Historical Considerations

In historical perspective, aging has long been regarded as a purely biological and degenerative process. For example, Metchnikoff (1903), frequently cited as the creator of the term gerontology, made the argument in his Macrophage Theory that aging can be seen predominantly as an infectious disease, and, as a consequence, he believed that possible means to counteract such an infection (e.g., yogurt) would be helpful to delay aging. Given the strong biological and medical orientation of early gerontology, the explicit consideration of the socio-physical environment was an important step in its historical development toward a strong interdisciplinary research field. This paradigm shift was mainly driven by the growing role of a social and behavioral science perspective within gerontology and life course research, which began evolving since the late 1920s. For instance, Hall (1922) and Hollingsworth (1927) in the United States provided early contributions to aging research from a developmental psychologist's view, promoting the idea that improved understanding of life-span development is possible only when considering the social situations of aging individuals. Similarly, developmental psychologist Charlotte Biihler (1933) argued in her key work, The Human Life Course as a Psychological Problem, that the social world is a driving force not only of child and adolescent development, but also of development in adulthood and late life.

In the 1930s and 1940s, a social science perspective (sometimes also coined social gerontology) began to evolve in American gerontology, mainly nurtured by the creation of the Committee of Human Development at the University of Chicago and its key members, such as Bernice Neugarten and Robert Havighurst. Still more explicit, the interplay between the aging individual and his or her social world was treated for the first time in the Handbook of Social Gerontology, edited by Tibbitts in 1960, and the now classic gerontological monograph, Growing Old: The Process of Disengagement, by Cumming and Henry (1961). Around the same time period, the basic role of physical, spatial, and infrastruc-tural environments in the aging process found increased attention, as manifested in pioneering handbook chapters such as Kleemeier's (1959) Behavior and the Organization of the Bodily and External Environment and Vivrett's (1960) Housing and Community Settings for Older People. Since then, addressing the role of context for the course and direction of aging processes has become an essential element of life course theory as well as life-span perspectives in social and behavioral gerontology (Baltes, 1987; Dannefer, 1992; Rebok and Hoyer, 1977). Reference to resources (or constraints) in the person and her or his environment, when the process and outcome of aging is the target of analysis, has even reached the status of a research paradigm in social and behavioral gerontology.

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