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Disengagement Theory – Developed by Cumming and Henry | Theory of Aging

Disengagement Theory

In 1961, social scientists Elaine Cumming and William Earle Henry developed the disengagement theory in their book Growing Old. It stands out for being the first social science thesis on aging, and, in part, for the controversy surrounding it, which sparked the development of social science research and theories about the elderly, their social relationships, and their roles in society.According to this theory, all individuals tend to detach themselves from the larger society, which includes the social norms, their social roles, and the manners in which they behave and perform as well as other members of the society. According to Cuming and Henry, this was a natural process that everyone had to go through in the curse of their lives. In order to maintain order in society, this process was important, since the younger generations would learn the skills to replace their elders when the older ones disengaged.

People disengage from previous roles or activities when they withdraw from them. Cumming and Henry theorized in 1961 that people turn inward in middle age, which would lead to (1) a natural withdrawal from social activities, and (2) a diminished sense of interdependence with others. According to disengagement theory, withdrawal is neither natural nor inevitable since it posits universality and normality. The theory claims to explain general psychological and social processes associated with aging, but it presents a one-sided view of the elderly, given that many older people remain active and do not withdraw. In response to the disengagement theory, activity theory, which focusses on development tasks, has emerged as an alternative theory of aging. According to its main proponent, Robert J. Havighurst, elderly people must substitute new roles for those lost in the process of aging in order to maintain a positive sense of self. The concept explains the aging process more broadly.

Key Takeaways 

Key Takeaways 

a) The gradual process of a person’s relationships with others in society being severed and their quality being altered by the loss of those relationships.

b) Individuals or society may initiate withdrawal, and it may be partial or complete.

c) People who are older tend to be less involved with life than they were when they were younger.

d) The older people get, the more they become isolated from society & develop new kinds of relationships with it.

e) Older Americans may find that they are forced to withdraw by society whether or not they want to.

f) Several critics claim this theory does not account for the fact that a large number of older people do not withdraw from society.

g) In this theory, the process of getting older is attempted to be explained for the first time in a formal form.

What is String Theory?

What is String Theory?

Based on functionalist theory, this theory examines the aging process and the evolution of social lives among elderly people. Famous sociologist Talcott Parsons, who is regarded as one of the foremost functionalists, wrote the foreword to Cumming and Henry’s book.
Cummings and Henry situate aging within the social system and provide a set of steps that explain how one becomes disengaged from the social system as one ages, as well as why it is beneficial and essential to the system overall.
The researchers based their theory on data from the Kansas City Study of Adult Life, a longitudinal study that tracked several hundred adults from middle to old age.

Postulates of the Theory of Disengagement

Postulates of the Theory of Disengagement

a) Postulate one
It is inevitable that everyone will die, and one’s abilities will decline with time. Each individual will be cut off from the rest of his or her society as a result.

b) Postulate two
Individual interactions between people strengthen norms, so an individual who has fewer varieties of interactions can deviate less from the norms imposed by interaction. Thus, this form of disengagement becomes a circular or self-perpetuating process.

c) Postulate three
Women have a socio-emotional role in America, while men play a centrally instrumental role. Consequently, men and women disengage in different ways.

d) Postulate four
The ego undergoes changes throughout a person’s life. As an example, aging, which is a form of ego change, causes knowledge and skill to decline. A successful industrialized society demands certain knowledge and skills. In order to meet these needs, age-grading ensures that the young possess sufficient knowledge and skill to assume authority and the old retire before their skills deteriorate. This kind of disengagement occurs either within the individual, at the urging of ego changes, or within the organization, which is bound to organizational imperatives, or both.

e) Postulate five
The result of complete disengagement is when both the individual and society are ready. Continuing engagement occurs when either is not ready. There is usually a disjunction between the expectations of the individual and the members of this social system when the individual is ready but society isn’t. Individuals often disengage when society is ready but they aren’t.

f) Postulate six
A man’s role is to work, and a woman’s is to marry and have a family. A person who abandons their central role suffers a drastic loss of social life space and suffers crisis and demoralization unless they take on the new roles required by the disengaged state.

g) Postulate seven

Disengagement is prepared when an individual realizes the shortness of life and the scarcity of time, perceives decreasing life space, and loses ego energy. There is permission to disengage at each level of society because of the following factors: the rational-legal occupational system in affluent societies; nuclear families; and the differential death rate.

h) Postulate eight
The relationships in the remaining roles change as fewer interactions and disengagement from central roles occur. This leads to more diverse rewards, and vertical solidarity is transformed into horizontal solidarity.

i) Postulate nine
Although disengagement theory is independent of culture, the form it takes is shaped by it.

Critiques of Disengagement Theory

Critiques of the Theory of Disengagement

Disengagement theory caused controversy as soon as it was published. It has been argued that this is a flawed social science theory since Cummings and Henry assume that the process is natural, innate, inevitable, and universal. Associating sociology with a fundamental conflict between functionalist and other theoretical perspectives, some pointed out that the theory ignores the role of class in shaping aging, and others criticized the assumption that the elderly have no agency in this process, but are rather compliant tools of the social system. Other researchers have asserted, based on subsequent research, that the theory of disengagement fails to account for the complex and rich social lives of the elderly, and the many ways in which they engage after retirement.

The renowned contemporary sociologist Arlie Hochschild also published critiques of this theory. According to her, the theory is flawed because it has an “escape clause,” according to which those who do not disengage are considered troubled outliers. Additionally, she criticized Cummings and Henry for failing to provide evidence that disengagement is voluntary. Henry, in later publications, disavowed Cummings’ position and shifted to other theories that followed such as continuity theory and activity theory.

Disengagement Theory Quiz

What is the basic idea behind disengagement theory?

A) As people age, they think less and less about being married to their spouse, and more about their individuality.
B) As people age, they disengage with their friends in order to spend more time with their families.
C) As people age, they begin to lose their friends and family and spend their last days mourning their losses.
D) As people age, they generally withdraw from all forms of society.

The Correct Answer for the given question is Option D) As people age, they generally withdraw from all forms of society.

The theory that is contrary to disengagement theory is _____ theory.

A) Identity
B) Activity
C) Epigenetic
D) Feminist

The Correct Answer for the given question is Option B) Activity

Continuity theory and disengagement theory are aligned with the functionalist perspective.

A) True
B) False

The Correct Answer for the given question is Option A) True

The antithesis of disengagement theory is _____ theory.

A) Identity
B) Activity
C) Epigenetic
D) Feminist

The Correct Answer for the given question is Option B) Activity

A major criticism of disengagement theory is that

Much disengagement from social roles was involuntary, occurring, for example, through widowhood and retirement.

Which of the following is an aspect of disengagement theory?

The Correct Answer for the given question is Option 

Disengagement theory is guided by which theoretical approach?

A) the social-conflict approach
B) the structural-functional approach
C) the symbolic-interaction approach
D) the sociobiology approach

The Correct Answer for the given question is Option B) the structural-functional approach

Which of the following best summarizes how disengagement theory views the elderly?

A) As people age, they are more interested in watching TV than interacting with others.
B) As people age, they no longer want to participate fully in society.
C) As people age, they need to be removed from their traditional roles in order to free up those roles for the younger generation.
D) As people age, they are not given the same respect as the younger generation.
E) As people age, they are a bigger burden on society because they use more social programs.

The Correct Answer for the given question is Option C) As people age, they need to be removed from their traditional roles in order to free up those roles for the younger generation.

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