Culture and Ethnicity
Culture and ethnicity jointly provide status, social settings, living conditions, and personal experiences for people of all ages, and they influence and are influenced by biological, psychological, and life-cycle developmental forces. Culture can be defined as shared basic value orientations, norms,
beliefs, and customary habits and ways of living. Culture provides the basic worldview of a society in that it gives it the basic explanations about the meanings and goals of everyday life (Luborsky & McMullen, 1999). Culture is such a powerful influence because it connects to biological forces through family lineage, which is sometimes the way in which members of a particular culture are defined. Psychologically, culture shapes people’s core beliefs; in some cases this can result in ethnocentrism, or the belief that one’s own culture is superior to others. Being socialized as a child within a culture usually has a more profound effect on a person than when one adopts a culture later in life, resulting in significant life-cycle timing effects. Culture is extremely important in gerontology because how people define basic concepts such as person, age, and life course varies a great deal across cultures.
Members of the! Kung tribe experience development in ways very different from the ways most Americans do.
Equally important is the concept of ethnicity, which is an individual and collective sense of identity based on historical and cultural group membership and related behaviors and beliefs (Luborsky & McMullen, 1999). Compared with culture, ethnic group identities have both solid and fluid properties, reflecting the fact that there are both unchanging and situation-specific aspects to ethnic identity (Luborsky & Rubinstein, 1997). An example of these properties is that the terms referring to an ethnic group can change over time; for example, the terms colored people, Negroes, black Americans, and African Americans have all been used to describe Americans of African ancestry. Ethnic identity is first influenced by biology through one’s parents. However, how one incorporates ethnic identity depends on numerous psychological factors as well as age.
Both culture and ethnicity are key dimensions along which adults vary. However, we know very little about how culture or ethnicity affects how people experience old age. Throughout the rest of this book, we explore areas in which culture and ethnicity have been studied systematically. Unfortunately, most research focuses only on European Americans. Given the demographic trends discussed earlier, this focus must change so we can understand the experience of growing older in the United States in the next few decades.