Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


This exploratory, descriptive study of the social environments of two nursing homes and of the styles of participation that old residents develop has been guided by the symbolic interactionist premise that people act toward things on the basis of the meanings these things have for them. Participant observation was the primary data gathering technique, but two survey type instruments were also used. The goals of the study were to make contributions to (1) the building of grounded, substantive theory in social gerontology; (2) improving data gathering techniques appropriate for studies of old people; and (3) solving practical problems in nursing homes. The social environments of the two nursing homes were described. This included a critique of the applicability of Goffman's total institution model to this type of facility. Also described were the characteristics of the residents and of the two facilities, staff-resident relationships, social relationships among the residents, a typical day, and residents' perceptions of their social environments. The meaning of nursing home residence was revealed by the "vocabulary of motives" that residents offered to explain or justify their presence in the facility. Styles of participation are coping strategies constructed by nursing home residents as adaptations to this type of social environment. Analysis of field notes led to identification of six different styles of participation among the nursing home residents observed. These were: satisfied customers, isolates, workers, busybodies, the future-oriented, and the chameleons. One conclusion of the study was that the following variables are important in explaining how old people participate in their social environments: the meaning the social environment of the nursing home has for the resident, heterogeneity among the residents, a person's mental and physical competence, and continuity in life style. Another conclusion was that use of participant observation as a data gathering technique is necessary when subjective meanings are sought and when some respondents live in separate realities or are aphasic. Finally, some recommendations were made for improving the social environment of nursing homes. These focused primarily on increasing opportunities for friendships and community feelings among residents.