Life Course in Sociology Research Paper

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Human lives represent an enduring interest in the social sciences that reflects important social changes over the twentieth century. Most notably, developments after World War II called for new ways of thinking about lives, society, and their relationship. Longitudinal studies of children before the war became studies of adult development in the postwar era. Demographic change also assigned greater priority to the study of adults and aging. The scientific challenge presented by these priorities focused attention on the social pathways of life. This research paper presents the life course as both concept and theory for studies of lives, human development and aging.

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1. Elementary Concepts

In concept, the life course refers to a sequence of agegraded events and social roles that are embedded in social structure and historical change. The life course also defines a field of investigation with a theoretical orientation that guides research in terms of problem identification and formulation, variable selection, rationales of design, and explanatory analysis. Building on advances since the 1960s, life course theory (Elder 1998) has uniquely forged a conceptual bridge between developmental aging processes, the social life course, and ongoing changes in society, one based on the premise that age places people in the social structure and in particular birth cohorts.

The life course evolves over an extended period of time, a trajectory of marriage, work, or earnings; and it also takes form within a short time-span, marked by the transition between statuses, such as leaving home, entering a new job, and divorce followed by remarriage. Social transitions are always embedded in trajectories that give them distinctive form and meaning. Life trajectories are constructed by linking states across successive years. Each work trajectory, for example, is marked by a sequence of jobs and transitions between jobs, along with occasional spells of unemployment. A work transition may entail little change or produce a turning point—a redirection of life through changes in situation, meaning, and/or behavior, whether antisocial or conforming. Entry into military service has served as a turning point for men who grew up in poverty and were involved in an adolescent life of crime (Sampson and Laub 1993).

Each of these concepts is applicable to different levels of the life course: (a) institutionalized pathways may be established on the macrolevel by laws and social policies of the state or firm (Mayer and Muller 1986); (b) the life course of the individual is worked out at the microlevel in terms of choices and lines of action; and (c) the developmental or aging trajectory of the individual as defined, for example, in terms of intellectual development. An example of these multiple levels is provided by Spilerman’s (1977) analysis of work careers. ‘Career line’ refers to pathways defined by the aggregated work histories of individuals. They are patterned by industry structures and the labor market. An employee’s work-life, one aspect of the life course, varies by the career requirements of the firm and marketplace. At the developmental level, positive and negative changes in work-life have predictable consequences for emotional health. Each level of the life course represents a potential entry point for research. However, contemporary studies are increasingly extended across levels of analysis.

Three concepts have been used interchangeably with the life course—life cycle, life history, and life span. Life cycle generally describes a sequence of life events from birth to death, though it more accurately refers to stages of parenthood over the life course, from the birth of a first child to the departure of children from the home to the childbearing of the next generation. The life cycle is repeated from one generation to the next, but only within the framework of a population. Some people do not have children and consequently are not part of an intergenerational life cycle.

Life history typically refers to a lifetime chronology of events and activities that variably combine data records on social events and sometimes also psycho-logical processes. These records may be obtained from archival materials or from interviews with a respondent. Some life history interviews are prospective and focus on the present and future, while others are retrospective and enable the investigator to obtain information that was not collected in the past. Retrospective life histories (Giele and Elder 1998) record the age (year and month) at which transitions occur in each Activity domain, and thus depict an unfolding life course in ways uniquely suited to event history analyses and the assessment of time-varying causal influences.

Life span specifies the temporal scope of inquiry and specialization, as in life span developmental psychology or life span sociology. A life span study extends across a substantial period of life and generally links behavior in two or more life stages. Instead of limiting research to social and developmental processes within a specific life stage, as at middle age, a life span design favors studies of antecedents and consequences that extend beyond a single life stage. Each of these concepts, from life span to life cycle, has an important place in studies of the life course.

2. The Emergence Of Life Course Theory

Life course ideas coalesced in a theoretical orientation during the 1960s and 1970s. One of the crystallizing forces came from longitudinal studies of children that were extended into adulthood during the 1940s— examples include the Oakland and Berkeley Growth Studies, and the Guidance Study at the University of California, Berkeley. The life-span extension of these studies gave fresh momentum to the study of adult development at a time when few longitudinal studies were underway. Three challenges confronted investigators in the social and behavioral sciences: (a) to replace child-based, growth-oriented accounts of development with concepts that apply to development and aging across the life course; (b) to think about how human lives are socially organized and evolve over time; and (c) to relate lives to an ever-changing society. The first challenge led to the formulation of lifespan concepts of development, especially within the expanding field of life-span developmental psychology. Distinctive principles include the relative plasticity and agency of the aging organism, the life-long interaction of person and social context, and the multidirectionality of lifespan development. Differentiating and cumulating experiences across the life span tend to generate complementary aging dynamics (Dannefer 1987): (a) greater heterogeneity between individuals over time, and (b) enhanced continuity within individuals. Sociological concepts of life-span development include trajectory, transition, and turning point, as well as the cumulation of advantages and disadvantages over the life course.

