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Life Course Theory

Life Course Theory

Life course theory, more commonly termed the life course perspective, refers to a multidisciplinary paradigm for the study of people's lives, structural contexts, and social change. This approach encompasses ideas and observations from an array of disciplines, notably history, sociology, demography, developmental psychology, biology, and economics. In particular, it directs attention to the powerful connection between individual lives and the historical and socioeconomic context in which these lives unfold. As a concept, a life course is defined as "a sequence of socially defined events and roles that the individual enacts over time" (Giele and Elder 1998, p. 22). These events and roles do not necessarily proceed in a given sequence, but rather constitute the sum total of the person's actual experience. Thus the concept of life course implies age-differentiated social phenomena distinct from uniform life-cycle stages and the life span. Life span refers to duration of life and characteristics that are closely related to age but that vary little across time and place.

In contrast, the life course perspective elaborates the importance of time, context, process, and meaning on human development and family life (Bengtson and Allen 1993). The family is perceived as a micro social group within a macro social context—a "collection of individuals with shared history who interact within ever-changing social contexts across ever increasing time and space" (Bengston and Allen 1993, p. 470). Aging and developmental change, therefore, are continuous processes that are experienced throughout life. As such, the life course reflects the intersection of social and historical factors with personal biography and development within which the study of family life and social change can ensue (Elder 1985; Hareven 1996).

Historical Development

Many researchers identify the life course perspective as a "new" paradigm in the behavioral sciences because it was not formally advanced until the 1990s. During this decade, rapid social change and population aging drew attention to historical influences and to the complexity of processes underlying family change and continuity. Advances in statistical techniques also prompted the continued growth of life course studies, including the creation of new methodologies to analyze longitudinal data.

Early applications of life course theorizing can be traced to the beginning decades of the twentieth century (Bengston and Allen 1993). Until the mid-1960s, however, no distinct field of life course studies, with a focus on the variability of age patterns, developmental effects, and the implications of historical change, gained prominence. At this time, researchers from diverse social science disciplines (e.g., Clausen 1991; Riley 1987; Hagestad and Neugarten 1985) examined various aspects of these themes, including the joint significance of age, period, and cohort in explaining the relationship between individual and social change. "Social timetables" and their variability were also used to study development, aging, and cohorts. For example, Bernice Neugarten pioneered a research program that considered individual deviations from widely shared age-expectations about the timing of major transitional events (for example, when to marry or to have children). Research conducted in the 1970s and 1980s continued to incorporate these themes, as well as to focus attention on historical changes in life patterns, the consequences of life course experiences (such as the Great Depression) on subjective well-being, the interlocking transitions of family members, and integrating kin and age distinctions, among others (Burton and Bengtson 1985; Clausen 1991; Elder 1974; Rossi and Rossi 1990). By the end of the twentieth century, the life course approach was commonly considered an "emerging paradigm" (Rodgers and White 1993) with both a distinctive theory and methods. Glen Elder, in particular, began to advance core principles of life course theory, which he describes as defining "a common field of inquiry by providing a framework that guides research on matters of problem identification and conceptual development" (1998, p. 4). This perspective has also been (and continues to be) synthesized with other theories or fields of study, such as family development (e.g., Bengston and Allen), human development (e.g., Elder), status attainment (e.g., Featherman; Blau; and Duncan), family history (e.g., Hareven), life span (e.g., Baltes), stress theory (e.g., Pearlin and Skaff), demography (e.g., Uhlenberg), gerontology (e.g., Neugarten), and Bronfenbrenner's ecological perspective (Moen et al. 1995).

Key Principles and Concepts

Several fundamental principles characterize the life course approach. They include: (1) socio-historical and geographical location; (2) timing of lives; (3) heterogeneity or variability; (4) "linked lives" and social ties to others; (5) human agency and personal control; and (6) how the past shapes the future. Each of these tenets will be described and key concepts will be highlighted. This will be followed by an overview of selected examples of empirical applications from an international and cross-cultural perspective.

