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Reframing aging: Focus on Troy Duster

by Cynthia Overbeck Bix, Photos by Nancy Rubin

Troy Duster
Age 81

Current Interests: Writing, speaking, making ceramics

Career: Author; Chancellor’s Professor of Sociology and Founder, Institute for the Study of Social Change, UC Berkeley; Silver Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute for the History of the Production of Knowledge, NYU


“I don’t think people experience aging as a long, slow process. They experience it like a snap of the fingers. It’s a sudden jump—you say, what happened?” 


An intellectual force to be reckoned with, Troy is nevertheless relaxed, friendly, and easy to talk to. His far-ranging views on everything from ethics to aging are delivered with conviction and a healthy dose of humor. 


On retirement

My retirement hasn’t been the kind where it’s just—click! —you’re either floundering or off into a whole new world. I am retired, but I continue to do a lot of what I did during my teaching years. My early work—including my book The Legislation of Morality: Law, Drugs, and Moral Judgment—was all around the social, biological, and political aspects of opiate addiction. Then my focus shifted into examining the influence of social and political values on genetic research, and I served on the National Advisory Council for the Human Genome Project.That’s really been my focus for the past 20 to 25 years. 


Although I’m not teaching any more at Cal, I spend a few days a week on campus, and engage with colleagues and students. I’m not collecting data, but I’m very much engaged in the debate around genetics and the accompanying social issues.  I’m still writing articles and op-eds, and giving lectures—for example, I gave the British Journal of Sociology Annual Lecture last year. But I’ve read my last blue book, and I’m not unhappy about that!


On creative pursuits

I spend a lot of time these days making ceramics—bowls, cups, and so forth. I’ve been doing this for over 50 years. My early pieces were stoneware, but now I’m working with porcelain. I go out to the Richmond Art Center once or twice a week.


On Ashby Village

I’m a member of Ashby Village in part because close friends have said, “you have to join!” And it has turned out to be a good thing—I'm glad to be in it. 


On growing older

When you’re young, you see people our age as being in another orbit. If you’re 8, and you’re looking at an 80-year-old, you can’t imagine what it’s like to be that old. Then when you’re in your 20s or 30s, you experience people, including your parents, who are now in their 50s, and you begin to get an inkling about what happens to people. What was another planet, is now more like the moon. It’s closer—you begin to understand. By the time we’re 50 or 55, there’s a shift in how we begin to perceive our own mortality.


There are so many ways that people experience aging. Some people feel that aging is no fun, aging takes it all out of you, instead of the flip side of it—gaining wisdom, and those positive things. For myself, I’m feeling no sense of disconnection from the world.


Younger Troy

 Troy  today