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Life Course Theory

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).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaOther Marriage & Family TopicsLife Course Theory - Historical Development, Key Principles And Concepts, Selected Research Applications