Life-span thinking on human development and aging occurred initially with little attention to a wellestablished ‘role theoretical perspective’ on human lives, one that dates back at least to Thomas and Znaniecki’s (1918–20) The Polish Peasant in Europe and America . Role and relationship theories provided a way of thinking about socialization, generational succession, and social networks into the 1960s. The central concept at the time was life cycle; it depicted life organization in terms of social relationships and generational succession through the kinship system. The missing element was temporality. Life cycle models did not specify the timing of role entries or exits or the duration of time-in-role. Also, generational membership failed to locate people with precision in historical time and thus according to social change.

These limitations were addressed by theory and research on age and time. The path-breaking work of Neugarten (1968) documented substantial life variations in social roles by age. Contrary to established views (Eisenstadt 1956), she found that people of the same age varied significantly in the pace and sequencing of life transitions. Ever since this research, the differential timing and order of events has been among the most active topics of life course study, especially in the transition to adulthood (Heinz 1999).

Another age-based contribution to life course theory came from an appreciation of historical variations in people’s experiences and lives (Ryder 1965, Riley et al. 1972). Ryder proposed the term ‘cohort’ as a concept for studying the life course in relation to social change. Cohort refers to the age at which people enter the system; thus, a birth cohort locates people in history according to their birth year. Ryder’s life stage principle states that the impact of historical change on the life course reflects the life stage at which the change was experienced.

The three streams of life course theory (social relations/life cycle, age, and life-span concepts of development) came together in a study of children who were born in the early 1920s, grew up in the Great Depression, and then entered service roles in the Second World War (Elder 1974 (orig.), 1998 (new edn.)). The study began with ideas from studies of social relations, such as generation, socialization, and social roles, but soon turned to the analytic meanings of age for ways of linking family and individual experience to historical change, and for identifying age-graded trajectories across the life course. The project tested Ryder’s life-stage hypothesis by comparing the effects of drastic income loss in the Great Depression on the life experience of the Oakland cohort members (born 1920–1) with that of a younger Berkeley cohort, born at the upper end of the 1920s. Consistent with the life-stage hypothesis, the younger boys in particular were more adversely affected by family hardship, when compared to the older boys, though such differences faded in the adult years through the impact of military service, family support, and higher education.

By the 1990s, the life course had become a general theoretical framework for the study of lives, human development, and aging (Binstock and George 1996). This development was coupled with the growth of longitudinal studies and the emergence of new methodologies for the collection and analysis of life history data (Giele and Elder 1998, Bryk and Raudenbusch 1992).

3. Principles Of Life Course Theory

Life course theory is defined by a set of core principles. Most basic is the premise that behavior cannot be fully understood by focusing solely on the specific life stage in question, defined by age or social role. The origins of adolescent and young adult behavior lead back to childhood and the consistency of nurturance and discipline. Likewise, behavioral adaptations at midlife are not influenced solely by current circumstances, but by developmental trajectories that extend back to childhood and by anticipations of the future. Accordingly, the principle of life-span development states that: human development and aging are lifelong processes.

The early pioneering studies in California became life-long enterprises without an initial life-course vision. More ambitious projects have recently adopted this perspective, such as the national longitudinal studies of birth cohorts in Great Britain (birth dates of 1946, 1958, and 1970). They are scheduled to be followed into the later years of life. Studies across the life course are changing our understanding of poverty (Leisering and Liebfried 1999), work, and achievement, while identifying pathways of resilience and increasing vulnerability.

Preventive measures for health in the later years require knowledge that can only come from programmatic life-course studies of early influences and behavior. However, particular research questions and matters of cost can make compelling arguments for panel studies that are launched with older people, such as the Berlin Aging Study (Baltes and Mayer 1999) of men and women between the ages of 75 and 100. The study includes a retrospective life calendar and draws upon a variety of disciplines in assessing the differences between old age and old old age, and the potential benefit of intervention.

People and their situations change across the life course, raising the probability that influences also differ by stage of life. Empirical evidence documents a SES gradient in emotional depression, but there is reason to expect the mechanisms to vary as people become older. In fact, Miech and Shanahan (2000) find that education and mastery beliefs in the early adult years offer protection against depressed feelings. By later life, these feelings are mainly a product of low income and poor physical health. With these contrasts in mind, the principle of timing states that: The developmental antecedents and consequences of life transitions, events, and behavior patterns vary according to their timing in a person’s life.

Temporal variation across the life course also takes the form of change in the meaning and implications of particular life transitions, such as the loss of a spouse immediately after marriage vs. the more expectable event of death in old age. In theory, the normative concept of social timing specifies an appropriate age for events, such as sexual experience, childbearing, and retirement. Age at retirement has declined in Western societies along with normative expectations concerning the duration of work (Kohli et al. 1991). The timing of lives refers to change and stability in event timetables, to the scheduling of transitions, and to the timing of developmental events, such as puberty.

