The disengagement theory, one of the earliest and most controversial theories of aging, views aging as a process of gradual withdrawal between society and the older adult. This mutual withdrawal or disengagement is a natural, acceptable, and universal process that accompanies growing old. It is applicable to elders in all cultures, although there might be variations. According to this theory, disengagement benefits both the older population and the social system.
Gradual withdrawal from society and relationships preserves social equilibrium and promotes self-reflection for elders who are freed from societal roles. It furnishes an orderly means for the transfer of knowledge, capital, and power from the older generation to the young. It makes it possible for society to continue functioning after valuable older members die.
Disengagement Theory Development
Social scientists Elaine Cumming and William Henry outlined the disengagement theory of aging in their 1961 book, "Growing Old." They based their theory on data from the Kansas City Study of Adult Life, in which researchers from the University of Chicago followed several hundred adults from middle to old age. What Cumming and Henry surmised is that growing old isn't a cheerful time in which cardigan-clad grandmas bake cookies for their adoring offspring and grandchildren. In old age, we end up inevitably alone.
Cumming and Henry's disengagement theory offers a bleak portrait of old age. Consider the plight of an older woman we'll call Connie. A retired college professor and widow, Connie enjoys fairly good health, but the loss of her husband and a handful of close friends wears on her mentality. She stays active by playing bridge and volunteering at a soup kitchen. Her two adult children call regularly. Gradually, Connie's arthritis prevents her from being able to cook at the soup kitchen. Then, she falls in the shower and breaks her hip. Afterward, Connie's children arrange for a nurse to come by the house every day to help her. Now, Connie is housebound, and she loses contact with her bridge friends. As her health fails, she only has the energy to visit with family. By the time she dies, Connie's multiple social networks have been whittled down to a few individual relationships.
According to Cumming and Henry's model, the major shift in interaction between seniors and society begins once older people fully recognize the brevity of their remaining life spans. For Connie, that probably happened after she broke her hip and essentially lost her independence. Once that realization sets in, the elderly will remove themselves both consciously and subconsciously from many social networks. Simultaneously, society distances itself from the elderly, and the roles and authority reserved for the older members of a population are passed along to the younger ones.
From Cumming and Henry's sociological perspective, disengagement has theoretical benefits as well. For one thing, it gives the elderly a new role. Connie used to be a wife, mother, professor and community activist. Old age removed her capacity to fulfill those roles and facilitated disengagement. In industrialized nations, the disengagement theory also ensures a viable labor force as older people whose job skills degrade willfully remove themselves from the workplace. Finally, full disengagement then frees a person to die.
If you think this sounds like an overly harsh assessment, you aren't alone. When the disengagement theory circulated through the scholarly community, it wasn't universally embraced. Other scholars commended its thoroughness and clarity. But the claims didn't jive with their observations of elderly people who stayed engaged and active until death. Surely, some reasoned, old age isn't an unavoidable road to isolation.
Critical assessment of Disengagement Theory
Disengagement theory generated considerable controversy in the field of aging. Activity theorists, especially the symbolic interactionists, 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", 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 more extreme revision of disengagement theory practically abandons it in favor of a more expressly developmental perspective.
Arlie Hochschild 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" 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".
The disengagement approach also has been criticized for ignoring the impact of social class on aging experiences. Laura Olson 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 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.
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