Social Dynamics of the Life Course

Heinz, Walter R. and Victor W. Marshall
Aldine de Gruyter, New York

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Cover of book This is an edited volume of 13 papers, culled from a series of presentations at a symposium held at the University of Bremen (Germany) in 2001 to mark the end of a 15-year research programme on 'Status Passages and Risks in the Life Course.' The book's four sections reflect its range: Tradition and Innovation in Life Course Research, Life-Course Transitions and Sequences, Institutions and the Life Course, and Interrelations and the Life Course.

The lead paper, by Victor Marshall and Margaret Mueller, provides an excellent overview of the emergence and development of life course research in both Europe and North America since the 1960s. The remainder of the papers address conceptual issues or report on empirical studies. Helga Kruger discusses the need to consider gender in the debate over the degree to which the life course is becoming individualized or whether it is still largely social institutions that shape individual biographies. Glen Elder underscores the embeddedness of the life course in time and place. Reinhold Sackmann and Matthias Wingens present a typology of sequencing patterns for transitions and status passages along trajectories. Several of the empirical papers focus particularly on women - their labour market opportunities, employment trajectories, career patterns and family arrangements. A paper by Frank Furstenberg considers how opportunities for American children and youth differ, depending on whether they grow up in families that are advantaged, disadvantaged or somewhere in between. A methodological paper by Walter Heinz makes the case for integrating qualitative and quantitative approaches sequentially in life course studies.

One of the book's strengths is its cross-national perspective. Examples and case studies draw on research conducted across Europe (particularly Germany) and in the United States. For those who want to know what life course research is about, the book offers a useful glimpse into the field. Having said this, the glimpse is selective. It was disappointing to find no papers reflecting the rich tradition of interpretive approaches concerned with how the life course is experienced by social actors. Nor were there any papers reflecting arguably the most exciting development in this area in recent years - the treatment of 'the life course,' not as an objective series of stages of development that individuals experience, but as a category that individuals use to make sense of their experiences and lives through time.

There is also a problem with coherence, though this may stem more from the state of the art in this area than from the collection itself. It is not always clear how the papers tie together, apart from a vaguely conceived life-course frame, which appears to be more central to some contributions than to others. Marshall and Mueller point out in their opening chapter that the rapid growth of the field and its multidisciplinary nature have created a diversity of meaning as to just what the 'life-course perspective' might be. This looseness and the lack of a clear analytical framework are evident in the book. The greater conceptual cohesion that Marshall and Mueller foresee in the future for life course research would be a healthy development.

Dorothy Pawluch
McMaster University