Social timetables may not correspond with biological change, as illustrated by early maturing girls. They are older in physique than their age and frequently develop associations with older boys that accelerate their onset of sexual experience (Stattin and Magnusson 1990). Neugarten (1968) refers to a social clock by which socially approved age norms are superimposed on the biological organism, as in the relation between sexual norms and the timing of menarche. In these and other ways, the principle of timing is fundamental to the role of ‘interdependent lives’ in the life course and the principle of linked lives: Lives are lived interdependently and that socialhistorical influences are expressed through this net- work of relationships.

The principle of linked lives moves beyond the conventional model of the life cycle by referring to all forms of relationships, not simply those having to do with family and reproduction of the generations. Human lives are typically embedded in and structured by social relationships with kin, friends, and coworkers across the life span. Kahn and Antonucci (1980) refer to these lifetime associates as convoys of social integration, social support, and obligation. Social relationships also represent a vehicle for trans- mitting and amplifying the effects of stressful change, as in families under the pressures of change. The prevalence of dual career families has centered re- search on issues of linked lives and timing, including the challenge of synchronizing lives at points of transition, e.g., job offers, retirement.

Issues of timing and linked lives are played out in specific historical contexts, whether adolescence in the prosperous 1920s, depressed 1930s, or war mobilized early 1940s. Especially in societies undergoing rapid change, a different birth year exposes individuals to different historical worlds, with their constraints and options. Historical effects take the form of a cohort effect when social change differentiates the life course of successive cohorts, such as older and younger men before the Second World War. The aforementioned Great Depression study of two birth cohorts (Elder 1974, 1998) illustrates this cohort effect. The principle of lives in time and place asserts that: The life course of individuals is embedded in and shaped by the historical times and places they experience over their lifetime.

History also takes the form of a period effect when the influence of a social change is relatively uniform across successive birth cohorts. Secular trends in the scheduling of marriages and first births across the twentieth century are largely an expression of powerful period effects. A third type of effect occurs through maturation or aging. The heterogeneity of historical experience within birth cohorts calls for inquiry of the change process itself, such as the actual decline of family income. Other examples of historical change in lives include research which highlights a pattern of resilience among urban youth who were ‘sent down to the countryside’ during the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–76) (Zhou and Hou 1999).

Though structured by historical circumstance, the life course is also shaped by the choices people make—a young girl’s pregnancy, the decision on whether to carry the child to term, and the issue of who cares for the child and its consequences for the daughter’s education and future. During China’s Cultural Revolution, the choices of young people were often made by their work unit, but some youth were sent to the countryside and managed to continue their education, postpone marriage, and return to their city of origin. The principle of human agency asserts that: Individuals construct their own life course through the choices and actions they have taken within the constraints and opportunities of history and social circumstances.

Human agency has been a defining theme of biographical studies that extend back to the early Chicago School of Sociology. Within this intellectual tradition, Clausen’s American Li es (1993) found evidence supporting the hypothesis that competent young people who think about the future with a sense of personal efficacy are more effective in making sound choices and in implementing them. This evolving life course generally reflects a ‘loose coupling’ between social stages and transitions. Age grades and loose coupling (Elder 1998) can be viewed as opposite sides of the adult life course—its social regulation on the one hand, and the actor’s initiative on the other, with its element of disorder.

4. Challenges And New Directions

Since the 1970s, the life course has become a lively interdisciplinary field of inquiry, focused around studies of human lives and their social pathways, with emphasis on the imprint of historical change on trajectories of human development and aging. This time period has witnessed an unparalleled growth of longitudinal samples for life course research along with statistical and methodological innovations for the study of change and multilevel contexts. Life course studies continue to draw upon widely diverse specialties, from developmental science to the sociology of the state. Advances in the field have led to new challenges and directions, as noted below.

First, the task of linking early and later experiences in the life course remains a challenge. Studies have traced the persistent effect of early events and experiences to subsequent outcomes, such as the effect of a teenage birth and military service. But the chain of linking mechanisms is largely uncharted.

Second, studies of the individual life course are beginning to cross levels, but more work is needed to assess the ongoing influence of social structure and change, the impact of cohort life patterns on social structure, and the effect of changing lives on human development and aging.

Third, interlocking trajectories, such as work and family, or work and psychological health, represent a basic distinction of life course theory, but only recently have statistical techniques enabled research to assess this dynamic.

Fourth, biological as well as social events have been linked to life patterns, as in studies of physical maturation. This work and other factors (e.g., sibling samples) are prompting more thought and research on genetic influences.

Fifth, cumulating research on social transitions across the life course suggests that general models of life transitions and their effects are possible at this time.

All of these research challenges and new directions will benefit from a greater investment in comparative study, both within and between societies. More than in the past, the initiation of life course projects is informed by cross-national collaboration and comparative options.


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