cervical cancer until they reach 25. Medics may argue that these age limits are medically sound decisions yet age limits, especially for the older population, reflect assumptions our societies make about who is valuable.

Inequality in the workplace. European legislation passed in 2006 made age discrimination illegal. However, a MORI survey found 1 in 5 workers questioned reported having been discriminated against on the grounds of age. People nearing retirement report being sidelined and ‘put out to pasture’. Young people report being patronised and overlooked due to assumptions about their skills and experience. Middle aged women also report discrimination based on the assumption that they are of ‘child bearing age’ which may lead employers to assume that they will be taking maternity leave or prioritising child care.

Economic inequality. Economically young people are likely to earn less and have less wealth stored than other sections of the population. Older people may also suffer from low levels of income as they retire.

Inequality in the media. Old age is often linked to childhood.  In the media and everyday life the elderly and childhood are often linked together.  Hockey and James point out that ‘very old people may jokingly be described as entering their ‘second childhood’, or as going ‘ga ga’ when their memories fade’ .

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Joseph Rowntree Foundation

This was a two-year project (2003-2005), composed of three main parts. The first involved 207 Chinese older people from eight cities who were invited through local service providers and Chinese organisations to take part in 16 group discussions to formulate a joint statement. They carried out a pilot study which involved a trail version of the group discussions to see if they had designed their discussion questions appropriately.

The second part was the establishment of three local working groups with the assistance of the Wai Yin Chinese Women SocietyThe research team worked closely with these groups for about a year and provided them with various types of support. Through surveys, home visits, data analysis, direct dialogue with service providers, drafting a code of practice and conducting pilot services, these groups in general achieved their goals. Each has published a booklet to report their work and share their experiences. Nine focus groups were organised at different stages of the project

In order to ensure high levels of validity the researchers used respondent validation. This involved asking the participants from the research to check through the conclusions of the research to ensure the researchers had correctly interpreted and presented the older Chinese people they had studied.

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Parsons relates age differences to the overall functioning of the social system. He believes that differences in the social roles associated with age groups are vital for the smooth functioning of society. For example, Parsons argues that adolescence is a time when children begin to develop independence from their parents. In industrial societies such as the USA it is essential that the workforce is mobile so that it can move to where workers are needed by manufacturing industry. The nuclear family is functionally well-adapted to this type of society since it is self-sufficient and does not rely upon extended kinship networks.

Parsons also notes that the elderly have less status in US society than in most other types of society. Once children have grown up and men have retired, the elderly lose their most important social roles.

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Marxists have used the theory of the reserve army of labour to show how the ruling classes use young and old people to fill the gaps in the job market during economic boom times, treating them with short term contracts which mean their position is weaker and may well be paid less than full time, permanent workers. In addition, state benefits such as full levels of income support are withheld until young people reach 25 which is evidence that the powerful law makers in society see youth as a less than equal group.

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Gannon illustrates the way in which women suffer from more inequality in older age than men. She argues that male scientists have labelled the menopause as a disease and because it is seen as a disease, it is frequently attributed a whole range of ‘problems’ from low sex drive to osteoporosis to the menopause despite a lack of evidence demonstrating that it is the cause. For example, research shows that the sex drive of post-menopausal women varies considerably and in a significant number of cases it increases not decreases. Labelling the menopause as a disease ‘advances patriarchal ideology by rendering all women over 50 sick and in need of self

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Interpretivist explanations

Hockey and James argue that both childhood and old age are social constructs. They are linked by the common themes of dependency yet both children and the elderly could be much more independent than society usually allows them to be. For example, in the past children did much more work than they do today and retirement policies deny many older people, who are perfectly capable of working, the opportunity to do so.

1.  They can use alternative sources of power to resist. For example, wealthy elderly people might high power because of their wealth, elderly men can still use some patriarchal power over female carers and so on

2.  A second method of resistance is to deny membership of a subordinate group and to pretend to belong to a higher status one.

3. Being a member of a disadvantaged social category can in itself be a source of power. It provides opportunities to mock the way you are treated. Hockey recounts how residents of old people’s home would act in deliberately childish ways, sticking their tongue out for example, in response to being infantilized by care workers.

