Aging, Discourse, and Ideology
Committee Members: Elaine Chun (Director), Barbara Johnstone, Jennifer Reynolds, Tracey Weldon
This dissertation explores the language practices of members of the Andrus Center, a recreational senior center located in the Southeastern United States. It specifically examines how “young-old” members, or those who had relatively recently made the transition to older identity, invoked and contested widely circulating ideologies of aging in the course of constructing their local age identities. Rather than treating age as an objective, individual characteristic, as commonly presumed in sociolinguistics, this study highlights the ways in which age identities were relationally and emergently co-constructed. Through analyses of interactional and ethnographic data collected over 18 months, I argue that mainstream ideologies of aging, particularly those that marginalized older people, were salient even within local communities like the Andrus Center, yet the specific cultural meanings and values of being “old” were locally negotiated and evaluated in ways that also countered these ideologies.
The analysis is divided into three parts. In the first, I show that while participants accepted a hegemonic ideology of aging as embodied decline, they resisted the typical assumption that this decline was always negative and that it was always their own responsibility to prevent it through “successful aging.” Second, I address another ideology of aging, specifically one of epistemological progress, by turning to a specific case of an older African American woman who embodied recognizably older personas, the sage and the nostalgic. Crucially, these older personas enabled this older person, when speaking with her black and white friends, to persuasively engage with contemporary discourses of race and racism. Finally, I identify three “aging genres” that young-old members regularly drew on to construct their identities: aging up narratives, age co-construction, and stereotype disalignment and alignment. As each of these genres involved the evaluative positioning of selves in relation to others, they offered participants the possibility of coming to positive understandings of becoming and being an older person. This study not only speaks to broader cultural trends in the United States, where older populations continue to grow, but it also illustrates how the linguistic choices of older speakers are culturally relevant, ideologically charged, and immensely complex and diverse in contemporary times.