Sociology

An Overview of Cumming and Henrys Social Disengagement Theory



Michael Totten's image for:
"An Overview of Cumming and Henrys Social Disengagement Theory"
Caption: 
Location: 
Image by: 
©  

The disengagement theory of aging is a controversial psychological model which explains why withdrawal from society is natural and inevitable as a person grows older. It was developed by Elaine Cumming and William Earl Henry in the 1961 book "Growing Old."

Social withdrawal

The social disengagement theory starts with the basic idea that everyone expects death, and that everyone also expects that personal abilities will deteriorate with age. As those abilities deteriorate, an aging person starts to withdraw from personal and social contacts in society. Thus, his social circle narrows.

A smaller social circle offers fewer chances for individual interactions. Because these interactions strengthen social norms, fewer interactions means that the aging person becomes disconnected from social norms. In turn, the more an aging person is disconnected from social norms, the less he will be included in new interactions. As a result, the person steadily disengages from existing social roles and does not take up new ones.

The individual and the society

Social disengagement is driven by both the individual and the society. Because aging causes loss of knowledge and skill, an older person will eventually be unable to meet the requirements of his role in society. These changes may prompt the individual to disengage from these responsibilities. Alternately, the structure of society or an organization within that society may require the individual to disengage.

The social disengagement theory states that individuals are ready to disengage when they lose ego energy. This is usually caused by knowledge of the proximity of death. On the other hand, families and organizations let individuals disengage based on the degree to which they are needed and able to fulfil their roles. However, in many cases, a broad corporate policy, such as a mandatory retirement age, may override an organization's assessment of the individual.

Complete disengagement results when both the individual and the organization agree that disengagement is appropriate. Incomplete disengagement occurs when they disagree. This disjunction causes personal crisis. In case of this kind of disjunction, whether disengagement occurs or not usually depends on the organization rather than the individual.

According to the social disengagement theory, the way that people disengage socially as they grow older differs between men and women. This is because each gender only loses social life space if they lose or abandon their central roles.

At the time the theory was developed, men were seen as having a centrally instrumental role in American society, while women had a socio-emotional role. Thus, men's central role was the workplace, while women's was marriage and family. As a result, losing or abandoning a paying job would be a crisis to a man until he successfully socially disengaged, but it would not be a crisis to a woman.

Criticism

Ever since it was first introduced in 1961, the social disengagement theory has been strongly criticized. Most criticism of Cumming and Henry's social disengagement theory challenges the assumptions that withdrawal from society is natural, inevitable, or beneficial.

Many critics ask if social withdrawal is a voluntary choice by the aging person, and point out that similar social withdrawal can occur at any stage of life due to external confounding factors. For example, social disengagement theory does not take any account of the role of changing economic or health conditions in disengagement, let alone a debilitating mental condition such as Alzheimer's syndrome.

A few critics claim that social disengagement does not have to be irreversible. Others point out that social withdrawal as part of aging is not culturally universal. The social disengagement theory states that its postulates are independent of culture, but that culture defines the form those postulates take.

Cumming and Henry's theory of social disengagement was the first theory of aging in modern psychology. However, it fails to take many factors into account. Two other major theories of aging have since been proposed to address some of these factors: the activity theory (1961) and the continuity theory (1968).

 

More about this author: Michael Totten