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The year 1961 was a watershed in the emergence of theory in the field of aging. That year saw the publication of Elaine Cumming and William Henry's book Growing Old, in which the term disengagement was introduced. This was the first time a distinct theory of aging emerged in scientific form, signaling the beginning of theoretical consciousness in social gerontology and setting the stage for the development of a range of alternative theoretical challenges.

Cumming and Henry described disengagement as "an inevitable mutual withdrawal . . . resulting in decreased interaction between the aging person and others in the social systems he belongs to." Their study was based on data generated from the Kansas City Study of Adult Life, wherein age comparisons of levels of various kinds of social involvement and ego investment, as well as attitudinal changes, provided evidence of the disengagement process. Informed by Talcott Parsons' social systemic theorizing, Cumming and Henry argued that aging could not be understood separately from the characteristics of the social system in which it is experienced. In turning to the social system for clues to the aging process, the authors explained a person's actions in terms of the ongoing operations of the system of which he or she is a part. For example, in modern societies, with the emphasis placed on standards of achievement and efficiency, the social system, in order to be a viable one, requires its work to be done effectively and expeditiously. Elderly persons, they argued, do not contribute to the system with the comparative efficiency of younger adults, and thus present a burden to it. The functional maintenance of social systems, therefore, requires some mechanism for systematically disengaging older persons from major life roles, roles critical to social system maintenance.

While people make decisions concerning their life course, the choices they make are normatively defined. By internalizing the norms and values of society (thus becoming fully socialized), the individual becomes part of the social order, carrying out the needs of the social system of which he or she is a part. The individual, in disengagement theory, in effect takes it as his or her obligation to disengage for the benefit of the social system. The extent to which one actualizes disengagement will determine how well one is adjusted or happy in old age. As Cumming and Henry state, "The factor with the greatest bearing on morale seems to be the ability to disengage" (p. 209).

The ultimate form of disengagement is death. As aging persons withdraw from more and more social roles, they come closer to a final preparation for separation from the social order. By gracefully removing oneself from society and making room for others, one is "free to die" (Cumming and Henry, p. 227), without disrupting the equilibrium of the system. Dying, therefore, is the final contribution one makes to societal functioning. Death, in time, sustains the ultimate efficiency of the social system.

Disengagement theory analyzes individual adjustment in old age by focusing on the needs and requirements of the social system. The process of disengagement is a gradual one, with continued withdrawal in later life being the hallmark of success. Cumming and Henry compared persons age eighty and over with those in their seventies; the former are described as more adjusted because of their greater degree of disengagement. Individuals, in effect, must aim toward becoming more and more "settled" in old age. To the extent this is achieved, society remains in a state of equilibrium. However, when the process failswhen persons remain engaged well into later lifeit represents a dysfunctional infringement on system maintenance. These "late-life engagers" represent the problem of old age in disengagement theory. By disrupting "social necessity," they present a burden to system efficiency. As such, the system is responsible for either providing room for their quirks or forcing them to disengage along with others, who, by and large, typify disengagement. In the disengagement process, it is eventually system adjustments and readjustments that sustain the norm. In effect, the system's long-term equilibrating needs stand as its own system of adjustment.

Critical assessment of disengagement theory

Disengagement theory generated considerable controversy in the field of aging (see Hochschild, 1975, 1976, for a review of this debate). Activity theorists, especially the symbolic interactionists (e.g., Rose, 1964), 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" (1963), 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 (1965) more extreme revision of disengagement theory practically abandons it in favor of a more expressly developmental perspective.

Arlie Hochschild (1975, 1976) 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" (Hochschild, 1975, p. 555) 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" (1976, p. 66).

The disengagement approach also has been criticized for ignoring the impact of social class on aging experiences. Laura Olson (1982) 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 (1970) 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 (e.g., Johnson and Barer, 1992; Tornstam, 1989; Uhlenberg, 1988).

Patricia Passuth Lynott Robert J. Lynott

See also Life Course; Productive Aging; Theories, Social.


Cumming, E. "Further Thoughts on the Theory of Disengagement." International Social Science Journal 15, no. 3 (1963): 377393.

Cumming, E., and Henry, W. E. Growing Old: The Process of Disengagement. New York: Basic Books, 1961.

Gouldner, A. W. The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology. New York: Basic Books, 1970.

Henry, W. E. "Engagement and Disengagement: Toward a Theory of Adult Development." In Contributions to the Psychobiology of Aging. Edited by R. Kastenbaum. New York: Springer, 1965. Pages 1935.

Hochschild, A. R. "Disengagement Theory: A Critique and Proposal." American Sociological Review 40, no. 5 (1975): 553569.

