Integrating Varieties of Life Course Concepts

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Abstract

A body of work referred to as the “life course” framework (also known as “life course theory,” the “life course paradigm,” and the “life course perspective”) has been increasingly used to motivate and justify the examination of the relationships among variables in social and behavioral science, particularly in the study of population health and aging. Yet, there is very little agreement on what some of these concepts mean, and there is hardly any agreement on what the “life course” is. This article focuses on the different ways in which the concept of “life course” is used in the contemporary study of aging and human development, particularly with regard to health and well-being. Clarification is given for how “life course” is distinguished from “life span” and “life cycle,” among other “life” words. This work reviews the conceptual literature on the life course, beginning with its formative years in the 1960s and 1970s, through to the present time. Detailed research of several literatures across disciplines revealed five different uses of the term “life course”: (a) life course as time or age, (b) life course as life stages, (c) life course as events, transitions, and trajectories, (d) life course as life-span human development, and (e) life course as early life influences (and their cumulation) on later adult outcomes. To the extent the concept of life course has a multiplicity of meanings that are at variance with one another, this is problematic, as communication is thereby hindered. On the other hand, to the extent the concept of life course involves a rich tapestry of different emphases, this is a good thing, and the diversity of meanings should be retained. This paper proposes a conceptual integration based in part on Riley’s age stratification model that resolves the various meanings of life course into one general framework. Coupled with a demographic conceptualization of the life course, this framework embeds the concept of “life course” within a broader perspective of life-span development. This framework is proposed as an integrated perspective for studying the causes and consequences of “life course events and transitions” and understanding the manner by which “life events” and the role transitions they signify influence the life-span development of outcomes of interest across stages of the life cycle.

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