Disengagement Theory

An Overview and Critique

An elderly man sleeps in a cafe

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Disengagement theory outlines a process of disengagement from social life that people experience as they age and become elderly. The theory states that, over time, elderly people withdraw, or disengage from, the social roles and relationships that were central to their life in adulthood. As a functionalist theory, this framework casts the process of disengagement as necessary and beneficial to society, as it allows the social system to remain stable and ordered.

Overview of Disengagement in Sociology

Disengagement theory was created by social scientists Elaine Cumming and William Earle Henry, and presented in the book Growing Old, published in 1961. It is notable for being the first social science theory of aging, and in part, because it was controversially received, sparked further development of social science research, and theories about the elderly, their social relationships, and their roles in society.

This theory presents a social systemic discussion of the aging process and the evolution of the social lives of elderly and was inspired by functionalist theory. In fact, famed sociologist Talcott Parsons, who is regarded as a leading functionalist, wrote the foreword to the Cumming's and Henry's book.

With the theory, Cummings and Henry situate aging within the social system and offer a set of steps that outline how the process of disengagement occurs as one ages and why this is important and beneficial to the social system as a whole. They 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, conducted by researchers at the University of Chicago.

Postulates of the Theory of Disengagement

Based on this data Cummings and Henry created the following nine postulates that comprise the theory of disengagement.

  1. People lose social ties to those around them because they expect death, and their abilities to engage with others deteriorate over time.
  2. As a person begins to disengage, they are increasingly freed from social norms which guide interaction. Losing touch with norms reinforces and fuels the process of disengagement.
  3. The disengagement process for men and women differs due to their different social roles.
  4. The process of disengaging is spurred by an individual's desire to not have their reputation damaged by losing skills and abilities while they are still fully engaged in their social roles. Simultaneously younger adults are trained to develop the knowledge and skills necessary to take over the roles played by those who disengage.
  5. Complete disengagement happens when both the individual and society are ready for this to occur. A disjunction between the two will occur when one is ready but not the other.
  6. People who have disengaged adopt new social roles so as not to suffer a crisis of identity or become demoralized.
  7. A person is ready to disengage when they are aware of the short time remaining in their life and they no longer wish to fulfill their current social roles; and society allows for disengagement in order to provide jobs for those coming of age, to satisfy the social needs of a nuclear family, and because people die.
  8. Once disengaged, remaining relationships shift, rewards of them may change, and hierarchies may also shift.
  9. Disengagement occurs across all cultures but is shaped by the culture in which it occurs.

Based on these postulates, Cummings and Henry suggested that the elderly are happiest when they accept and willingly go along with the process of disengagement.

Critiques of the Theory of Disengagement

The theory of disengagement caused controversy as soon as it was published. Some critics pointed out that this was a flawed social science theory because Cummings and Henry assume that the process is natural, innate, and inevitable, as well as universal. Evoking a fundamental conflict within sociology between functionalist and other theoretical perspectives, some pointed out that the theory completely ignores the role of class in shaping the experience of aging, while others critiqued the assumption that the elderly have seemingly no agency in this process, but rather are compliant tools of the social system. Further, based on subsequent research, others asserted that the theory of disengagement fails to capture the complex and rich social lives of the elderly, and the many forms of engagement that follow retirement (see "The Social Connectedness of Older Adults: A National Profile" by Cornwall et al., published in American Sociological Review in 2008).

Noted contemporary sociologist Arlie Hochschild also published critiques of this theory. From her view, the theory is flawed because it has an "escape clause," wherein those who do not disengage are considered troubled outliers. She also critiqued Cummings and Henry for failing to provide evidence that disengagement is willingly done.

While Cummings stuck to her theoretical position, Henry subsequently disavowed it in later publications and aligned himself with alternative theories that followed, including activity theory and continuity theory.

Recommended Reading

  • Growing Old, by Cumming and Henry, 1961.
  • "Lives Through the Years: Styles of Life and Successful Aging," by Wiliams and Wirths, 1965.
  • "Disengagement Theory: A Critical Evaluation," by George L. Maddox, Jr., The Gerontologist, 1964.
  • "Disengagement Theory: A Critique and Proposal," by Arlie Hochschild, American Sociological Review 40, no. 5 (1975): 553–569.
  • "Disengagement Theory: A Logical, Empirical, and Phenomenological Critique," by Arlie Hochshchild, in Time, Roles, and Self in Old Age, 1976.
  • "Revisiting the Kansas City study of adult life: roots of the disengagement model in social gerontology," by J. Hendricks, Getontologist, 1994.

​​Updated by Nicki Lisa Cole, Ph.D.

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Crossman, Ashley. "Disengagement Theory." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/disengagement-theory-3026258. Crossman, Ashley. (2020, August 27). Disengagement Theory. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/disengagement-theory-3026258 Crossman, Ashley. "Disengagement Theory." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/disengagement-theory-3026258 (accessed June 9, 2023).