Concepts of cumulative advantage and disadvantage

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The concept of cumulative advantage/disadvantage (CAD) resonates with popular folk sayings like “success breeds success” (Huber, as quoted in Dannefer, 2003) and “the rich gets richer, the poor get poorer” (Entwisle, Alexander, & Olson, as quoted in Danneer, 2003). Thus, it refers to a set of social dynamics that operate on a population, not on individuals. Although it refers to social system processes acting on populations or other collectivities, the impact of CAD is unavoidably reflected in the lives and life chances of individuals. This is because according to Dannefer (2003), is concerned with the existence and sources of age-specific individual differences and with questions of fairness in distribution of opportunities and resources.CAD can be defined as the systemic tendency for interindividual divergence in a given characteristic (e.g., money, health, status) with the passage of time. When speaking of quantifiable or ranked characteristics such as wealth or health status, interindividual divergence is another way of saying “increasing inequality” (Dannefer, 2003). A review of the connections between CAD and other theoretical paradigms may be useful in the formulation of research questions and strategies. Furthermore, CAD linking processes with age may hold the promise of contributing fresh and distinctive insights from gerontology, back to the other substantive areas from which CAD has drawn concepts and insights.

CAD increases with time; therefore, successful senior scientists will tend to reap greater rewards and recognition. Some have also argued that cumulative advantage dynamics also vary across disciplines. This has led to a combination view that cumulative advantage dynamics involve an age-discipline interaction. However, the evidence has not been entirely positive for this auxiliary hypothesis of cumulative advantage theory.

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Diversity among members of a cohort increases over the life course. Gerontologists using the life course perspective attribute this pattern to the theory of CAD, and they most often illustrate this explanation with reference to employment experiences. Others have conceptualized the regulation of opportunity and resource flows beyond the level of the firm by analyzing features of national labor markets as predictors of career development opportunities and earnings trajectories, independent of the capabilities and the actual productivity of workers. From the perspective of CAD theory, it can readily be hypothesized that such sectoral differences in the organization of work may be related to divergence in wages and pension accumulations as workers age (Wolff, as quoted in Dannefer, 2003), and also to divergence in other work-related consequences (Carr, as quoted in Dannefer, 2003).

Moreover, as Dannefer’s (2003) study discussed recognition of the limitations of the standard practice of the diversity and inequality among older persons based on an “age-normative” logic relied heavily on measures of central tendencies began to develop. Also, if that age peers become more and more dissimilar from each other as they mature, and if this process is observed in multiple cohorts, then it is misleading to treat aging as a general normative process within a population.

The CAD perspective has a strong intellectual resonance with several other traditions of sociological theorizing that interpret differential individual outcomes as resulting in substantial part, from the operation of social processes (Dannefer, 2003). For example, schools, work, organizations, and correctional and military institutions are examples of organizations for which “people-processing” (whether as students, employees, inductees, or wards) is a central function. Organizational mechanisms of people-processing have a clear conceptual affinity with CAD theory (Dannefer, 2003). Such processes are driven by the scarcity of desirable positions – whether the limited number of slots in the most lucrative and interesting specializations in medical residency programs or the small number of occupational positions at the narrow peak of the traditional corporate hierarchy. The fundamental area of tournament mobility is that falling behind leads to serious disadvantage or disqualification for some while other age peers continue to advance – in effect, a CAD process among members of the entering cohort (Dannefer, 2003).

In Human Capital Theory, CAD was proved to be a cohort process as studied by Dannefer. Individual cohort members are studied as their lives progresses. The divergence of the work force is seen to be generally affected by education. Dannefer viewed that the “human capital” and the “fixed talent” perspectives can be used as models of CAD. The relationship of this two which provides ideas about the reason or rationale behind how the individual operates; the outcome of individuals were believe to depend upon “incentive and reward-structures” however the role of education in “shaping the identity and the internalization of cultural practices” (Antikainen et al. as quoted in Dannefer, 2003) should also be acknowledge.

   CAD had also been used by epidemiologist as a predictor of health status in a process wherein the possible trajectories of income disparity or misallocations also measures or track down the inequality in health. There have been analyses which uses CAD framework for addressing health insurances, direct health problems and some health differentials (Dannefer, 2003). Due to the use of CAD there has been an established relationship between health and inequality. According to the studies in epidemiology, the health of an individual can be affected by the overall inequality that the whole society has been experiencing. Dannefer (2003) believes that in fact this connection between health and inequality might be linked with age and that CAD provides the best framework for managing such kind of relation.

I.                   The concept of CAD

II.                CAD as time increase

III.             Diversity of CAD application

IV.             Recognition of CAD limitations

V.                Other uses of CAD

1.      CAD as human capital

2.      CAD as health and life course guage


Dannefer, D. (2003). Cumulative Advantage/Disadvantage and the Life Course: Cross-Fertilizing Age and Social Science Theory. Journal of Gerontology, 58B(6), 5327-5337.


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