TitleIntroduction to the special issue “Theoretical and methodological frontiers in life course research”
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsBernardi, L, Huinink, J, Settersten, RA
JournalAdvances in Life Course Research
Date Published01/2019

The last few decades have brought a dramatic increase in the development of the life course perspective and its spread to many disciplines and fields. One reason for its success is that it offers a way to coordinate, communicate, interpret, and integrate research and the resulting knowledge base. The life course is also one of the key elements of the study of social and cultural change in contemporary societies. Knowledge about the life course is crucial to welfare states faced with the task of anticipating and responding to challenges in education, work, family, retirement, and other domains.

Despite the fact that the life course is now a standard paradigm for guiding and conducting longitudinal research in the social sciences, advancing life course theory remains a major challenge for contemporary science. This is because a comprehensive model of the life course involves complex multidimensional, multilevel, and dynamic processes. As such, it is interdisciplinary, drawing concepts and hypotheses from the social and behavioral sciences and other disciplines and fields engaged in the study of lives. The task of developing more ambitious theory also rests on methodological developments. This can be done by refining well-established quantitative and qualitative methods and by incorporating multiple methods from different traditions and disciplines.

The research papers and commentaries included in this special issue take up the challenge of envisioning what a theory of the life course might look like, proposing its unique elements and identifying its methodological consequences. The initial ideas were the stimulus for a lively discussion by a group of about 50 renowned life course scholars who met at the Workshop “Advancing Life Course Theories and Methods: Key Challenges and Solutions” at the Hanse Wissenschaftskolleg in Delmenhorst, Germany, February 9–10, 2017. The resulting debate identified priorities, gaps, and solutions for fostering the next era of life course studies.

This special issue is structured in two parts, one theoretical and one methodological. The three papers in the theory section develop a concise but systematic model and address core elements of a theory of the life course, including interdependencies, anticipation and path dependency. The four papers in the methods section advance existing quantitative and qualitative approaches for analyzing longitudinal data.

One of the special features of this special issue is that it contains a collection of commentaries that are important contributions to the field in their own right. Each primary paper is enriched by a brief commentary from another top scholar in that field. The full complement of papers in the theory and methods sections, as well as in the issue as a whole, are further enriched by longer commentaries from scholars with distinct perspectives from other disciplines or fields.

The contents of this special issue are not, of course, exhaustive. But they do help show the way to a more mature and well-developed theory of the life course, and to formal models based on such a theory. As the co-editors of this issue, it is our hope that these papers will spark spirited scientific debate and constructive solutions that can foster and integrate theories, concepts, and methods in life course research.

Short TitleAdvances in Life Course Research