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Life Course Theory

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.


Bengtson, V. L., and Allen, K. R. (1993). "The Life Course Perspective Applied to Families over Time." In Sourcebook of Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual Approach, ed. P. Boss, W. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. Schumm, and S. Steinmetz. New York: Plenum.

Brücher, E., and Mayer, K. U. (1998). "Collecting Life History Data: Experiences from the German Life History Study." In Methods of Life Course Research: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, ed. J. Z. Giele and G. H. Elder Jr. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Burton, L. M., and Bengtson, V. (1985). "Black Grandmothers: Issues of Timing and Continuity in Roles." In Grandparenthood, ed. V. L. Bengtson and J. Robertson. Beverly Hills, CA: Sage.

Call, V. R. A., and Teachman, J. D. (1996). "Life-course Timing and Sequencing of Marriage and Military Service and Their Effects on Marital Stability." Journal of Marriage and the Family 58:219–226.

Clausen, J. A. (1991). "Adolescent Competence and the Shaping of the Life Course." American Journal of Sociology 96:805–842.

Coltrane, S., and Ishii-Kuntz, M. (1992). "Men's Housework: A Life Course Perspective." Journal of Marriage and the Family 54:43–58.

Elder, G. H., Jr. (1974). Children of the Great Depression: Social Change in Life Experience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Elder, G. H., Jr. (1985). Life Course Dynamics. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.

Elder, G. H., Jr. (1998). "The Life Course as Developmental Theory." Child Development 69:1–12.

Fuse, A. (1996). "Status of Family Theory and Research in Japan." Marriage and Family Review 22:73–99.

Gee, E. M. (1991). "The Transition to Grandmotherhood: A Quantitative Study." Canadian Journal on Aging 10:254–270.

Giele, J. Z., and Elder, G. H., Jr. (1998). Methods of Life Course Research: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Guillemard, A. M. (1997). "Re-Writing Social Policy and Changes within the Life Course Organization: A European Perspective." Canadian Journal on Aging 16:441–464.

Gupta, M. D. (1995). "Life Course Perspectives on Women's Autonomy and Health Outcomes." American Anthropologist 97:481–492.

Hagestad, G. O., and Neugarten, B. L. (1985). "Age and the Life Course." In Handbook of Aging and the Social Sciences, ed. R. H. Binstock and E. Shanas. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold.

Hareven, T. K., ed. (1996). Aging and Generational Relations: Life Course and Cross-Cultural Perspectives. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.

Lewis, R. (1998). "Impact of the Marital Relationship on the Experience of Caring for an Elderly Spouse with Dementia." Aging and Society 18:209–231.

Liefbroer, A. C., and De Jong Gierveld, J. (1995). "Standardization and Individualization: The Transition to Adulthood among Cohorts Born between 1903 and 1965." In Population and Family in the Low Countries, ed. H. van den Brekel and F. Deven. Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Mitchell, B. A. (2000). "The Refilled 'Nest': Debunking the Myth of Families in Crisis." In The Overselling of Population Aging: Apocalyptic Demography, Intergenerational Challenges, and Social Policy, ed. E. M. Gee and G. M. Gutman. Toronto: Oxford University Press.

Moen, P.; Elder, G. H., Jr.; and Lüscher, K., eds. (1995). Examining Lives in Context: Perspectives on the Ecology of Human Development. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

O'Rand, A. M. (1996). "The Precious and the Precocious: Understanding Cumulative Disadvantage and Cumulative Advantage over the Life Course." The Gerontologist 36:230–238.

Pittman, J. F., and Blanchard, D. (1996). "The Effects of Work History and Timing of Marriage on the Division of Household Labor: A Life Course Perspective." Journal of Marriage and the Family 58:78–90.

Price, S. J.; McKenry, P. C.; and Murphy, M. J., eds. (2000). Families across Time: A Life Course Perspective. Los Angeles: Roxbury.

Riley, M. W. (1987). "On the Significance of Age in Sociology." American Sociological Review 52:1–14.

Rodgers, R. H., and White, J. M. (1993). "Family Development Theory." In Sourcebook of Family Theories and Methods: A Contextual Approach, ed. P. Boss, W. Doherty, R. LaRossa, W. Schumm, and S. Steinmetz. New York: Plenum.

Rossi, A. S., and Rossi, P. H. (1990). Of Human Bonding: Parent-Child Relationships across the Life Course. New York: Aldine De Gruyter.

Sampson, R. J., and Laub, J. H. (1993). Crime in the Making: Pathways and Turning Points through Life. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Stoller, E. P., and Gibson, R. C. (2000). Worlds of Difference: Inequality in the Aging Experience. Thousand Oaks, CA: Pine Forge Press.


Additional topics

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