Symbolic-Interaction Analysis: Activity Theory Research Paper Starter

Symbolic-Interaction Analysis: Activity Theory

(Research Starters)

Unlike theories that hold older adults need to disengage from society, the symbolic interactionist framework posits that social interaction and activity have a positive effect on the health and well-being of this segment of the population. Activities considered helpful under this theory include informal activities (such as social interaction with family and friends), formal activities (participation in group functions), and solitary activities (including such pastimes as reading or watching television). A number of empirical studies have found that older individuals who are active using the above criteria tend to be happier, have higher self-esteem, and report a better quality of life than their peers. This widely held theory has been used to inform numerous programs for older adults in nursing homes and other venues. However, although activity theory appears to have wide applicability, it is still not supported by the depth of research necessary to fully understand the complex relationship between activity and social interaction on the one hand and the health and well-being of older adults on the other.

Keywords Activity Theory; Baby Boomer; Bridge Job; Correlation; Disengagement Theory; Empirical; Functionalism; Interview; Quality of Life; Regression Analysis; Social Interaction; Status; Symbolic Interactionism


Many aging adults face retirement not with resignation but with eager anticipation of changing careers, taking up a new hobby, engaging in a long-postponed avocation, or otherwise engaging life in new and different ways. Still others continue to work at their job or as a freelancer or take a bridge job until they are ready for retirement. In fact, statistics show that post-retirement employment has been increasing over the past several years. Aging adults are not ready to give up and disengage. Even those older adults who do retire from their careers and do not get another job have not necessarily retired from life or disengaged from society. Many merely are changing their focus and becoming more actively involved in other activities, interests, or with family.

Senior citizens are a rapidly growing segment of the population in the United States. In the years between 1900 and 2000, the number of individuals aged sixty-five years and older in the United States grew from 3.1 million to 35.0 million. Of these, the population aged eighty-five and older has experienced the greatest growth, growing by 38 percent from 3.1 million to 4.2 million during the 1990s alone (Schaefer, 2002, p. 277). According to 2012 estimates by the US Census Bureau, nearly 14 percent of Americans are older than sixty-five. Now that members of the baby boomer generation are reaching retirement age, seniors are becoming an increasingly important share of the population. Old age homes have been re-envisioned as retirement communities and again as activity living communities. As more people live past retirement age, it is increasingly important to better understand what improves not only the life expectancy of seniors, but also what will improve that quality of life for these individuals. A large body of research supports the conclusion that one way to do this is not to disengage from the world but to continue to participate in activities and social interaction.

Further Insights

Aging Theory

There are two dominant social theories on aging. Disengagement theory posits that society and the individual mutually sever many relationships during the aging process. According to this theory, it is important for older individuals to disengage from society. This both helps them to focus on their mortality and also increases the satisfaction these individuals have with their lives as well as enabling them to concentrate on issues related to aging and death. Since its introduction in 1961, disengagement theory has been widely criticized for many reasons, not the least of which is that it does not adequately or accurately describe the situation of many aging individuals and ignores much of the evidence about aging. Partially in response to the functionalist approach exemplified by disengagement theory, symbolic interactionists developed activity theory, which, although it, too, has its limitations, better accounts for much of the evidence on aging.

Symbolic interactionism is a sociological framework that assumes that one's self-concept is created through the interpretation of the symbolic gestures, words, actions, and appearances of others as observed during social interactions. When applied to aging, symbolic interactionists posit that those elderly individuals who remain active will be the most well-adjusted. Both anecdotal and research evidence support this theory. For example, in 1995 there was an intense heat wave in Chicago in which there was a heat index of 115 degrees Fahrenheit for two consecutive days. During this time, 733 individuals died from heat-related causes. Of these victims, approximately 75 percent were sixty-five years of age and older (Schaefer, 2002, p. 275-6). When analyzing the statistics to determine why this happened, researchers found that those with the highest risk of dying in that situation were older adults who lived alone. The analysis further found that within this category, older Hispanic and Asian Americans (both of whom typically have strong social networks with more regular contact with friends and family members) had a lower risk for death than other racial and ethnic groups. The conclusion was that support networks for older adults literally help save lives.

Activity Theory

Proponents of activity theory maintain that although older adults may not necessarily want to (or can) engage in the same activities as they did when they were younger (e.g., being employed, raising a family), they still have the same needs as other people for social interaction. In addition, as health care and medical science continue to improve the health of many older people and lengthen life expectancy, the need for social interaction increases. In addition, medical research is increasingly supporting the conclusion that social interaction and the maintenance of relationships and activities into later life is correlated with a lower decline in cognitive facilities than in people who do not have such activities and interests. As opposed to the disengagement theory of the structural functionalists, activity theory posits that withdrawal from society is bad for the individual who is reduced in status, isolated from society, and stripped of his/her role set as well as for a society itself, which loses the wisdom and insights that can only be gained by the accumulation of years of experience.

Activity theorists suggest that there are a number of different categories of activities that can enhance the quality of life for aging individuals. These include informal activities (social interaction with family and friends), formal activities (participation in group functions), and solitary activities (reading, watching television, and other pastimes). A number of empirical studies have found that older individuals who are active using the above criteria tend to be happier, have higher self-esteem, and a better quality of life. Activity theory has replaced disengagement theory as the dominant social theory of aging and has been the foundation for a number of successful aging programs. For example, activity theory has informed the philosophy of many nursing homes that have developed programs to increase the activities and social interactions of their residents as a way of improving their quality of life. This approach is thought by its proponents not only to be useful in improving the self-esteem and quality of life of older individuals, but also as a way to maximize their functional capabilities and help in rehabilitation efforts related to psychological and physical disabilities.


The Power of Positive Relationships

Social interaction is one of the primary considerations in activity theory. However, it is far from clear what types of social interaction improve an aging individual's quality of life or even what type of person is best helped by increased levels of social interaction. As discussed above, the positive relationship of social interaction — in particular positive relationships with family, friends, and community — is widely accepted. However, not every social interaction is positive. An increasing body of research suggests that both positive and negative support can be available (often from the same individual) at the same time and that these can positively and negatively affect one's well-being. Toni C. Antonucci, J. E. Lansford, and H. Akiyama (2001) researched the impact of positive and negative aspects of marital relationship and friendships on the well-being of older adults. Subjects in their study were a regionally representative sample of 1,702 individuals in the Detroit metropolitan area. Adults who were aged sixty and older, married, and had a best friend of the same gender were used in the study. Data...

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