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Disengagement - Critical Assessment Of Disengagement Theory

Medicine EncyclopediaAging Healthy - Part 1Disengagement - Critical assessment of disengagement theory

Critical assessment of disengagement theory

Disengagement theory generated considerable controversy in the field of aging (see Hochschild, 1975, 1976, for a review of this debate). Activity theorists, especially the symbolic interactionists (e.g., Rose, 1964), referred to the idyllic, unreal qualities of the disengagement argument. They also brought to bear data showing that individuals resented forms of disengagement such as mandatory retirement and other age-related exclusionary policies. Furthermore, data were marshaled to show that older workers were not necessarily less efficient than younger ones.

Responding to the controversy, Cumming and Henry offered separate revisions of their theory. In her article entitled, "Further Thoughts on the Theory of Disengagement" (1963), Cumming reacted to the problem of differential adjustment or individual variations in the disengagement process by offering a psychobiological explanation for it. According to this approach, those who are temperamentally "impingers" are most likely to remain engaged, while "selectors" are most likely to disengage in later life. Aside from this amendment, the theory remains essentially the same. Henry's (1965) more extreme revision of disengagement theory practically abandons it in favor of a more expressly developmental perspective.

Arlie Hochschild (1975, 1976) also presented both a theoretical and empirical critique of Cumming and Henry's argument, addressing vaguely defined concepts and logical flaws in the approach. She summarized these as the "escape clause," "omnibus variable," and "assumption of meaning" problems. The "escape clause" refers to the fact that the theory is unfalsifiable. Hochschild presented evidence, obtained from Cumming and Henry's own data, showing that a significant proportion of elderly persons do not systematically withdraw from society. Yet, Hochschild pointed out, Cumming and Henry's descriptions of these kinds of older people as being "unsuccessful" adjusters to old age, "off time" disengagers, or members of "a biological and possibly psychological elite" (Hochschild, 1975, p. 555) provide a means for "explaining" virtually any type of continued engagement in later life, making the theory impossible to refute empirically.

The "omnibus variable" problem refers to the over-inclusiveness of the variables age and disengagement in Cumming and Henry's approach. Hochschild described age and disengagement as "'umbrella' variables that crowd together, under single titles, many distinct phenomena." For example, while an elderly person may experience disengagement from former work associates, he or she may, at the same time, be more community-involved, church-centered, or family-oriented. Hochschild argued that the use of these two variables to explain adjustment in old age ignores the diverse and complex processes involved in growing older.

The "assumption of meaning" problem refers to the theory's preference for inferring compliance from behavior. Cumming and Henry argued that elderly individuals willingly withdraw from society; yet, they did not provide data to adequately address this issue. For Hochschild, "What is missing is evidence about the meaning of the daily acts that constitute engagement or disengagement" (1976, p. 66).

The disengagement approach also has been criticized for ignoring the impact of social class on aging experiences. Laura Olson (1982) argued, for example, that the theory's "free-market conservative" view leaves unquestioned how the class structure and its social relationships prevent the majority of older people from enjoying a variety of opportunities or advantages. Disengagement theory precludes virtually any type of social conflict. Indeed, when one confronts his or her society or has some self-investment in it, he or she is considered to be maladjusted, a form of deviance from this perspective.

Cumming and Henry's social systemic theorizing painted a very deterministic picture of human behavior. Their approach ultimately depicts the individual as being fused with society, becoming what Alvin Gouldner (1970) called an "eager tool" of the system. Lacking the freedom to act "on their own," persons exist within the system only by virtue of carrying out behavior that is normatively prescribed. There is no sense, from this point of view, that persons can recognize their own interests as members of society. What they do recognize is the realization of an internal social program that moves them along. And, since it's the systematically normative movement of members that disengagement theory is concerned with, individual aging experiences disappear altogether. The details, the circumstantial contingencies, and the variety of ongoing situations, wherein persons experience their social lives, are treated as nuances on common systemic themes. Thus, we're left with little understanding of how members of a social system grow older in it, except for a very general conception of socialization.

Despite the limitations of disengagement theory, it has had a profound effect on the field of aging. Its emergence marked the first time formal theoretical concerns had gained the attention of gerontologists. This set the stage for the development of a number of alternative theoretical viewpoints, including exchange theory, sub-culture theory, the age stratification approach, modernization theory, and the political economy perspective. Disengagement theory continues to influence research that examines the place of older adults in society at large (e.g., Johnson and Barer, 1992; Tornstam, 1989; Uhlenberg, 1988).



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HOCHSCHILD, A. R. "Disengagement Theory: A Critique and Proposal." American Sociological Review 40, no. 5 (1975): 553–569.

HOCHSCHILD, A. R. "Disengagement Theory: A Logical, Empirical, and Phenomenological Critique." In Time, Roles, and Self in Old Age. Edited by J. F. Gubrium. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1976. Pages 53–87.

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TORNSTAM, L. "Gero-Transcendence: A Reformulation of the Disengagement Theory." Aging: Clinical and Experimental Research 1, no. 1 (1989): 55–63.

UHLENBERG, P. "Aging and the Societal Significance of Cohorts." In Emergent Theories of Aging. Edited by J. E. Birren and V. L. Bengtson. New York: Springer, 1988. Pages 405–425.

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