Life Course Theory
Social Environments and Human Development
BY: T. Franklin Murphy | June 25, 2022
Human development is complex. Life events and individual environments shape and define our lives.
During the 1900's a wave of longitudinal studies began, following the lives of thousands of children from birth into adulthood. Troves of data were collected and analyzed. Many of these studies provided the fodder for new theories of human development. Sociologists and psychologists plowed through the troves of data, organizing similarities, creating categories, and defining "normal" development and by default stigmatizing abnormal development.
We learn valuable information from developmental theories such as Erik Erikson's stages of life. They provide a view of human development from a wider perspective, giving insignificant events in the moment more impactful meaning when seen against the context of the entirety of life and development.
However, developmental stages are conceptual frameworks to understand our complex realities. On ground zero, we don't live in the "timeless realm of the abstract" (Elder, 2003).
Life course theory expands on stage development, dispensing with widespread frameworks of "normal." Any theory of development must consider human lives within their historical time and place. Life course theory examines human life within changing environments, examining life pathways within the context of their histories.
Elder explains that "life course provides a framework for studying phenomenons at the nexus of social pathways, developmental trajectories, and social change" (2003).
Life Course Theory examines life trajectories and changes, grounded in the contextual history. Life course researchers consider the powerful influence of social pathways on development and aging over the life cycle.
Life Histories and Trajectories
Life course theory digs a little deeper. Life course theorist examine relation of earlier phases of life to later phases. Events and environments surrounding a young child sets the developing youngster on a different trajectory, creating a new individualized stages of development.
Life trajectories differ across social groups. Social impacts of education, neighborhoods, friends, and family (to name only a few), significantly alter broad based steps of 'normal' development. Social-economical environments may play a significant role in influencing different life courses.
Life course theories examines why lives change after developmental trajectories. Why does one child exhibit criminal behavior? Why does a young adult steeped in drug addiction recover?
Individual lives are linked. As English poet John Doan wrote, "No man is an island entire of itself." We are complexly interconnected, influencing trajectories, and changing lives.
Global and National Events
The world is emerging from a global pandemic. Social lives were disrupted. Normal exposures eliminated. COVID-19 shook up normal development. The impact, however, will be vastly different for the young child missing two years of pre-school, the teenager not able to compete in on his high school football team, and the adult who lost their job.
A single global event creates an array of new life trajectories. World War I, the invention of the internet, and changing social norms all send a wave through developmental norms, shaking up previous expectations, adding a new wrinkle, impacting each age group, nation, and socio-economic circle in vast and unimaginable ways.
Behavior Continuity and Change
Glen H. Elder, Jr. (1905-1998), Odum Distinguished Research Professor of Sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a prominent figure in the development of life course theory, methods, and research, felt certain life pathways were of particular interest, demanding more attention. He listed these life pathways as education, work, and families.
Elder also pointed to critical life transitions (e.g., entry into first grade, birth of a child) as important markers of social trajectories. Elder wrote that "the multiple trajectories of individuals and their development implications are basic elements of the 'life course,' as conceptualized in research and theory" (1998).
Research draws data from longitudinal studies, examining the movement of individuals through successive life transitions. Correlations in these movements provides insights that can effectively guide legislation and programs to help those vulnerable to less productive lives.
Important data can be drawn from events that change life trajectories. Why does one individual successfully abandon a life of crime? Why does another individual endure the pains of recovery from addiction?
Paradigmatic Principles in Life Course Theory
Life course theory has identified five significant general principles to provide guidance for research:
The Principle of Life Span Development
Human development and aging are life long processes. We must take long term perspectives to understand the interrelated nature of different phases and trajectories on individual lives.
The Principle of Agency
Individuals construct their own life courses through their choices and behaviors within the constraints of their histories and social circumstances. Life course theory emphasizes that children, adolescents and adults are not passively acted upon. "They make choices and compromises based on the alternatives placed before them" (Elder, 2003).
T. Franklin Murphy focuses on individual power when he encourages readers that desire to change personal trajectories. He wrote, "if your current trajectory is not palatable, you should examine your current circumstances, exposing destructive adaptations, and pesky feelings pushing for harmful reactions" (2018).
The principle of agency in individuals, within the limitations of their world, has significant implications on trajectories and the individual's role in replacing destructive life pathways with healthier trajectories.
The Principle of Time and Place
The life course of individuals is shaped by the historical times and places they experience over their life time. War, political turmoil, and plagues mark and influence our lives. We don't live and develop independent of critical events. The great depression, COVID-19, and racism are not just world wide events; They are also personal events.
The Principle of Timing
Personal and historical events vary in their impact according to timing. Going through COVID-19 during your young adult years will have a much different impact on your life than going through COVID-19 during early childhood.
"The same events or experiences may affect individuals in different ways depending on when they occur in the life course" (Elder, 2003).
The Principle of Linked Lives
Lives are lived interdependently. Our histories are shared and expressed through networks of shared relationships. Others impact our lives. New relationships may initiate both positive and negative "turning points."
Marriage and new employment often invite significant life changes, altering previous trajectories.
A Few Closing Thoughts
I often am in awe over the complexity of influences involved in the formation of our lives. Simple theories of life development intrigue our intellect but fall woefully short of the necessary complexity to design individual and social change. Life course theory expand the simplicity into wider perspectives, utilizing the growing pool of data, and greater mechanisms to organize information into understandable phenomenons for continued research.
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Elder, Glen H. (1998). The Life Course as Developmental Theory. Child Development, 69(1)
Elder, Glen H., Johnson, Monica Kirkpatrick, Crosnoe, Robert (2003) The Emergence and Development of Life Course Theory. Editors Jaylen T. Mortimer, Michael J. Shanahan. Handbook of the Life Course. Springer, Boston, MA, 2003. 3-19.
Hutchison, Elizabeth D. (2019) An Update on the Relevance of the Life Course Perspective for Social Work. Families in Society 100.4: 351-366.
Mayer, Karl Ulrich. (2009) New Directions in Life Course Research. Annual Review of Sociology 35: 413-433.
Murphy, T. Franklin (2018) Freedom of Choice. Flourishing Life Society. Published 8-2018. Accessed 6-25-2022.
Piquero, Alex R. (2015) What we know and what we need to know about developmental and life-course theories. Australian & New Zealand Journal of Criminology 48.3: 336-344.
Pratt, Travis C. (2016) A self-control/life-course theory of criminal behavior. European Journal of Criminology 13.1: 129-146.
Sampson, Robert J., and John H. Laub. (2005) A Life-Course View of the Development of Crime. ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 602.1: 12-45.
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