Eric D. Widmer

Levy,R., Ghisletta,P. Le Goff,J.-M., Spini,D.,Widmer,E. (2006).Why look at lifecourses in an interdisciplinary perspective;? In: Levy R., Ghisletta P., Le Goff J.-M., Spini D., Widmer E.(Eds). Towards an Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Life Course. Elsevier science, New York.

Challenges of life course research

After decades of a rather marginal existence and little coherence in its development, life course research is definitely coming of age. There are, however, recent signs of consolidation and first attempts at reaping the scattered harvest of research in various disciplines, especially in the form of a first handbook of life course-research (Mortimer & Shanahan 2003), of first attempts at interdisciplinary dialogue around specific approaches such as Baltes’ lifespan psychology1 (Staudinger & Lindenberger 2003) and of a specific annual review (Owens, several years). Nevertheless, life-course scholars still seem to be a small handful « digging » on the fringe of their disciplinary mainstreams, as yet with little influence on more established fields of research. Why are we, i.e., life course researchers, so keen on life courses ? What is there so special about life-course research ? We feel in fact that are a number of specific challenges life-course researchers have to confront and to answer.

A first, global and not very differentiated reason for finding it particularly interesting could be that it encompasses all we find important about human life, that everything humanly relevant is in the life course.

A second answer, of the same global kind but a bit more specific, could be that only a life-course approach takes fully into account the fact that our lives are ongoing processes and not just single states or events that can be adequately captured and understood using snapshots.

A third reason of attractivity, even more fascinating but also demanding, is the cross-cutting and integrative nature of the life-course perspective with respect to most of our more conventional, institutionalized disciplinary specialties. To illustrate this statement, take the case of sociology.2 There are special sociologies of childhood, of youth or adolescence, (maybe soon also of postadolescence,) of retirement, of aging. Each « age group » is treated in a more or less static perspective and therefore reified as a somehow homogenous social category and not as a phase in the process of life course unfolding. There are special sociologies of the family, of work, of labour markets, of leisure, of stratification and mobility, of voluntary associations, of social movements and so on. Each social field is mainly treated as an isolated entity with its inner logic and specific pathways for the individuals who participate in these fields. Life-phase specific and sector specific sociologies have developed their specialized perspectives, slicing up the lives and contexts of the « whole individuals » we pretend to be into various aspects, types of social relations, phases or fields of action. Likewise, in psychology, ontogeny has by many been regarded as occurring almost differently in distinct fragments of the lifespan. Much as in sociology, the American Psychological Association, among its 53 divisions, has Division 7 for Developmental Psychology and Division 20 for Adult Development and Aging. Similarly, Division 12 is for the Society of Clinical Psychology, while Division 53 for the Society of Clinical Child and Adolescent Psychology. Again, the fragmentation of the life course has been, for some aspects at least, institutionalized. Against this reductionist, fragmenting tendency, Settersten (2003 : 196) has rightly made a strong point of « The importance of understanding people in whole (over time) and as wholes (studying larger profiles of traits and characteristics rather than single variables) ». Without an encompassing perspective, life-course research cannot meet the challenge of its very raison d’être. With an argument couched in sociological terms, in a study of occupational careers, Kerckhoff (1993) has nicely formulated the conclusion that this state of affairs forces upon us: « If we are to overcome the limitations just described, we need to chart the movement of a diverse sample of individuals over time as they pass through a number of stages in the life course and occupy positions within hierarchically structured social organizations. At each stage, we need to be able to identify a set of locations that are hierarchically ordered, and we need to measure the personal characteristics of the individuals occupying those locations. ... Charting the flow of individuals between structural locations across stages in the life course constitutes describing the « careers » of those individuals, (i.e.,) ... the pathway ... (they follow) ... between positions in the social structure occupied at different points in the life course. » (Kerckhoff 1993 : 13).

On a more fundamental level, there is a fourth challenge which is already included in these remarks but not explicitly spelled out : life-course analysis is one of the rare ways social sciences have developed so far to conceptualise time not just as a physical happening whose whereabouts escape our theoretical understanding, but as something that is culturally, socially and also individually molded, reworked, « constructed », something that has both a subjective and an objective existence, and whose very objectivity is the result of social objectivation rather than of mere « being there » like the eternal rhythm of atomic oscillation. Settersten (1999) has entitled his recent stock-taking book « Lives in Time and Place », referring to two basic dimensions of the real world that both are not just physical « givens », but socially constructed : social space and social time. On the same line as Levy (1977), Kerckhoff, in his above citation, suggests a way to combine them theoretically by conceptualizing life courses as movements through the social structure that can be socially regulated, individually wished for or feared, and favored or hampered by intraindividual mechanisms. In the same vein, in classical developmental psychology, most research was concerned with charting along the age axis the newly acquired skills and mastered developmental tasks by children. Refined descriptions of what the child could achieve at what age flourished, and in various domains age-related norms were established. Wohlwill (1970) was one of the first questioning the limitations of the mere descriptive role of chronological age. Essentially, he ( ?) argued in favor of moving the age variable from the X-side of the equation (independent or explanatory variable) to the Y-side (dependent or explained variable) if one was truly concerned in understanding developmental processes.

In short, in both a humanistic and in a scientific view, life-course research is fascinating because it forces us to break down traditional limitations of understanding.

For further reading, refer to the publication.

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