Functionalist Perspective: Disengagement Theory Research Paper Starter

Functionalist Perspective: Disengagement Theory

(Research Starters)

Structural functionalism is a theoretical framework used in sociology that attempts to explain the nature of the social order and the relationship between the various structures in society by examining the functionality of each to determine how it contributes to the stability of society as a whole. Using this perspective to theorize about the phenomenon of aging, many functionalists posit that society and the individual mutually sever many relationships during the aging process. According to Disengagement Theory, this process is good for individuals because it allows them to refocus on end-of-life considerations and preparation for death and is also good for society because it enables the smooth transition of social roles from one generation to the next. However, there are many criticisms of Disengagement Theory, and other theories need to be considered as well to fully account for and understand the social nature of the aging process.

Keywords Age Stratification; Ageism; Baby Boomer; Culture; Disengagement Theory; Functionalism; Gerontology; Postindustrial; Social Role; Society; Socioeconomic Status (SES)



Western society often has conflicting thoughts about aging. On the one hand, we are taught to respect our elders and told that wisdom comes with age. On the other hand, we have a youth-oriented culture that often emphasizes knowledge rather than wisdom and that considers anyone who does not know that latest jargon or own the latest technological gadget to be hopelessly behind the times. However, as increasing numbers of baby boomers reach retirement age and apply for Social Security and Medicare benefits, society is beginning to rethink its attitudes toward the aging process and the elderly. For example, in the 1960s a common expression among the youth was "never trust anyone over 30." Forty years later, these same people not only are over 30, but have children over 30.

As gerontologists know, there are real physiological, psychological, and sociological changes and problems associated with aging. However, in the 21st century, people are not only living longer than ever before, but are continuing to lead productive lives well past the age where once they would have been consigned to a rocking chair. For example, three women — all of whom are the same age and who qualify for the senior citizen discount at the local movie theater — represent three different attitudes toward aging. One woman quit her job (her second career) a few years ago, now spends most of her time babysitting her grandchild, and plans on moving in with her daughter and her daughter's family in the foreseeable future. In many ways, this is the classical approach to aging in which the elder relative reduces his/her social role and is taken care of by the younger members of the family. The second woman took early retirement from her job a few years ago and stays at home while her husband continues to work. After he retires, they plan on moving somewhere that is more conducive to senior living and focus on personal enrichment experiences. This represents a more modern approach to aging that focuses on age-related retirement goals and a concomitant major lifestyle change at a time partially determined by society. The third woman went back to school in her mid-forties and started a new career and business which she plans on maintaining for at least another decade or until health prohibits. This represents a more postmodern approach to aging in which one continues to live, work, and interact despite arbitrary dates on a calendar. Despite the fact that each of these individuals is taking a different approach to retirement and aging, they have one thing in common: They are each less engaged in social interactions and activities than they were when they were younger.

Further Insights

Disengagement Theory

The first two women have retired from work and careers and for the most part stay at home alone or with family. The third, even though she still works and plans to continue to do so, no longer goes into an outside office but works from home. All three women are less engaged with others and more happily involved with their own interests and pursuits than when they were younger. Structural functionalists see this tendency of many aging and elderly people who are still in good health to disengage from society by mutual agreement as an important aspect of growing older. The first woman was offered a retirement package from her job, which she accepted. As a result, her interactions and engagement with the outside world are less than when she was employed. The second woman was offered early retirement by her organization. She not only accepted but further retired from her previous level of interaction with the world by primarily staying at home. The third woman voluntarily decreased her level of engagement from society by changing to a career that did not require as much in-person social interaction as previously.

This phenomenon is explained by structural functionalists through disengagement theory. Structural functionalism is a theoretical framework used in sociology that attempts to explain the nature of social order and the relationship between the various parts (structures) of society and their contribution to the stability of the society by examining the functionality of each to determine how it contributes to the stability of society as a whole. Disengagement theory is a structural functionalist theory of aging that posits that society and the individual mutually sever many relationships during the aging process. Disengagement theory was first introduced by Cumming and Henry in 1961 to explain the impact of aging over the course of one's life. It attempts to explain the observations associated with aging on both the macro level (i.e., society and the population at large) and on the micro level (i.e., individual, family, and group). Disengagement theory attempts to account for the declines that occur with age in an individual's physical, cognitive, and psychological functioning as well as in social interactions.

The theory is based on a study of elderly people in good health and relatively comfortable economic circumstances. According to disengagement theory, as they age, people voluntarily drop out of their earlier social roles (e.g., employee, volunteer, spouse) and allow younger people within the society to take on these positions. The reason for this, according to structural functionalists, is so that older people can prepare for death. Another tenet of disengagement theory is that as people age, they pass their social roles on to the next generation. A social role is a set of expectations placed on members of a group of people with a given social position or status within society. For example, all three women used in the example above gave up positions of power and status within their career fields to pursue other interests. The positions vacated in the organizations or careers left by these women have been since filled by other, younger individuals. Further, the first woman who now spends most of her time with her young granddaughter has also relinquished the position of career woman and mother to her daughter, and now has taken on the position of grandmother that has been abdicated by her own mother. According to disengagement theory, this practice of passing on social roles helps ensure the stability of the society.

Societal Disengagement

However, it is not only the elder who withdraws from society, but also the society that withdraws from the elder, voluntarily breaking ties or otherwise disengaging. In the examples of the three women above, society voluntarily offered to withdraw from the first two women in the case of their organizations offering them retirement packages. One of the implications of disengagement theory is that society should help older individuals pass on their social roles and disengage in order to help maintain the stability of society. For example, as people continue to age, society may offer various programs designed to meet the needs of older individuals, such as active living senior communities, retirement homes, or special education or social programs designed specifically for senior citizens. According to disengagement theory, retirement packages, pensions, and old-age economic support policies (e.g., Social Security, Medicare) reward older individuals for disengaging from society.

On the one hand, such programs are intended to meet the specific needs of the older individual. On the other hand, such programs segregate older individuals and help them to disengage from mainstream society and may take away status and responsibility. Social disengagement and senior programs may result in age stratification in which the...

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