Eric D. Widmer

Life trajectories

What types of personal trajectories characterize individuals born since world War II? Is there a single, predominant type, is there a small but varied group of types, or no clear typification at all? What logic underlies these types if they exist? In this regard, several hypotheses can be found in the literature that can be summarized by two pairs of contradictory statements. The first pair concerns the standardization versus individualization of trajectories; the second pair is about the presence of a unique model of trajectories versus two models, differentiated according to gender. In the late nineties, I with colleagues René Levy and Jacques-Antoine Gauthier tested these hypotheses using optimal matching as applied to retrospective data. The Pavie group pursue in this line of research focusing on cohabitation trajectories, and in developing methodological tools in collaboration with bioinformaticiens and statisticians.

Professional trajectories of women and men.
Overall, the hypothesis of pluralization of personal trajectories and conjugal interactions received mixed support from the data considered in this research. For men, statistical analysis revealed the presence of one dominant type of trajectory, characterized by almost continuous employment exercised full-time. The non-standard, more chopped and heteroclite trajectories, characterized by periods of training, part-time jobs and various interruptions, only concern a minority of men and do not represent a clearly identifiable model or trajectory type. So we can conclude that men's trajectories are essentially centered on full-time employment, and that for them, the hypothesis of a general pluralization of work patterns is clearly rejected by the data. To the contrary, the persistence of a strong “standardization” of men's trajectories is confirmed. In clear contrast, women's trajectories follow several distinct models, only one of which is similar to the dominant male trajectory. The four main models are: the “homemaker” where there is a continuous focus on the home; full-time employment (with a decrease between 25 and 35); part-time employment throughout the trajectory; and fourthly women who re-enter the work environment after a period as homemaker. Only a very small minority of women do not follow one of these patterns. This “bounded diversity” of female trajectories clearly follows a logic of social insertion, as the models we found are strongly associated with the number of children born to the couple, their level of education and birth cohort. The hypothesis of individualization corresponds only to a very small number of women's trajectories. Therefore, one should emphasize the fact that both male and female personal trajectories follow a limited set of sequential models. A large proportion of men's trajectories correspond to the tripartition model (Kohli, 1985). For women, several models exist; although more varied, they are limited in number and depend on insertion in the social structure. Thus, in both cases, the hypothesis of far-reaching pluralization of personal trajectories has to be rejected for the couples residing in Switzerland. Our results reject also the hypotheses stipulating a single, gender-neutral trajectory type, along with a gender-typed dichotomy of trajectories, and clearly favor our fifth hypothesis of restricted variation dependent on elements of social insertion.

Family trajectories
Te issue of how family ties of individuals change through life trajectories is central,as one of the main assumption of the configurational perspective is that families are ever evolving through time, in ways that are never fully intended by individuals belonging to them. Life trajectories provide many opportunities for new interdependencies to shape family configurations. Marriages, births, sicknesses, residential moves, divorces, or deaths of family members at the same time destroy and create family interdependencies. In a series of papers, I have tried to estimate the extent to which current family trajectories differ from the well ordered view of family change proposed by the family developmental model.

Methodological innovations
I have been dealing with various methodological issues associated with building typologies of life trajectories, in collaborations with statisticians, bioinformaticians and social science methodologists. One major methodological problem in analysis of sequence data is the determination of costs from which distances between sequences are derived. If this problem is rather new in the social sciences, it has some similarity with problems solved in bioinformatics for three decades. In this article, we propose an optimization of substitution and deletion/insertion costs based on computational methods. We provide an empirical way of determining costs for cases, frequent in the social sciences, in which theory does not clearly promote one cost scheme over another. Using three distinct datasets we tested the distances and cluster solutions produced by the new cost scheme in comparison with solutions based on cost schemes associated with other research strategies. We found that the proposed method performs well compared with other cost setting strategies, while it alleviates the justification problem of cost schemes.

Key references

Cullati S., Kliegel M., Widmer ED. (forthcoming).Development of Reserves over the Life Course and Onset of Vulnerability in Later Life: A Conceptual Proposal. Nature. Human Behavior.

Widmer, E.D., Spini, D. (2017). Misleading Norms and Vulnerability in the Life Course: Definition and Illustrations. Research in Human Development . Vol. 14(1). pp. 52-67. description | Full text

Ammar, N., Gauthier, J.-A., Widmer, E.D. (2014). Trajectories of intimate partnerships, sexual attitudes, desire and satisfaction. Advances in Life Course Research. Vol. 22, pp. 62-72. description | Full text

Levy, R., Widmer, E.D. eds. (2013). Gendered life courses between individualization and standardization. A European approach applied to Switzerland. Lit, Verlag, Wien. p. 393. description | Full text

Müller, N.S., Sapin, M., Gauthier, J.-A., Orita, A., Widmer, E.D. (2012). Pluralized life courses? An exploration of the life trajectories of individuals with psychiatric disorders. International Journal of Social Psychiatry. N°58, 3, pp. 266-277. description |

Gauthier, J., Widmer, E. D., Bucher, P., & Notredame, C. (2010). Multichannel sequence analysis applied to social science data. Sociological Methodology, vol. 40, n°1, pp. 1-38. description | Full text

Widmer, E.D., Ritschard, G. (2009). The de-standardization of the life course: Are men and women equal ? Advances in Life course Research, vol. 14, n° 1-2, pp. 28-39. description | Full text

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