This paper considers how developments in theories of gender and ethnicity might contribute to policy research on aspects of ageing and later life. It argues that existing research on these topics relies too much on chronological age as the key descriptor for 'old' people, and thus provides an inadequate knowledge base for emancipatory policy, practice and theory building. The paper examines the range of discourses commonly brought to discussion of ageing and later life, which tend often to disempower or render invisible certain groups, including older women and older people of other cultures. It also explores the ways in which older men and women resist these exercises of power over them by refusing to conform to stereotypes of behaviour or identity. This leads to potential conflicts between notions of universal rights and the need to take account of diversity and difference - a dilemma which might be resolved by developing an approach based on capabilities. The paper concludes by arguing that research on older people needs to be more eclectic in its use of social theory, drawing on developments in other branches of social science, and it calls for greater effective participation in such research by older people from all walks of life.