Hochschild, A. R. "Disengagement Theory: A Logical, Empirical, and Phenomenological Critique." In Time, Roles, and Self in Old Age. Edited by J. F. Gubrium. New York: Human Sciences Press, 1976. Pages 5387.

Johnson, C. L., and Barer, Barbara M. "Patterns of Engagement and Disengagement among the Oldest-Old." Journal of Aging Studies 6, no. 4 (1992): 351364.

Lynott, R. J., and Lynott, P. P. "Tracing the Course of Theoretical Development in the Sociology of Aging." The Gerontologist 36, no. 6 (1996): 749760.

Olson, L. K. The Political Economy of Aging: The State, Private Power, and Social Welfare. New York: Columbia University Press, 1982.

Parsons, T. The Social System. New York: Free Press, 1951.

Passuth, P. M., and Bengtson, Vern L. "Sociological Theories of Aging: Current Perspectives and Future Directions." In Emergent Theories of Aging. Edited by J. E. Birren and V. L. Bengtson. New York: Springer, 1988. Pages 333355.

Rose, A. M. "A Current Theoretical Issue in Social Gerontology." The Gerontologist 4, no. 1 (1964): 46-50.

Tornstam, L. "Gero-Transcendence: A Reformulation of the Disengagement Theory." Aging: Clinical and Experimental Research 1, no. 1 (1989): 5563.

Uhlenberg, P. "Aging and the Societal Significance of Cohorts." In Emergent Theories of Aging. Edited by J. E. Birren and V. L. Bengtson. New York: Springer, 1988. Pages 405425.

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Disengagement became part of the vocabulary of international politics after World War 11. It was offered as an alternative policy prescription to the perilous face-to-face confrontation, especially in central Europe, of opposing political systems and armed forces equipped with nuclear weapons capable of total destruction. The essence of disengagement is the separation of the contending forces and the creation, in the intervening territory, of a non-aligned state (or states) with political, social, and economic systems equally acceptable (or unacceptable) to both adjacent powers, including a level of military forces that by itself does not constitute a significant threat to either side.

A second, but less common, definition of disengagement pertains to areas where a variety of powers contend for dominant influence and where, as in the Middle East during the post-1945 epoch, there is great political instability but not a direct military confrontation of major powers. Here disengagement describes a national policy characterized by aloofness and watchful nonintervention, rather than the withdrawal of two forces pitted face to face.

This article will deal with disengagement primarily in its first, more usual, sense.

The term distinguished. Disengagement policies must be distinguished from three antecedent practices of interstate relations in the period between the World Wars: the policy of cordon sanitaire; the creation of buffer states; and the existence of corridors.

A cordon sanitaire is a territory separating two powers who if they combined in a single land mass might constitute a threat to other nations. Thus the principal victor powers in World War i sought to keep Germany and Russia apart by creating between them a belt of nations consisting of the Baltic states, Poland, and Czechoslovakia, whose sovereignty was to be guaranteed by the major Western powers.

Buffer states are weak states existing by leave of their preponderant neighbor, whose military, political, and economic interests they serve. An example is Belgium, which owed its independent existence, from 1831 to World War ii, to its chief neighboring powers, Great Britain and France, who used it to establish a balance of power favorable to them.

A corridor is a strip of territory giving a state access to a remote component part across the sovereign territory of a neighboring state. Pomerania constituted the link between East Prussia and the rest of Germany until 1919. The Versailles Treaty gave Pomerania to Poland, in order to allow it access to the Baltic Sea, thereby separating East Prussia from the rest of Germany and creating the so-called corridor across Poland, which became a major source of tension between the two countries.

Disengagement policies seek to separate two mutually antagonistic powers, unlike the cordon sanitaire, which was employed to keep potential allies apart. The states from which foreign troops are withdrawn—or disengaged—would not favor the policy interests of any one neighbor; buffer states, on the other hand, exist by sufferance of neighbors whose interests they serve. Disengagement policies aim to eliminate the impediments to direct contact between people of a given nationality instead of perpetuating the uncertainties of access that result from the establishment of corridors.

These distinctions can be further clarified by citing the circumstances of central European politics following World War ii. While no effort to create a cordon sanitaire has been made in Europe since 1945, East and West Germany have been kept divided because of the fear that a reunified Germany might constitute a new international danger. Most disengagement policies aim at the reunification of Germany to eliminate the tensions resulting from continued partition. The nations of the Warsaw Pact, stretching along the western and southwestern frontiers of the Soviet Union from Finland to Bulgaria, are in effect buffer states serving Russia’s security interests. A principal aim of Western disengagement proposals is withdrawal of the U.S.S.R.’s forces and the reduction of its influence in eastern Europe, so as to reinstate a balance of power in that area. A corridor in fact exists linking West Germany with Berlin across the territory of the East German state. Disengagement proposals aim at the elimination of the barriers to free air, road, rail, and canal connections with Berlin. Thus the concept of disengagement is not only distinguishable from the practices of cordon sanitaire, buffer state, and corridor, but disengagement proposals aim at eliminating vestiges of these historically antecedent practices to be found in Europe today as part of the cold war status quo.