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Parkin uses the theory of social closure to explain why older people may be blocked from some areas of social life, for example, gaining promotion or getting jobs. Parkin refers to strategies which are used to create and maintain privileges for certain groups. The exclusion strategy may be used by groups anxious to protect their privileges from new recruits so that groups may insist on a certain criteria to restrict people joining and gaining their privileges. For example,16 year olds cannot vote in England and Wales. The usurpation strategy is used to try to grab some of the privileges of others, for example, there is a campaign at the moment to force back the retirement age so that those who wish to can continue to work beyond 65.

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Featherstone and Hepworth argue that the middle classes are likely to have a postmodern approach to the life course

  1. Children and adults are becoming more alike so that gestures, postures, leisure pursuits, ways of dressing and so on are becoming more similar to one another.
  2. Childhood is becoming less separate from other stages of the life course because the segregation of children from adult life is becoming impossible. The media intrude into the formerly private life of the family bringing adult concerns into the lives of children.
  3. Middle class adults reaching retirement with good pensions can afford to continue enjoying consumer-culture lifestyles having a high disposable income to spend on leisure goods and services.
  4. Some of this spending goes on ‘body maintenance’. They can slow down mental, sexual and physical decline with healthy diets, regular exercise, cosmetics, drugs surgical intervention and so on.
  5. The ’baby boomers’ born after the Second World War who grew up in the 1960s are .taking with them many of the values and cultural tastes of their youth’ (p. 375) into old age. Unlike previous generations they try to maintain youthful lifestyles as they age.
  6. Increasingly people reject chronological age, the number of years lived, as an indicator of their real selves. They regard chronological age as a mask which hides more youthful essential, inner self.  Featherstone and Hepworth quote research which suggests that many people believe that age should be seen in terms of the age you feel, or the age you look, rather than in terms of the number of years you have lived. 

Ageing has increasingly come to be seen in positive terms rather than as part of an inevitable decline towards infirmity and dependence.

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The specification expects you to understand that none of the factors described above (age, class, gender and ethnicity) stands in isolation to the other factors. Clearly we all have a social class, ethnic group, gender and age which interact with each other to create different life chances and identities. Using Skegg’s work we can see that ideas of femininity relate to social class so that what it means to be female may depend upon your social class. Similarly in the JRF study we see that a Chinese ethnic identity may impact on ones experiences of being an older person.

Sociological perspectives may view some factors as more important than others. For example, Marxist sociologists prioritise social class above all else, whilst Feminists may see gender as the most important influence upon someone’s life. Post modernists may argue that there are so many complex identities available that generalisations about ‘women’ or black people’ or ‘the elderly’ or whatever, are nonsensical since differences within each of these groups are as important as differences between the groups. 

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Sampling is the process of selecting a group of respondents from your target population (the people you seek to represent). Many reseachers use a sampling frame ( a list such as a school register or docotrs list) to gain access to their sample and to make it more representative. However, to get hoold of a smapling frame or to gain access to a sample researchers sometimes need a gatekeeper. The gate keeper is the person who has access and may grant it in the form of an introduction to others in the target population or by granting access to lists or files which otherwise may not be avialable.

Sampling techniques

  • Random sampling
  • Stratified random sampling
  • Quota sampling
  • Snowballing
  • Puposeful sampling
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Values and objectivity

Functionalists in general have been accused of holding politically conservative views in assuming that existing social institutions serve a useful purpose. This implies that anything other than slow evolutionary change is harmful to society.

Few would claim that Marx’s sociology was free from his political and moral beliefs. Marx’s desire for proletarian revolution influenced most aspects of his work.

Weber’s work often appears more value-free than that of functionalists or Marxists, but there is little doubt that his personal values influenced his research.

Weber recognized that values would influence the choice of topics for study. He argued that the sociologist had to have some way of choosing from the almost infinite number of possible areas of social life that could be studied.

Interpretive sociologists have tended to be very critical of those using quantitative methods. They have argued that many sociologists simply impose their own views of reality on the social world. As a result, they distort and misrepresent the very reality they seek to understand. Research techniques such as interviews, questionnaires and social surveys are a part of this process of distortion. They come between the sociologist and the social world and so remove any opportunity he or she might have of discovering social reality.

While interpretivists might be looking in the right direction, the problem of validity remains unsolved. Though face to face with social reality, the observer can only see the social world through his or her own eyes.

Some postmodernists, such as Lyotard (1984), reject altogether the possibility of producing any objective knowledge. To Lyotard, the creation of knowledge is just a language-game which can only be judged in terms of its saleability.

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