Life course approach

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The life course approach, also known as the life course perspective or life course theory, refers to an approach developed in the 1960s for analyzing people's lives within structural, social, and cultural contexts. Origins of this approach can be traced to pioneering studies as Thomas' and Znaniecki's "The Polish Peasant in Europe and America" from the 1920s or Mannheim's essay on the "Problem of generations".[1] The life course approach examines an individual's life history and sees, for example, how early events influence future decisions and events such as marriage and divorce,[2] engagement in crime, or disease incidence.[3] The primary factor promoting standardization of the life course was improvement in mortality rates brought about by the management of contagious and infectious diseases such as smallpox.[4] A life course is defined as "a sequence of socially defined events and roles that the individual enacts over time".[5] In particular, the approach focuses on the connection between individuals and the historical and socioeconomic context in which these individuals lived.[1][6] The method encompasses observations including history, sociology, demography, developmental psychology, biology, public health and economics. So far, empirical research from a life course perspective has not resulted in the development of a formal theory.[7]

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. Walter Heinz theorized the life course as based on five key principles: life-span development, human agency, time and place, timing of decisions, and linked lives. [8] 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).

Life course theory also has moved in a constructionist direction. Rather than taking time, sequence, and linearity for granted, in their book "Constructing the Life Course," Jaber F. Gubrium and James A. Holstein (2000) take their point of departure from accounts of experience through time. This shifts the figure and ground of experience and its stories, foregrounding how time, sequence, linearity, and related concepts are used in everyday life. It presents a radical turn in understanding experience through time, moving well beyond the notion of a multidisciplinary paradigm, providing an altogether different paradigm from traditional time-centered approaches. Rather than concepts of time being the principle building blocks of propositions, concepts of time are analytically bracketed and become focal topics of research and constructive understanding.


  1. ^ a b Elder, Glen H.; Monica Kirkpatrick Johnson and Robert Crosnoe: The Emergence and Development of Life Course Theory. In: Jeylan T. Mortimer and Michael J. Shanahan (ed.). Handbook of the Life Course. Springer, 2003, ISBN 0-306-47498-0, pp. 3–19.
  2. ^ James M. White; David M. Klein, ed. (2007). Family theories (3 ed.). Sage. p. 122. ISBN 978-1-4129-3748-1. Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  3. ^ A Life Course Approach to Chronic Disease Epidemiology (Diana Kuh and Yoav Ben-Shlomo ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1997. ISBN 0-19-262782-1. 
  4. ^ Shanahan, Michael (2000). "PATHWAYS to adulthood in changing socities". Variability and Mechanisms in Life Course Perspective: 669. 
  5. ^ Janet Z. Giele and Glen H. Elder Jr., (eds) Methods of Life Course Research: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, Sage Publications, 1998 ISBN 0-7619-1437-4
  6. ^ "Life Course Theory - Historical Development, Key Principles And Concepts, Selected Research Applications". Retrieved 2009-07-29. 
  7. ^ Mayer, Karl U. (2009). "New Directions in Life Course Research". Annual Review of Sociology 35: 423–424. doi:10.1146/annurev.soc.34.040507.134619. 
  8. ^ Furlong, Andy. "Youth Studies: An Introduction." Routledge, 2013, p.6-7.