Annual Scientific Meeting of the Gerontological
Society of America,
San Francisco, November 19-23, 1999
Laudatio on Occasion of the
Margret M. Baltes Legacy Symposium*
I am deeply grateful for this opportunity to reflect briefly on Margret's admirable life's work. Her creative accomplishments take on special significance considering the context in which they occurred. The research on aging centered heavily on changes in cognitive functioning over the life course. Margret's program of research on how the elderly manage their lives by social means was ground breaking rather than adding incrementally to the prevailing investigatory pursuits.
Interpersonal Management of Life Situations
The interpersonal management of one's life situation is exceedingly difficult to study creatively and productively. The intricate ways in which people try to influence their life situations with limited resources and many social structural constraints do not lend themselves easily to quantification. This dynamic process involves complex social transactions rather than isolated, discrete events.
Social transactions embody ongoing streams of events that
require wise judgments on how to punctuate what is happening. The
conditional analyses unmask the arbitrariness of what constitutes
a person, an environment, a stimulus event, a response and a
consequent. The same event can change its status from behavior,
to environment, to consequent, at different entry points in the
flow of our interactions between individuals. The status of the
events is determined temporally and relationally rather than
inheres in the properties of the events themselves.
In social transactions, people become each other's environments. A person is a proactive agent or a reacting environment depending on which side of the social transaction one happens to look. To add to the analytic complexity, an event at a given point is influenced by prior experiences in the developmental trajectory.
This was not an easy research path to choose. Because of the complexities of such dynamic systems we have come to expect, and accept, compromises in rigorousness for social importance. Margret made no such compromises. She conducted elegant microanalyses of conditional transactions and the way in which the social influences shape the course of lives of the elderly. This work was thoughtfully reasoned, methodologically sophisticated, and socially significant.
These classic studies documented vividly how some of the declines in functioning with age result from social and structural dispossession, rather than being inherent in the aging process. The insights gained from her program of research provided informative guides on how the elderly can preserve a favorable operative efficacy well into the later years. The different disciplines her work touched attests to its wide-ranging applicability and lasting importance.
Margretís research was rooted in an agentic perspective. People have the power to exercise some measure of control over events that affect their lives. Conceptions of human agency have been essentially confined to personal agency exercised individually. But this is not the only form of agency through which people manage their lives. One can distinguish among three different forms of agency -- personal, proxy, and collective.
The exercise of direct personal agency has been the subject of extensive theorizing and research. People do not live their lives as isolates, however. Through their shared beliefs, aspirations, and distributed competencies they work together to achieve the outcomes they desire. Thus, more recently, the conception of human agency has been extended to collective agency.
Margret turned her analytic talents to the largely neglected phenomenon of proxy agency. In many activities, people do not have direct control over social conditions and institutional practices that affect their lives. Under these circumstances, they seek their well-being security through the exercise of proxy agency. In this socially-mediated mode of agency, people try to get those who have expertise or wield influence and power to act on their behalf to get the outcomes they desire.
Margret demonstrated that, in an institutional milieu, dependency is a highly effective way of gaining social contact. Moreover, as daily routines take longer and become harder to do in advanced years, the elderly get others to help do some of them.
Margret underscored the importance of distinguishing between dependence on others and seeking help in areas of functional limitations to preserve oneís autonomy. Selective dependence frees eldersí time to pursue independently other activities of special interest to them. This work added greatly to our understanding of how selective optimization and compensation operate within an agentic perspective in the social realm.
While Margret was demonstrating proxy agency at work, others were interpreting social reliance in the elderly as growing learned helplessness. Margret took these theorists to task for miscontruing proxy management of oneís life situation as advancing personal disablement. She countered the excessive reverence of independence with the valuation of human connectedness and interdependence.
Magret did not mine a narrow path in her research. She had quality and range. At the same time she died with tragic suddenness, Margret was exploring human competence, not as a disembodied entity, but as a functional competence by which elders strive to make the most of their everyday lives. As in her research pursuits, she explored human competence as socially situated, richly contextualized, and conditionally manifested. She brought a productive blend of interdisciplinary effort to bear on each problem she studied.
Margret applied the same conceptual, methodological, and
analytical sophistication to successful self-management with age,
where others would be inclined to settle for ethnographic
descriptions of what people do in their daily life. She
identified the physical, psychological, and social resources
people enlist in their efforts to manage their life
circumstances. She analyzed the structure of these resources.
Created age-residualized resource indicators. Aggregated them
factorially. And verified their impact on the quality of everyday
functioning. Margret demonstrated that elders who have the
benefit of good resources show limited negative aging effects
with advancing age. The enabling and protective function of
coping resources fit well with her guiding conceptual model of
selective optimization, and compensation.
Margretís life ended early, but the rich and varied legacy of her scholarship will long continue to inspire others.
A Personal Note
How lucky we were to have Margret in our personal lives as well as our scholarly lives. How greatly we miss her. We can take heart from the scholarly legacy and cherished memories given us. On a personal note, Margret will always be with my wife Ginny and I:
- At each Carmel Bach Festival.
- At each makeshift sunset dinner with noble vintages in the Carmel highlands overlooking the spectacular Point Lobos coastline.
- At the bucolic picnics at the Rutherford Hill winery above the glorious Napa Valley vineyards.
- On the winding trails of Mount Tamalpais.
- At the Pocket Opera in Villa Montalvo.
- At the symphonic concerts of the Berlin Philharmonic.
- And at the culinary shrines at Chez Panisse, Masa's Postrio and the Auberge du Soleil.
Ginny joins me in expressing our personal sentiments through the elegant words of the poet Yeats:
"Ask when my glory most begins and ends
And say my glory was I had such friends."
Chair: Laura Carstensen; Participants: Ann
Horgas, Frieder Lang, Hans-Werner Wahl; Discussants: Albert
Bandura, Margie Lachman, John R. Nesselroade.
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