Sociology

Cumming and Henry Social Disengagement Theory Growing old



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Social Disengagement Theory was formulated in the early 1960’s by social scientists Elaine Cumming and William Henry.  They published their influential work, “Growing Old,” in 1961.  “Growing Old” was based on a study conducted by researchers from the University of Chicago, using data compiled by the Kansas City Study of Adult Life.  The study followed several hundred men and women through the aging process.  Essentially, they determined that growing old was a bleak endeavor, in which adults removed themselves from the society and the ones that they love, before they eventually die. 

As babies, humans seek the care of others to survive.  People gain independence throughout adolescence and adulthood.  In later adulthood, however, humans regress back into a state of dependence. We first lose our physical dependence.  Then, we begin to lose our sense of socialization and withdraw from the world around us.  It is this stage of life in which Cumming and Henry were most intrigued.  They devised that growing old, and realizing what little time they may have remaining in this life, causes adults to break their ties with various social networks and entertain only a few of the relationships most crucial to their survival.  The diminished ability to be a part of society is the focus of “Social Disengagement Theory.”  In the end, the full process of disengagement allows an elderly person to accept death.

Cumming and Henry outlined nine postulates of their Social Disengagement theory.  The first basic hypothesis is that everyone expects to die.  That is a very obvious statement.  As human beings grow old, they become unable to do some of the things that they were once able to do.  This, together with the expectation of death, causes us to break ties with our social networks. 

The second postulate has a circular effect.  A greater number of interactions helps to strengthen social norms.  However, an individual with fewer interactions (as through disengagement) really has no need to abide by the rules of social etiquette.  Cumming and Henry also said that the roles of men and women in society differ.  Therefore, the process of disengagement will differ according to gender. 

A significant postulate of the social disengagement theory relates to retirement.  Young adults possess the knowledge and skills required to be successful.  As people age these skills diminish, which is why they retire from the workforce.

For complete disengagement to occur, both the individual and society must be ready.  If neither is ready, the individual will continue to engage with his or her social networks.  If one is ready and the other is not, the preference of society usually wins over the individual.  For example, if Tom is ready to break ties with some of his social networks, but those networks wish to continue their interactions with Tom, the process of disengagement will not proceed.

Now, it is important to remember that “Growing Old” was published in 1961.  Cumming and Henry established their theory of social disengagement in an era where men went to work and women stayed home with the family.  They postulated that, if an individual were to abandon this role in society, it would tragically alter their social state.  In order for the process of disengagement to continue, they would have to revert back to their predicated gender roles.

The seventh postulate determines a person’s readiness to engage from social networks.  An individual is ready if they perceive that their time on earth is short and their skill set and knowledge of what to do to be successful has diminished. Society is ready to allow a person to disengage because of the necessities of the workforce to bring in new abilities, the growth of families, and the death rate.    

Cumming and Henry theorized that as human beings engage less, their engagements with their remaining social networks will change. Finally, disengagement theory will occur in every society on this planet, but the form that is takes may differ according to the norms of different subcultures. In the end, social disengagement is really a process that prepares us to accept our inevitable death.  

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ARTICLE SOURCES AND CITATIONS
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://health.howstuffworks.com/wellness/aging/elder-care/disengagement-theory1.htm
  • InfoBoxCallToAction ActionArrowhttp://www.usc.edu/dept/gero/AgeWorks/core_courses/gero500_core/psychology_lect/index_a.htm