Sociology Aging
Peter Uhlenberg
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 October 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0003


Although the sociology of aging focuses primarily on the later years of life, it is grounded in an understanding that aging of individuals is a lifelong process of growing up and growing older. Thus, to understand how old age is experienced, one must look at the entire life course that preceded reaching old age. This process of aging over the life course is affected by biological and psychological factors, but a sociological perspective makes an important contribution to our understanding of aging by explicating how social, economic, and political forces shape the aging experience. To a much greater extent than is commonly recognized, aging is socially constructed. This means that the ways in which individuals age are shaped by the existing social structures that they encounter over their life course. Among the important social structures that influence how we age are family systems, state programs and policies, organization of education and work, religion, and health care. One way to discover how social forces shape aging is to compare the aging experiences of different birth cohorts (a birth cohort consists of those born in a particular year who age together through time) and/or different components of the population (based on gender, social class, race/ethnicity, etc.). Another handle for seeing how context affects aging is comparative research across societies. The data available to study aging have expanded rapidly in recent decades with the growth of panel studies and comparable surveys in different countries. At a macro level, many populations grew older during the 20th century, and population aging has become a global phenomenon in the 21st century. Population aging is an inevitable consequence of societies achieving low birth rates and death rates, and may be seen as the successful outcome of extending life into old age for most people born. However, population aging also challenges existing social arrangements for providing economic security and health care for the elderly. A great deal of attention, in both the United States and other countries, currently is being given to how to structure pension and health care programs in a way that is equitable and encourages people to live productive lives in old age.


Among the introductory textbooks that cover the basic topics in the sociology of aging, three are written by leading researchers of aging and provide an engaging introduction for students. While each of these makes use of contemporary research findings, they are structured quite differently. Quadagno 2011 takes the most standard textbook approach of systematically covering each relevant topic. Wilmoth and Ferraro 2006 is a textbook with various chapters written by authors specializing in that area. Moody 2010 focuses on aging-related controversies and includes selected readings as well as text by the author to introduce relevant aging concepts.

  • Moody, Harry R. 2010. Aging: Concepts and controversies. 6th ed. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge.

    This text seeks to engage students in informed debates around controversial issues raised by aging. Moody writes concise overviews of the aging literature related to basic issues and follows each overview with a discussion of controversies and brief readings expressing varying views.

  • Quadagno, Jill. 2011. Aging and the life course: An introduction to social gerontology. 5th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.

    The author is an important contributor to the literature on social policy and writes in a clear and confident style. All of the major issues in sociology of aging are covered with references to important contemporary research.

  • Wilmoth, Janet, and Kenneth Ferraro, eds. 2006. Gerontology: Perspectives and issues. 3d ed. New York: Springer.

    Each chapter is written by a recognized expert on the topic covered. The advantage is reading what the experts themselves say about their research rather than having it summarized by someone else. The disadvantage is that there is a less comprehensive coverage of the whole field.

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