Sociohistorical and geographical location. An individual's own developmental path is embedded in and transformed by conditions and events occurring during the historical period and geographical location in which the person lives. For example, geopolitical events (e.g., war), economic cycles (e.g., recessions), and social and cultural ideologies (e.g., patriarchy) can shape people's perceptions and choices and alter the course of human development. Thus, behavior and decisions do not occur in a vacuum, because people and families interact within sociohistorical time. Indeed, an understanding of the location of various cohorts in their respective historical contexts aids scholars and policy makers to identity circumstances that have differentially affected people's respective life histories.

Timing of lives. Three types of time are central to a life course perspective: individual time, generational time, and historical time (Price, McKenry, and Murphy 2000). Individual or ontogenetic time refers to chronological age. It is assumed that periods of life, such as childhood, adolescence, and old age, influence positions, roles, and rights in society, and that these may be based on culturally shared age definitions (Hagestad and Neugarten 1985). Generational time refers to the age groups or cohorts in which people are grouped, based upon their age. People born between 1946 and 1964, for example, are often referred to as the baby boom generation. Finally, historical time refers to societal or large-scale changes or events and how these affect individuals and families, such as political and economic changes, war and technological innovations (e.g., information access through the Internet).

Furthermore, Elder (1985) observes that time can also be envisioned as a sequence of transitions that are enacted over time. A transition is a discrete life change or event within a trajectory (e.g., from a single to married state), whereas a trajectory is a sequence of linked states within a conceptually defined range of behavior or experience (e.g., education and occupational career). Transitions are often accompanied by socially shared ceremonies and rituals, such as a graduation or wedding ceremony, whereas a trajectory is a long-term pathway, with age-graded patterns of development in major social institutions such as education or family. In this way, the life course perspective emphasizes the ways in which transitions, pathways, and trajectories are socially organized. Moreover, transitions typically result in a change in status, social identity, and role involvement. Trajectories, however, are long-term patterns of stability and change and can include multiple transitions.

Progress along trajectories is age-graded such that some transitions can be viewed as more age appropriate while others violate normative social timetables by occurring too early or too late (Hagestad and Neugarten 1985). An off-age transition might be leaving home at a very young age (e.g., age fifteen) or becoming a teenage parent. There is also the possibility of transition reversals or countertransitions. An example of a transition reversal is when a young adult returns after leaving home, while countertransitions can be produced by the life changes of other roles and statuses (e.g., parenthood creates grandparenthood). The timing of transitions also can decrease the chance of success in a particular trajectory, such as the likelihood of completing school.

Heterogeneity or variability. Heterogeneity or diversity in structures or processes is another life course principle. One must consider not only modal or average developmental and transitional trends, but also variability. Matilda Riley's (1987) research supported a model of age stratification—the different experiences of different cohorts—and so helped to overcome the fallacy of cohort centrism, the notion that cohorts share perspectives simply because they share a common age group. Indeed, generations or cohorts are not homogeneous collections of people. Rather, they differ in terms of influential dimensions such as gender, social class, family structure, ethnicity, and religion. Moreover, the ability to adapt to life course change can vary with the resources or supports inherent in these elements in the form of economic or cultural capital (e.g., wealth, education) or social capital (e.g., family social support). For example, Barbara A. Mitchell's (2000) research demonstrates that young adults with weak family ties may not have the option to return home during difficult economic times. Finally, there is also the recognition of increasing diversity associated with aging. The longer one lives, the greater the exposure to factors that affect the aging process.

Linked lives and social ties. A fourth tenet emphasizes that lives are interdependent and reciprocally connected on several levels. Societal and individual experiences are linked thorough the family and its network of shared relationships (Elder 1998). As a result, macro-level events, such as war, could affect individual behaviors (e.g., enrolling in military service), and this can significantly affect other familial relationships. Stressful events, such as the death of a family member, can also affect family relationships because these occurrences can trigger patterns of stress and vulnerability or, conversely, promote adaptive behaviors and family resilience. Moreover, personality attributes of individual family members can also affect family coping styles, functioning, and well-being.

In addition, family members can also synchronize or coordinate their lives with regard to life planning and matters related to the timing of life events. This can sometimes generate tensions and conflicts, particularly when individual goals differ from the needs of the family as a collective unit. Tamara Hareven (1996), for example, notes that historically, the timing of adult children's individual transitions (e.g., when to marry) could generate problems if it interfered with the demands and needs of aging parents.

