Cumulative (dis)advantages

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The hypothesis of accumulation of dis/advantages considers the long term process of individual heterogeneity and social inequalities and postulates that differentiation processes operating through macro-level, organizational-level and micro-level lead to an accentuation of diversity and inequalities in older age (Dannefer, 1987, 2003; see also Diprete & Eirich, 2006; Ferraro et al., 2009).

The hypothesis of accumulation of dis/advantages is built on the “Matthew effect” described by Merton (1968): the author described processes of inequalities in Sciences and scientific work in the light of the gospel according to St-Matthew “for unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance : but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that wish he hath ». In other words, Merton explained : « the Matthew effect consists in the accruing of greater increments of recognition for particular scientific contributions to scientists who have not yet made their mark » (p.3). This cumulation of disadvantages relates with the unequal cumulation of resources or reserves such as social capital. Dannefer specified Merton’s Matthew effect to aging process and the intracohort differentiation. The authors stressed the socially structured mechanisms participating to aged heterogeneity, in other words the persistent pattern of inequality and their amplification through social process of cumulation, contributing to qualify a vision purely psychological or social-psychological of aging (Dannefer, 1987). The Mathilda effect refers to the cumulation of dis/advantages between women and men throughout the life course, in relation with gender regimes. The model of cumulative dis/advantages is complementary to social stratification one, stressing how small differences early in life can result to larger ones in later life. However, while the impact of social stratification on life course has been clearly demonstrated, the processes of cumulative dis/advantages are still few documented (Cullati et al., 2014; Pallas & Jennings, 2009). In contrast with cumulative processes, authors stress also the interest to study “When Does Disadvantage Not Accumulate? » or the issue of resilience through life course and the place of agency within structure (Schafer et al., 2009).

Author: Marie Baeriswyl


Cullati, S., Rousseaux, E., Gabadinho, A., Courvoisier, D., & Burton-Jeangros, C. (2014). Factors of change and cumulative factors in self-rated health trajectories: A systematic review. Advances in Life Course Research, 19, 14–27.
Dannefer, D. (1987). Aging as intracohort differentiation: Accentuation, the Matthew effect, and the life course. Sociological Forum, 2(2), 211–236.
Dannefer, D. (2003). Cumulative advantage/disadvantage and the life course: Cross-fertilizing age and social science theory. The Journals of Gerontology Series B: Psychological Sciences and Social Sciences, 58(6), 327–337.
Diprete, T. A., & Eirich, G. M. (2006). Cumulative advantage as a mechanism for inequality: A review of theoretical and empirical developments.
Ferraro, K. F., Shippee, T. P., & Schafer, M. H. (2009). Cumulative inequality theory for research on aging and the life course. In Handbook of theories of aging, 2nd ed (pp. 413–433). Springer Publishing Company.
Merton, R. K. (1968). The Matthew Effect in Science: The reward and communication systems of science are considered. Science, 159(3810), 56–63.
Pallas, A. M., & Jennings, J. L. (2009). Cumulative knowledge about cumulative advantage. Swiss Journal of Sociology, 35(2), 211–229.
Schafer, M. H., Shippee, T. P., & Ferraro, K. F. (2009). When does disadvantage not accumulate? Toward a sociological conceptualization of resilience. Schweizerische Zeitschrift Fur Soziologie. Revue Suisse de Sociologie, 35(2), 231–251.

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