Modernisation and ageing theory has provided the main platform for the debate on changes in family support for older people in both the industrialised and the developing worlds. Although its well-known proposition of an ‘abandonment’ of older people in individualistic society has received much attention and been solidly refuted, the modernisation model continues to be the principal and most common framework for explaining the decline in familial material support for older people – both historically in the West, or at present in developing countries. The main rival explanation is provided by materialist accounts. The ability of these explanations to provide a meaningful understanding of why material family support may diminish has however received little if any analytical attention, despite its vital policy relevance, especially for the developing world. This paper critically examines the content and basis of both explanatory models. For each it exposes fundamental conceptual and epistemological limitations that render neither able to provide a solid understanding of the nature and causes of decline in support. Building on this analysis, the paper proposes a new approach in order to develop a fuller conceptual and empirical understanding.