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Critical assessment of disengagement theory

The year 1961 was a watershed in the emergence of theory in the field of aging. That year saw the publication of Elaine Cumming and William Henry's book Growing Old, in which the term disengagement was introduced. This was the first time a distinct theory of aging emerged in scientific form, signaling the beginning of theoretical consciousness in social gerontology and setting the stage for the development of a range of alternative theoretical challenges.

Cumming and Henry described disengagement as "an inevitable mutual withdrawal . . . resulting in decreased interaction between the aging person and others in the social systems he belongs to." Their study was based on data generated from the Kansas City Study of Adult Life, wherein age comparisons of levels of various kinds of social involvement and ego investment, as well as attitudinal changes, provided evidence of the disengagement process. Informed by Talcott Parsons' social systemic theorizing, Cumming and Henry argued that aging could not be understood separately from the characteristics of the social system in which it is experienced. In turning to the social system for clues to the aging process, the authors explained a person's actions in terms of the ongoing operations of the system of which he or she is a part. For example, in modern societies, with the emphasis placed on standards of achievement and efficiency, the social system, in order to be a viable one, requires its work to be done effectively and expeditiously. Elderly persons, they argued, do not contribute to the system with the comparative efficiency of younger adults, and thus present a burden to it. The functional maintenance of social systems, therefore, requires some mechanism for systematically disengaging older persons from major life roles, roles critical to social system maintenance.

While people make decisions concerning their life course, the choices they make are normatively defined. By internalizing the norms and values of society (thus becoming fully socialized), the individual becomes part of the social order, carrying out the needs of the social system of which he or she is a part. The individual, in disengagement theory, in effect takes it as his or her obligation to disengage for the benefit of the social system. The extent to which one actualizes disengagement will determine how well one is adjusted or happy in old age. As Cumming and Henry state, "The factor with the greatest bearing on morale seems to be the ability to disengage" (p. 209).

The ultimate form of disengagement is death. As aging persons withdraw from more and more social roles, they come closer to a final preparation for separation from the social order. By gracefully removing oneself from society and making room for others, one is "free to die" (Cumming and Henry, p. 227), without disrupting the equilibrium of the system. Dying, therefore, is the final contribution one makes to societal functioning. Death, in time, sustains the ultimate efficiency of the social system.

Disengagement theory analyzes individual adjustment in old age by focusing on the needs and requirements of the social system. The process of disengagement is a gradual one, with continued withdrawal in later life being the hallmark of success. Cumming and Henry compared persons age eighty and over with those in their seventies; the former are described as more adjusted because of their greater degree of disengagement. Individuals, in effect, must aim toward becoming more and more "settled" in old age. To the extent this is achieved, society remains in a state of equilibrium. However, when the process fails—when persons remain engaged well into later life—it represents a dysfunctional infringement on system maintenance. These "late-life engagers" represent the problem of old age in disengagement theory. By disrupting "social necessity," they present a burden to system efficiency. As such, the system is responsible for either providing room for their quirks or forcing them to disengage along with others, who, by and large, typify disengagement. In the disengagement process, it is eventually system adjustments and readjustments that sustain the norm. In effect, the system's long-term equilibrating needs stand as its own system of adjustment.

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).



CUMMING, E. "Further Thoughts on the Theory of Disengagement." International Social Science Journal 15, no. 3 (1963): 377–393.

CUMMING, E., and HENRY, W. E. Growing Old: The Process of Disengagement. New York: Basic Books, 1961.

GOULDNER, A. W. The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. New York: Basic Books, 1970.

HENRY, W. E. "Engagement and Disengagement: Toward a Theory of Adult Development." In Contributions to the Psychobiology of Aging. Edited by R. Kastenbaum. New York: Springer, 1965. Pages 19–35.

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.

JOHNSON, C. L., and BARER, BARBARA M. "Patterns of Engagement and Disengagement among the Oldest-Old." Journal of Aging Studies 6, no. 4 (1992): 351–364.

LYNOTT, R. J., and LYNOTT, P. P. "Tracing the Course of Theoretical Development in the Sociology of Aging." The Gerontologist 36, no. 6 (1996): 749–760.

OLSON, L. K. The Political Economy of Aging: The State, Private Power, and Social Welfare. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

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PASSUTH, P. M., and BENGTSON, VERN L. "Sociological Theories of Aging: Current Perspectives and Future Directions." In Emergent Theories of Aging. Edited by J. E. Birren and V. L. Bengtson. New York: Springer, 1988. Pages 333–355.

ROSE, A. M. "A Current Theoretical Issue in Social Gerontology." The Gerontologist 4, no. 1 (1964): 46-50.

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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