Life course

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The life-course perspective has developed across various disciplines in the social sciences including sociology (life course), developmental psychology (adaptation, life span), demography (generation, cohort), economics (life cycle), social policy, social history and humanities (period, life history and stories) and biology (genetics and evolutionary perspectives).The life course is both a concept and an interdisciplinary and globalist perspective that is interested in “understanding people in whole (over time) and as wholes (studying larger profiles of traits and characteristics rather than single variables).” (Settersten, 2003, p.196).

History and theoretical advances

The idea of the life course has different origins (see Marshall & Mueller, 2003). Some make the life course story begin in the 1960s with the development of prospective longitudinal studies and Leonard Cain’s essay titled “Life course and social structure” (Cain, 1964), which was the first time that the concept of the life course was under the spotlight referring primarily to “those successive statuses individuals are called upon to occupy in various cultures and walks of life as a result of aging …”. In the same years, several seminal articles which pointed to the intersection between historical time and individual time to understand social change were published, like Ryder’s article on cohort as a concept in the study of social change (1965) or Riley, Johnson and Foner’s work on age differentiation (1972). However, most scholars refer to the work of Glen Elder on the Children of the great depression (Elder, 1974) as the real influence on launching an interdisciplinary paradigm or perspective interested in how individuals’ lives unfold are experienced within their historical context. Five central principles were derived by Elder’s work (Elder, Johnson, & Crosnoe, 2003): life-span development (the life course perspective is interested in individuals’ development from its biological start to death), human agency (individuals’ action has an impact on their life trajectory), historical time and geographic place (social change and location influence the life trajectories), timing (the same event will not have the same impact on individuals at different life stage or from different cohorts), and linked lives (individual trajectories are linked to others’ linked individuals’ trajectories). A similar interest in human development took place in psychology based on the Seattle Longitudinal Study and theoretically as the lifespan psychology (Baltes & Schaie, 1973; Baltes, Lindenberger & Staudinger, 1998) with an emphasis on the cultural (notably effects of cohorts on cognitive development) and biological influences on the life course, on the adaptability of individuals to maximize gains, maintain resources and goals, and limit the impact of losses), and on the multidirectionality of trajectories (due to the various biological and cultural influences, different dimensions of cognitive development have different trajectories throughout the life span).

The life course is composed of multiple and interdependent trajectories or careers in different life domains or spheres (work, family, health, etc.) (Sapin, Spini, & Widmer, 2007; Settersten, 1999). Central concept in this life course perspective have been developed: stage or phase, transitions, turning points and critical or stressful events (Levy and the PaVie team, 2005; Settersten, 1999). The life course perspective has also grown with the development of longitudinal or panel studies and developed methods to analyze life trajectories (Giele & Elder, 1998; Piccarreta & Studer, 2018)

The LIVES research program has adopted a multiple and interdisciplinary perspective of development (Spini, Jopp, Pin, & Stringhini, 2016) and selected three main principles of the life course paradigm (see Settersten, 2003, Spini, Bernardi, & Oris 2017) to describe the complexity of life trajectories. Life trajectories are (1) multidimensional (related to the different life spheres or domains); (2) multilevel (they can be influenced by and studied at the micro-, meso and macro-level); and (3) multidirectional (they are diverse and show different trends of growth, decline and stability). Bernardi, Huinink and Settersten (2019) proposed to advance theoretical development offering a conceptualization of the life course as a complex behavioral process resting on a dynamic theory of agency. Their “life course cube” synthesizes the life course, providing a systematic yet parsimonious way to qualify the complex structure in which life courses, understood as behavioral processes, take place and integrates the biological and psychological programming of human development into the multidimensional, multilevel, and multidirectional frame. The cube constitutes a heuristic tool to bypass discipline boundaries and advances theoretical development in life course research.
Authors: Laura Bernardi, Dario Spini


Baltes, P. B. & Schaie, K. W (1973). Life-span developmental psychology: Personality and Socialization. New York: Academic Press.
Baltes, P. B., Lindenberger, U., & Staudinger, U. M. (1998). Life-span theory in developmental psychology. In W. Damon & R. M. Lerner (Eds.), Handbook of child psychology: Theoretical models of human development (p. 1029–1143). John Wiley & Sons Inc.
Bernardi, L., Huinink, J., Settersten, R. A, Jr. (2019). The life course cube. Advances in Life Course Research, 41,
Cain, Leonard, D., Jr. (1964). Life course and social structure. In R. E. L. Faris. Handbook of Modern Sociology, pp. 272-309. Chicago: Rand McNally.
Elder, G. H, Jr. (1974). Children of the great depression: Social change in life experience. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Elder G. H., Jr., Johnson, M. K., Crosnoe, R. (2003). The emergence and development of life course theory. In: J. T. Mortimer, M. J. Shanahan (eds), Handbook of the life course, pp. 3–22. New York: Kluwer Academic / Plenum.
Giele J. Z., Elder G. H. Jr. (Eds) (1998). Methods of life course research: Qualitative and quantitative approaches. Sage; Thousand Oaks, CA.
Levy and the Pavie Team (2005). Why look at life courses in an interdisciplinary perspective? In R. Levy, P. Ghisletta, J.-M. Le Goff, D. Spini, E. Widmer (Eds), Towards an interdisciplinary perspective on the life course. Advances in life course research, vol 10, 3-32.
Marshall, V. W., & Mueller, M. M. (2003). Theoretical roots of the Life-Course Perspective. In W. R. Heinz, & V. W: Marshall (Eds), Social dynamics of the life course, pp. 3-32. New York: Aldine de Gruyter.
Piccarreta, R., & Studer, M.. (2018). Holistic analysis of the life course: Methodological challenges and new perspectives. Advances in Life Course Research. doi:10.1016/j.alcr.2018.10.004
Riley M. W., Johnson M. E., Foner A. (1972). Aging and society: A sociology of age stratification. Vol. 3. New York: Russell Sage.
Ryder N. B. (1965). The cohort as a concept in the study of social change. American Sociological Review, 30, 843–61. doi:10.2307/2090964.
Sapin, M., Spini, D., & Widmer, E. (2007). Les parcours de vie: de l’adolescence à la mort. Lausanne : Presses Polytechniques et Universitaires Romandes.
Settersten, R. A., Jr. (1999). Lives in time and place. The problems and promises of developmental science. New York: Baywood Publishing Company
Settersten, R. A., Jr., & Hendricks, J. (2003). Invitation to the life course: Toward new understandings of later life. New York: Routledge.
Spini, D., Bernardi, L., & Oris, M. (2017). Toward a life course framework for studying vulnerability. Research in Human Development, 14(1), 5-25. doi:
Spini, D., Jopp, D., Pin Le Corre, S., & Stringhini, S.. (2016). The multiplicity of aging: Lessons for theory and conceptual development from longitudinal studies. Dans V. L. Bengtson & (Eds.), Handbook of Theories of Aging, 3rd. ed., p. 669-690. New York: Springer.

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