Wisdom among Older People: Exploring Social Consequences of Virtue
School of Political Science and Sociology National University of Ireland, Galway Galway, Ireland
Building on the author´s ethnographic work tracing cases of wise behaviour among older people in a range of European settings, this paper begins to apply some questions from "positive psychology" to the social-scientific study of ageing. Wisdom has traditionally been regarded as a virtue, but it is a virtue with a difference. Both in historical accounts and among contemporary psychologists, its exercise has been held to depend in part on the operation of other virtues, such as humility, tolerance, respect for others or orientation to the common good. This paper argues that more extensive understanding of the social operation of virtue is now required in the social sciences. Virtues are increasingly discussed in philosophy (and connected with social traditions by MacIntyre among others), politics (where their contributions to social capital are interrogated by commentators such as Putnam, Uslaner or Dekker), and positive psychology, notably in the work of Seligman. But empirical work in this connection tends to depend on techniques such as self-rating questionnaires or responses to pre-designed vignettes composed by investigators. If we examine wise behaviour and its component virtues in situ in everyday social settings among older people, what social phenomena can we trace? Martin (2007) warns against pitfalls for psychologists in this connection: "canonical cravings", the "slide to subjectivism", and various "additive problems". Can these pitfalls be avoided by social scientists in attempts to identify social causes and consequences of virtues involved in the exercise of wisdom among older people?