6 minute read

Life Course Theory

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).

Additional topics

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