Plans for disengagement. Since 1945 the concept of disengagement has been implicit in a variety of plans evolved to meet the situation in central Europe, where the two supernuclear powers, the Soviet Union and the United States, who feared only each other, failed to agree on the future of Germany as a whole and refused to withdraw their military forces, which enforced their political interests in East and West Germany.

Through 1964 more than a hundred different plans for the disengagement of East and West military forces in central Europe had been put forward by national governments, individual statesmen, prominent ex-leaders, and private individuals and groups. (For a listing, see Hinterhoff 1959, pp. 414–442.) A distinguishing feature of these plans is that all concern the future of Germany. Solutions for the divided state of Germany range from U.S. Secretary of State James F. Byrnes’s 1946 proposal for a 25-year four-power treaty guarantee against further aggression from a united, disarmed Germany to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev’s 1959 plan for withdrawal of foreign troops from all of Europe, creation of an atom-free zone in central Europe, and retention of the status quo of a divided Germany. Over the years, the concept of disengagement evolved from taking measures to deal with renewed threats of German aggression to creating broad neutral zones in Europe. These zones would require dismantling of nonindigenous military installations and either retaining the political status quo or providing for the reunification of Germany under changed circumstances. This evolution of plans, none of which received support from both East and West, was marked by specific proposals of the Polish foreign minister, Adam Rapacki; the leader of the British Labour party, Hugh Gaitskell; and the chairman of the U.S. State Department’s Policy Planning Staff, George F. Kennan, Each of these statesmen proposed major changes in the stance and policies of the major powers in Europe; the essential common denominator of the three proposals was the disengagement of American and Russian forces.

The first version of the Rapacki plan, in October 1957, provided for an atom-free zone covering Poland, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, and West Germany, with a four-power guarantee but no withdrawal of foreign forces or changes in the alliances of the powers. The second version, in November 1958, and a later revision added provisions for reducing and eventually withdrawing foreign forces from the zone, with appropriate control measures. The Gaitskell plan was publicized in lectures at Harvard University in January 1957 and differed from the Rapacki plans in that it provided for the reunification of East and West Germany in the context of a restricted armaments zone from which foreign troops were to be gradually withdrawn, the zone to include, in addition to Germany, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and possibly Rumania. This arrangement was to be guaranteed by a European security pact, which both the Soviet Union and the United States would sign. The Rapacki plans, which appeared to have support from the Soviet government, were rejected by the major NATO powers. The Gaitskell plan was unacceptable to the Soviet bloc and was also rejected by the West German government of Konrad Adenauer.

Ambassador Kennan’s disengagement policy proposals were in some ways the best thought out, and their elaboration in the Reith lectures over the BBC in the autumn of 1957 (later published as Russia, the Atom and the West, 1958) provoked widespread public discussion and controversy involving high political leaders of the major powers. Kennan had gained an international reputation for framing and defining the West’s policy of containment (1947). For Kennan, disengagement was a logical successor policy to containment, which by the mid-1950s had pitted effectively equal powers hard against one another, creating an inflexible situation in which either an incident or a misinterpretation of intentions could unleash world-wide nuclear destruction. He held that this danger could only be reduced through the separation of military forces and the reuniting of Europe through a negotiated settlement of the German problem. Specifically, Kennan proposed reunifying Germany and joining it with Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary in a zone from which NATO and Soviet troops would be withdrawn. The balance of power in the zone would be maintained by national armed forces and militia. Germany’s freedom to associate with NATO or the East would be restricted, while Germany and the other states constituting the zone would receive guarantees from NATO and the Warsaw Pact powers who would join in a European security pact.

Criticisms of disengagement. In the heated debate stirred up by Kennan’s proposals, the entire concept of disengagement was sharply criticized. Some critics took issue with the concept because it was diametrically opposed to the idea of forcing a unilateral withdrawal of the Russian army and liberating eastern Europe from communist domination. Other critics, including some of Kennan’s former colleagues, such as Dean Acheson (1958), opposed and ridiculed disengagement on a variety of other grounds. Foremost among these was the charge that the idea of disengagement rested on a fundamental misunderstanding of national and international power. According to this view, a classic imperialist power such as the U.S.S.R. could not realistically be expected to keep from disrupting the precarious balance in a relatively weak territory from which forces of the major powers had been withdrawn. A parallel criticism was that a disengagement in Europe would be inherently unequal. Soviet Russia’s forces would withdraw several hundred miles, whereas U.S. forces woul be pulled back thousands of miles across the Atlantic. Another major criticism was that disengagement could not achieve any positive result because the essential danger is in the confrontation of missiles poised thousands of miles apart. Indeed, some argued that disengagement would create a vacuum in central Europe and increase the danger that the missiles would be used because they would be the only resort in the event of an incident (Acheson 1958).

