Handbook of the Life Course

Part of the series Handbooks of Sociology and Social Research pp 3-19

The Emergence and Development of Life Course Theory

  • Glen H. ElderJr.Affiliated withDepartment of Sociology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
  • , Monica Kirkpatrick JohnsonAffiliated withDepartment of Sociology, Washington State University
  • , Robert CrosnoeAffiliated withDepartment of Sociology, University of Texas at Austin

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Today, the life course perspective is perhaps the pre-eminent theoretical orientation in the study of lives, but this has not always been the case. The life histories and future trajectories of individuals and groups were largely neglected by early sociological research. In the pioneering study, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-1920), W. I. Thomas (with Florian Znaniecki) first made use of such histories and trajectories and argued strongly that they be investigated more fully by sociologists. By the mid-1920s, Thomas was emphasizing the vital need for a “longitudinal approach to life history” using life record data (Volkart, 1951, p. 593). He advocated that studies investigate “many types of individuals with regard to their experiences and various past periods of life in different situations” and follow “groups of individuals into the future, getting a continuous record of experiences as they occur.” Though this advice went unheeded for decades, Thomas’s early recommendations anticipated study of the life course and longitudinal research that has become such a central part of modern sociology and other disciplines.