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Introducing social work: a starter kit
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3.2 The life course perspective

This is a photograph of a woman playing a game with a young girl.
Figure 10

A life course perspective agrees with Baltes’ theory that development is lifelong, multidirectional and influenced by contextual factors. The life course perspective has been particularly influential in the 1990s, especially as part of a growing interest in the study of ageing. The perspective grew out of longitudinal childhood research by Elder (1974) in the USA. He noticed how individual and family pathways had been greatly impacted upon by the Great Depression. He concluded that a development theory was needed that took a person’s historic context into consideration. In his later work, Elder identified more principles of a life course approach.

Elder’s principles have been summarised by Alwin (2012) and include:

  • life span development – that is, human development and ageing are lifelong processes
  • agency – individuals construct their own lives through the choices and actions they take within social structures (i.e. the opportunities and constraints of social arrangements) and historical circumstances
  • time and place – the lives of people are embedded and shaped by the historical times and places they experience over time
  • timing – the developmental consequences of events and transitions are conditional on their timing in people’s lives
  • linked lives – people’s lives are lived interdependently and sociohistorical influences are expressed through networks of shared relationships.