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The term life course refers to the idea that the course of one’s life is not determined by a natural process of aging but is mainly shaped by social institutions and sociocultural values as well as by decisions and unexpected events. Thus the life course consists of life stages (e.g., childhood, youth, adulthood), status passages or transitions (e.g., from youth to adulthood, from student to professional), and life events (e.g., marriage, job loss, illness). Formal institutions such as the law and the welfare state ascribe rights and duties by age and formal status, and when, for example, to start a family and how to divide labor within the household are also structured by sociocultural norms and habits.
The term life course differs from concepts such as the lifecycle which is connected to developmental concepts in psychology. Such concepts imply that life is structured by a specific order of events where one built on the previous event, and that they represent a ”natural order.
The modern notion of the life course differs from concepts in small ”primitive societies as described in ethnographic research, where transitions are understood as determined by natural processes (such as first menses to indicate that girls can be married) or ”rites of passage” (Gennep 1981 ).
The modern notion of the life course also differs from its ancestors. During the Middle Ages in western Europe, the understanding of life was captured in religious and magical thinking. Life seemed to be determined mainly by external powers, such as God or fate which are uncontrollable and unforeseeable for the individual. With modernization, ongoing sociocultural and sociostructural changes shift the meaning of the life course.
The institutionalization of education and a social security system as well as the formal regulation of rights and duties by age created a new framework and understanding of the life course as to be shaped individually. Models of normative expectations about how men and women should shape their life were institutionalized, and societal institutions orient themselves to such models of a ”normal life. Additionally, the increase in medical knowledge and standards of hygiene supports a significant change in mortality, which was moved to and concentrated on old age. A predictable life course became a normal experience for an increasing part of the population.
Life course research is interested in specific sociostructural patterns and the individual s sense-making of life. Sometimes the whole life is examined, but many studies focus on specific transitions, such as from youth to adulthood, from single to husband or wife and to father or mother, from unemployed to employed.
How people manage their life systematically differs by sociostructural indicators such as gender, ethnicity, health/disability, or generation. It is expected, for example, that women marry younger than men and that they bear children before 30, while it is accepted that men father children in older age as well. It is also accepted that younger women marry older men, but the reverse is perceived as unusual or even deviant. Such norms are reflected in different life plans and expectations regarding the future.
Early research on the life course are for example, the study by Glen Elder, Children of the Great Depression (1974), which showed how families mediated the individual s management of the hardships of economic slowdown. Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss (1968) showed how people cope with dying. Another stream in the tradition of sociostructural analysis focuses on formal factors influencing the life course (e.g., class, educational attainment, gender, marital status, age).
Recent research often assumes that growing processes of individualization would weaken the individual s embeddedness in traditional institutions. Individualization would set free new generations from traditional bonds and open spaces for new opportunities and decisions. More critical studies argue that although the semantics of life course decisions have changed, the idea of growing self-responsibility does not go along with a significant change in vertical social mobility or increasing individual control of one’s life.
The life course encompasses an objective course of life and the individual s sense-making. At the center of biographical research is the individual s sense-making of his or her life. Sociostructural researchers focus on the life course patterns that are expressed in durations of working and employment status or marital status or divorce. While the biographical approach mainly works with qualitative methods and narrative interviewing techniques to explain current activities by the cumulated sense-making of one’s former life, the sociostructural approach uses event history modeling, or optimal pattern matching techniques to examine and compare life course patterns and events.
- Elder, G. H. (1974) Children of the Great Depression: Social Change in Life Experience. University of Chicago Press, Chicago, IL.
- Gennep, A. von (1981 ) Les Rites de passage. Picard, Paris.
- Glaser, B. G. & Strauss, A. L. (1968) Time for Dying. Aldine, Chicago, IL.