In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Life Course

  • Introduction
  • Textbooks
  • Handbooks
  • Data Sources
  • Journals
  • Classic Works

Sociology Life Course
Deborah Carr
  • LAST REVIEWED: 11 September 2018
  • LAST MODIFIED: 27 July 2011
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0030


Sociology of the life course is a sophisticated theoretical paradigm designed to understand human lives. Four key assumptions guide life course scholars’ theoretical and empirical work: (1) lives are embedded in and shaped by historical context; (2) individuals construct their own lives through their choices and actions, yet within the constraints of historical and social circumstance; (3) lives are intertwined through social relationships; and (4) the meaning and impact of a life transition is contingent on when it occurs. Life course scholars also rely on rigorous research methods and data sources—including national censuses, sample surveys, in-depth interviews, and historical records—to document human lives. Because a key question of life course research is “how does historical time and place shape lives?” researchers often compare data obtained at different points in time, from different birth cohorts (i.e., individuals born at different points in history), and from different national and cultural contexts. Researchers also rely heavily on longitudinal data, or data obtained from the same person at multiple points in time, so they can track individual-level continuity and change. Life course research is interdisciplinary, incorporating concepts from sociology, history, psychology, demography, gerontology, child development, and—in recent years—behavioral genetics. The specific foci of life course studies range from social psychological outcomes such as stress, self-esteem, occupational values, and cognitive complexity to family roles, marital and fertility patterns, educational and occupational attainment, retirement, and deviance. Although many life course scholars typically specialize in one developmental stage, such as childhood, adolescence, midlife, or older adulthood, most also consider ways that one life course stage influences subsequent experiences. Most life course research has focused on the U.S. context, yet in recent years the collection of longitudinal data—especially in the United Kingdom and western Europe—has fostered a flourishing of life course research in Europe.


Because of its expansive and inherently interdisciplinary nature, life course sociology is not currently well served by textbooks. Rather, most undergraduate college courses—such as Sociology of Childhood and Adolescence, or Social Gerontology—are designed to investigate one stage of the life course. Of the four books described below, only one, Clausen 1986, provides an introductory foray into life course studies. The others are more methodologically (Elder and Giele 2009) or theoretically (Settersten 1999, Shanahan and Macmillan 2007) sophisticated overviews, appropriate for graduate students with at least some background in sociological theory or research methods.

  • Clausen, John A. 1986. The life course: A sociological perspective. New York: Prentice-Hall.

    This concise volume provides an excellent overview of the key themes of life course sociology, with chapters dedicated to general principles as well as specific life course stages and outcomes. It has not been revised since 1986, however, so empirical studies—especially those on work and family patterns—are outdated.

  • Elder, Glen H., and Janet Z. Giele, eds. 2009. The craft of life course research. New York: Guilford.

    This edited volume provides information on diverse methodologies used in life course research, including behavioral genetic analysis, cross-national and historical comparisons, and a range of qualitative (life story, ethnography, diary) and quantitative (hierarchical growth, latent class, and group-based trajectory model) approaches.

  • Settersten, Richard A., Jr. 1999. Lives in time and place: The problems and promises of developmental science. Amityville, NY: Baywood.

    The author calls for the creation of a “developmental science” that highlights the importance of age and age structuring, generation and cohort, and social contexts. In doing so, he highlights the distinctive perspectives that sociologists and psychologists bring to the study of human lives.

  • Shanahan, Michael J., and Ross Macmillan. 2007. Biography and the sociological imagination: Contexts and contingencies. New York: Norton.

    Provides an introduction to life course sociology. The authors emphasize “how to think” about changing societies and aging, drawing from the latest research and using stories of real people’s lives.

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