The Life Course Perspective

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  • 0:02 Definition
  • 0:59 Roots of the Theory
  • 1:57 Concepts
  • 4:29 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

This lesson focuses on the key concepts of the life course perspective used in the social sciences. You will learn how a major historical event sparked an interest in looking more closely at each person's individual life story.

Life Course Perspective Definition

What if you had to tell someone about who you are, but couldn't include information about things that have happened to you in the past? You could only talk about what you are doing and thinking today. It would probably be hard to say very much about yourself because eventually you would want to bring up something from your past experience that has shaped you as a person.

The life course perspective, also known as life course theory, is used in the social sciences to help understand human development. The approach takes into account how we grow and change as we go through life experiences. It even looks at how historical events and cultural shifts affect an individual's evolution over time. In this lesson, we'll explore the key concepts of the life course perspective.

The Roots of the Theory

What was it like to grow up during the Great Depression in the United States, a time in which an estimated one in four people in the workforce were unemployed? Profound changes in the economy affected just about everyone. For children, still in an early stage of development, the Depression shaped their lives to a great deal, affecting everything from the values they learned to whether they grew up with the basic necessities of life.

About 30 years after the Great Depression ended, sociologist Glen Elder, Jr. was exploring research spanning many years when he took notice of the profound impact the Great Depression had on those who grew up during it. This insight helped start a movement to look at the entire course of a person's life, especially the changes and detours along the way.

Concepts Used in Life Course Perspective

Elder found that the historical event of the Great Depression was important to understanding the development of this particular cohort of people who came of age during the 1930s. A cohort is a group of people born during a particular timeframe who've experienced similar historical events and changes in the culture around them.

The Great Depression had led to a lot of transitions in the lives of those who lived through it. For instance, a parent may have gone from working a full-time job to being paid only for part-time work. A transition occurs when there is movement from one role or status to another over time.

This transition to having less money occurred because of the life event of losing a job. Getting married, getting divorced, a loved one passing away, and having a baby, along with many other changes, are all considered life events. A life event is a significant change that has a consequence or impact on a person's life. Life events influence a person's trajectory, an overall life path that involves multiple transitions.

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