Theorizing in Family Gerontology: New Opportunities for Research and Practice

By Roberto, Karen A.; Blieszner, Rosemary et al. | Family Relations, December 2006 | Go to article overview

Theorizing in Family Gerontology: New Opportunities for Research and Practice


Roberto, Karen A., Blieszner, Rosemary, Allen, Katherine R., Family Relations


Abstract: We examine the extent to which theory has been used in empirical studies of families in later life, identify prevalent types of theoretical frameworks, and assess connections between theory and both focal topics and analytic methods in the family gerontology literature. The paper is based on content and methodological analysis of 838 empirical articles with a family-level focus published in 13 social science journals during the 1990s. Approximately one half of the articles included theory, with micro-interpretive (social psychological) theories being used most often to guide and inform research and practice. To advance the field and understand better the intricacies of family life among older adults, we suggest that investigators and practitioners explicitly incorporate theoretical frameworks into their endeavors.

Key Words: community practices, family gerontology, late life families, research methods, theory.

Theory is the gateway into an exciting process of exploration, discovery, and explanation. Scholars and practitioners alike often find their way initially into the field of social gerontology through one of the classic theoretical texts that enliven our discipline. The early works of Erikson (1950), for example, first shed light on the developmental pathway of aging, long before others had conceptualized maturity as a normative stage of life. Erikson's ideas about individual psychosocial development still resonate more than 50 years later, influencing empirical research and gerontology practices. Indeed, the intergenerational linkages suggested in Erikson's idea of generativity in the later stages of life served as a basis for the emergence of life course theoretical notions such as "linked lives," which joins individual- and family-level influences to understand intergenerational connections (see Fischer's [1986] analysis of adult daughters and aging mother relationships).

Building upon theories of individual development and theorizing about life course influences, family gerontology, a branch of social gerontology, has come of age. Family and gerontology scholars studying aging families embrace a definition of family that includes "relationships determined by biology, adoption, marriage, and, in some societies, social designation, and existing even in the absence of contact or affective involvement, and in some cases, even after the death of certain members" (Bedford & Blieszner, 1997, p. 526). This definition of family takes into account relationships with the fictive or chosen kin that are actively engaged in the lives of many old adults.

Tremendous growth has occurred in the scope of topics investigated, as revealed in four decade-based reviews of die literature (Alien, Blieszner, & Roberto, 2000; Brubaker, 1990; Streib & Beck, 1980; Troll, 1971). However, as noted in those reviews and discussed in this paper, identification of the theoretical underpinnings of family gerontology research has lagged behind the empirical output. Many academic scholars, as well as practitioners, do not acknowledge explicidy the influence of theory on their research, teaching, and programmatic efforts. Without well-articulated theories, the processes and dynamics of late-life family relationships and the influence these relationships have on the quality of older adults' lives cannot be explained precisely. Only by grounding research in theoretical principles of human nature and behavior will scholars be able to achieve a full understanding of what empirical findings reveal about the diversity and complexity of aging families and apply this information widely (Krauss, 2006). Thus, family gerontologists are missing important opportunities to advance theoretical understanding of late-life family relations. The challenge is to use theory more effectively and extensively and for scholars and practitioners to be explicit in their theorizing (Bengtson, Acock, Alien, Dilworth-Anderson, & Klein, 2005) in order to generate new knowledge and spark new ideas in the study of aging families. …

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