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Ageism Theories

Ecosocial Levels of Analysis of Ageism

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There are four ecosocial levels of analysis that can be applied to ageist manifestation in society. From a macro, meso, micro and individual level, these ageist categories are: structural, institutional, interpersonal and embodied ageism. Nancy Krieger (1999, p. 301) offers some excellent and succinct definitions of structural, institutional and interpersonal discrimination, which apply well to ageism.  Structural ageism, also known as “systemic ageism” is the “totality of ways in which societies foster discrimination” against older adults. A subset of structural ageism, cultural ageism, encompasses ageist media messages, commentary, humor and other cultural facets wherein ageist perspectives are accepted as de facto truths (Palmore, 2005, p. 333). Institutional ageism, or “organizational ageism” refers to “discriminatory policies or practices carried out by state or non-state institutions” that are detrimental to older adults. Interpersonal ageism, or “institutional ageism” refers to “directly perceived discriminatory interactions between individuals.”

The last level of analysis, the individual, relates to embodied ageism. This is a relatively new concept and, as such, requires further background information. Read about embodied ageism here.

Further Reading

Embodied Ageism
Example of Structural Ageism (in development)
Example of Institutional Ageism  (in development)
Example of Interpersonal Ageism  (in development)
Examples of Embodied Ageism (in development)

Works Cited
Krieger, N. (1999). Embodying Inequality: A Review of Concepts Measures, and Methods for Studying Health Consequences of Discrimination. International Journal of Health Services , 29 (2), 295-352.


Stereotype Embodiment

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The theory of stereotype embodiment proposes that the lifetime exposure to cultural messages of ageism leads to an internalization of the ageist construct (Levy, 2009). Once internalized, the construct becomes part of an implicit, subconscious set of beliefs about old age and older people. When the individual ages to the point where the internalized stereotypes are self-relevant, they become part of the self-perception that triggers behaviors and physiological responses that fulfill the self-concept of being “old.”


Stereotype Threat

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Stereotype threat is a theory of discrimination response behavior that was first coined by Steele and Aronson (1995).  The theory posits that under specific conditions involving explicitly revealed stereotypes, people will subconsciously act to fulfill those stereotypes, even when the outcome is detrimental. In order for the conditions of stereotype threat to be met, three elements must be in place:

1.    The individual must face a situation where there is a stereotype-based expectation of performance
2.    The individual must self-identify with the stereotyped group
3.    The individual must believe that the “others” (observers, evaluators, etc) in the situation perceive the individual as a member of the stereotyped group



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