These criticisms were eloquently refuted by Kennan in an article, “Disengagement Revisited” (1959), in which he accused opponents of disengagement of seeking the ideal military posture, which “is simply the enemy of every political détente or compromise.” This article and other writings by proponents of disengagement focused on the problems of Germany’s partition which, they argued, could not continue indefinitely. Unless reunification were achieved through East-West negotiations resulting in disengagement, direct West German dealings with Moscow would become a constant threat that could disrupt NATO, while eastern Europe remained under communist domination.

The future of disengagement. Research and writing on disengagement falls into the general field of international political research, chiefly pertaining to Europe. Theoretically the concept could be applied to situations in other parts of the world; for example, to the confrontation between Arab and Israeli forces. The term has in fact been applied to United States policy of the 1960s in the Middle East, adopting the second and less common definition of disengagement, described above, as a policy of watchful nonintervention (Nolte 1964). But it is understandable that the focus of disengagement proposals and research has been on the critical European situation, where the principal nuclear powers confront one another. Recent scholarly efforts to deal with this situation fall into two categories: (1) proposals, plans, and formulas for the achievement of disengagement; and (2) discussions of its feasibility in the context of evolving East and West strategies and goals. Apart from Hinterhoff’s book, only Michael Howard’s Disengagement in Europe (1958) concerns itself exclusively and explicitly with evaluating the prospects of these policy prescriptions. In Howard’s opinion, the adoption of any disengagement proposal is unlikely as long as German reunification on terms acceptable to a West German government is to be a primary result. This result remains inimical to the stated aims of the Soviet government. In addition, West Germany’s territory and its armed forces play a central role in NATO’s defense against possible aggression; a scheme in which West Germany is excluded from NATO is, therefore, likely to require too great a sacrifice in terms of present Western strategy. Beyond these considerations, it needs to be noted that most proposals for disengagement are characteristically all-inclusive formulas providing for instant resolution of a complex of problems. Although the problems of Berlin, Germany, eastern Europe, nuclear strategy, and disarmament may be inextricably interrelated, any sharp or wholesale change in this delicate structure poses even greater dangers than its continuance; formulas for radical change are, therefore, likely to remain unacceptable to both sides. Possibly the only practical disengagement proposals that can be implemented are those of George Kennan and the few others who do not prescribe formulas for salvation but rather encourage the adoption of new attitudes and aims. The West will have to recognize the existence of Soviet Russia’s influence in central Europe for the foreseeable future, while Russia will have to realize that hegemony in Europe can be achieved only at a catastrophic price. These new attitudes may then lead to compromises by both sides and to the gradual unraveling of the network of conflicts.

Gerald Freund

[See alsoContainment; International Politics.]


Acheson, Dean 1958 The Illusion of Disengagement. Foreign Affairs 36:371–382.

Gaitskell, Hugh 1957 The Challenge of Coexistence. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univ. Press.

Hinterhoff, Eugene 1959 Disengagement. With a fore-word by John Slessor. London: Stevens.

Howard, Michael 1958 Disengagement in Europe. Harmondsworth, Middlesex (England) and Baltimore: Penguin.

Kennan, George F. 1947 The Sources of Soviet Conduct. Foreign Affairs 25:566–582. → This article was written under the pseudonym X.

Kennan, George F. 1958 Russia, the Atom and the West. New York: Harper.

Kennan, George F. 1959 Disengagement Revisited. Foreign Affairs 37:187–210.

Nolte, Richard H. 1964 United States Policy and the Middle East. Pages 148–182 in American Assembly, The United States and the Middle East. Edited by Georgiana G. Stevens. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall.

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dis·en·gage·ment / ˌdisenˈgājmənt/ • n. 1. the action or process of withdrawing from involvement in a particular activity, situation, or group: their steady disengagement from politics and politicians. ∎  the withdrawal of military forces or the renunciation of military or political influence in a particular area. ∎  the process of separating or releasing something or of becoming separated or released: the mechanism prevents accidental disengagement. ∎ archaic the breaking off of an engagement to be married. 2. emotional detachment; objectivity: contemporary criticism can afford neutral disengagement.