Human agency and personal control. According to the life course perspective, individuals are active agents who not only mediate the effect of social structure but also make decisions and set goals that shape social structure. Individuals are assumed to have the capacity to engage in planful competence, which refers to the thoughtful, proactive, and self-controlled processes that underlie one's choices about institutional involvements and social relationships (Clausen 1991). However, it should be recognized that the ability to make specific choices depends on opportunities and constraints. Parallel to this idea is the concept of control cycles whereby families and individuals modify their expectations and behavior in response to changes in either needs or resources. Elder (1974) found that families in the Great Depression regained a measure of control over their economic hardship through expenditure reductions and multiple family earners. In this way, families and individuals can construct, negotiate, and traverse life course events and experiences.

How the past shapes the future. Finally, another hallmark of this perspective is that early life course decisions, opportunities, and conditions affect later outcomes. The past, therefore, has the potential to shape the present and the future, which can be envisioned as a ripple or domino effect. This can occur at various levels: the cohort/generational level and the individual/familial level. For example, one generation can transmit to the next the reverberations of the historical circumstances that shaped its life history (living through the feminist movement, for example). The timing and conditions under which earlier life events and behaviors occur (e.g., dropping out of school, witnessing domestic abuse) can also set up a chain reaction of experiences for individuals and their families (e.g., reproduction of poverty, a cycle of family violence). The past, therefore, can significantly affect later life outcomes such as socioeconomic status, mental health, physical functioning, and marital patterns. This long-term view, with its recognition of cumulative advantage or disadvantage, is particularly valuable for understanding social inequality in later life and for creating effective social policy and programs (O'Rand 1996).

Selected Research Applications

The life course perspective has been applied to several areas of family inquiry in North America (particularly in the United States), as well as inter-nationally. Although space limitations do not permit full coverage of this vast body of work, several studies are highlighted to illustrate recent applications of the approach. In the United States, researchers have adopted this framework to investigate: men's housework (Coltrane and Ishii-Kuntz 1992); the timing of marriage and military service (Call and Teachman 1996); work history and timing of marriage (Pittman and Blanchard 1996); families, delinquency and crime (Sampson and Laub 1993) as well as many other substantive areas (Price et al. 2000).

In Canada, researchers have used a life course approach to study the transition to grandmotherhood (Gee 1991) and youth transitions into adulthood, especially leaving and returning to home (e.g., Mitchell 2000). It should also be noted that this perspective is becoming popular in studies of ethnic diversity, social inequality, and aging families (Stoller and Gibson 2000) and that numerous cross-national comparisons of life patterns have been conducted (e.g., between Germany and the United States—Giele and Elder 1998, p. 246).

Furthermore, the life course approach is being used more and more in countries such as Japan (Fuse 1996) and other East Asian countries, as well as Great Britain, Germany, Italy, Norway, the Netherlands, and India. Applications of the life course perspective are illustrated in research on generational relations and family support in Thailand and Sri Lanka (Hareven 1996), caregiver's marital histories in Britain (Lewis 1998), the German Life History Study (Brüchner and Mayer 1998; Elder and Giele 1998, p. 52), young adults from the Netherlands (Liefbroer and De Jong 1995), changing patterns of age, work, and retirement in Europe (Guillemard 1997), and patterns of household formation and inheritance in preindustrial northern Europe and in northern India (Gupta 1995).

Finally, a variety of quantitative and qualitative methodologies have been used in life course analyses. Common quantitative methodologies include: longitudinal designs, cohort and cross-sectional comparisons, and life event history analysis; whereas descriptive and qualitative approaches entail archival research, biographical approaches such as life history reviews and in-depth interviews, personal narratives, and life stories. This methodological pluralism is consistent with the multidisciplinary nature of the life course perspective and the recognition of the necessity to bridge macro and micro levels of theory and analysis (Giele and Elder 1998).

In summary, the flourishing area of life course theorizing and research offers unique opportunities to interconnect historical and cultural location and changes in societal institutions with the experiences of individuals and families. The challenge will be to refine and test a dynamic, emergent conceptual model that extends across multiple disciplines and multiple levels of analysis. Future advances will enable researchers to extend the frontiers of knowledge pertaining to continuity and discontinuity in family life amidst ever-changing social, economic and global environments.

See also:Adulthood; Family Roles; Family Theory; Rites of Passage; Time Use; Transition to Parenthood


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