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Chapter |1|

Age, the Life Course, and the Sociological

Imagination: Prospects for Theory
Dale Dannefer,
Department of Sociology, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio

CHAPTER CONTENTS Social Science Theories of Age and the Life

Course and the Sociological Imagination 10
Introduction: Age, Life Course and Heuristic of Containment 11
Sociological Imagination 3 Heuristic of Openness 12
The Emergence of the Life Course in Summary: Age and the Reach of the
the Study of Age 4 Sociological Imagination 12
Biography and Structure: Two Paradigms Acknowledgments 13
of Life Course Scholarship 4 References 13
Strategies of Explanation 5
The Biographical Perspective 5
Cell A1: Individual Life Course INTRODUCTION: AGE, LIFE
Outcomes Accounted for by
Personological Factors 6 COURSE, AND SOCIOLOGICAL
General Age-Related Change Processes 6 IMAGINATION
Early Life Experience 6
Recent years have seen a range of new issues emerging
Cell B1: Individual Life Course Outcomes
to confront social science approaches to age and the
Explained by Sociological Factors 7
life course (hereafter ALC). These include an expand-
The Potential of Social Circumstances in ing array of work on the life course in fields as diverse
Adulthood to Modify Life Course Trajectories 7 as health and criminology, the growing body of work
Predictive Adaptive Response: The Interaction on cumulative dis/advantage that problematizes the
of Fetal Development with Adult Health 7 intersection of age and inequality, break-through
Physical and Genetic Effects of Experience understandings of biosocial interactions, and global
During Adulthood 8 population aging. In some respects, such issues rep-
Cell A2: Collective Life Course resent fresh versions of longstanding problems in the
Outcomes Accounted for by study of ALC. Yet they also comprise a range of new
Personological Factors 8 phenomena for analysis that may challenge the con-
tours of existing theory, and they cannot be ignored by
Cell B2: Collective Life Course Outcomes
Accounted for by Sociological Factors 9 efforts to develop a theoretical understanding of ALC.
This chapter reviews aspects of these developments
The Institutional Perspective: in the context of more general theoretical considera-
Cells C and D 9 tions. It begins with a review of the place of theory in
Sociological Accounts of Age and Life Course life course studies. Although the field of ALC has been
as Elements of Social Structure 9 subjected to little formal theorizing, insights contrib-
Personological Approaches to the Life Course uted along several axes of inquiry have had a major
as Structure 10 impact on the study of age, especially in compelling a

© 2011 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

DOI: 10.1016/B978-0-12-380880-6.00001-0 3

recognition of the importance of social circumstances potentials of sociological imagination to illuminate

and events in shaping age-related patterns and out- the issues currently facing the study of ALC, from the
comes. Moreover, despite the lack of formal theory, dynamics of retirement to gene–environment (GE)
theoretical assumptions are often implicit in empiri- inter­actions. We begin with a review of key develop-
cal studies and discussions of the life course, and ments in the establishment of the current field of
they have consequences for the framing of research ALC studies, before focusing on how social science
questions and the interpretation of findings. This explanations are being mobilized in current work
chapter is concerned with such implicit assumptions and their potentials for illuminating emerging ques-
as well as more explicit theoretical statements. tions and issues.
To organize the discussion, I rely on a refined ver-
sion of the matrix of ALC research outlined in earlier
work (Dannefer & Kelley-Moore, 2009; Dannefer &
Uhlenberg, 1999), comprised of typologies of
explananda (types of phenomena to be explained) COURSE IN THE STUDY OF AGE
and explanantia (types of explanations), beginning
by offering some general comments about the devel- In the last few decades, the role of circumstances and
opment of theoretical problems in the study of ALC. events in shaping how human beings’ age has been
It is useful to begin by clarifying what is meant by increasingly recognized, catalyzed by the emergence
“theory” – a term with many possible definitions. of several strands of work that comprise the life
As defined here, a scientific theory consists of an course perspective. These themes were given an ini-
effort to provide an account or explanation of a phe- tial articulation in early statements outlining the life
nomenon of interest, based on empirical evidence. course as a field of study (Cain, 1964; Elder, 1975).
It is the objective of theory to illuminate that which Along with cohort analysis (Ryder, 1965) and Riley’s
was obscure and simplify that which was complex initial articulation of the “aging and society” (or “age
or bewildering. By showing how seemingly disparate stratification”) framework (Riley et al., 1972, 1994),
forces may be connected to each other, it gives order the life course perspective emerged in the 1970s as
to a congeries of disorganized observations. a key arena of scholarship for understanding aging.
Developing sound theory has special challenges Simultaneously, constructivist approaches provided
in fields where unsound beliefs and assumptions fresh and powerful insights into the constitution of
abound, which is inevitably the case in the study of aging in everyday life (e.g. Gubrium, 1978). The soci-
age. “Knowledge” of many familiar and seemingly ological imagination was clearly vibrant during this
obvious age-related phenomena – often those involv- foundational period, which established life course
ing forms of decline – is readily available to everyone. principles as essential to understanding human aging.
Despite extensive evidence that development and
aging are contingent and modifiable processes, even
social and behavioral scientists share the popular
idea that many kinds of individual change “inevitably BIOGRAPHY AND STRUCTURE:
happen” with age, and are therefore “explained” by TWO PARADIGMS OF LIFE COURSE
age. From doctor visits to late-night television, such
assumptions are part of daily experience in late mod- SCHOLARSHIP
ern societies, to which gerontologists are not immune.
In the case of age, the problem is complicated not From its beginnings, the life course perspective has
only by an unreflected and culturally defined famili- included two broad, yet distinct, paradigmatic ori-
arity with the subject matter, but also by the fact that entations, which may termed the biographical and the
age itself appears as a property of the individual that is institutional. The term biographical encompasses the
anchored largely in the self-contained processes of the analysis of life course patterns and outcomes in terms
organism. It is thus inherently a topic that is vulnerable of trajectories and transitions; the institutional perspec-
to reductionism, naturalization, and microfication. tive refers to the organization of social structures and
Half a century ago, C. Wright Mills called upon practices in age-graded and age-normalized terms.
social scientists to cultivate and nurture “sociologi- The distinction represents a refinement of an earlier
cal imagination” – the proactive exploration of the framework (e.g. Dannefer & Kelley-Moore, 2009) and
ways in which social forces shape human experience is also represented in other recent discussions, such
and the values and perspectives that regulate individ- as Mayer’s contrast of “early conditions and later life
ual lives. As Mills noted, a failure to exercise socio- outcomes” vs “institutions” as the two major foci of
logical imagination is an abdication of intellectual life course research (2009, pp. 417–419). Each of these
responsibility that risks the ceding of conceptual orientations is focused on a distinct set of explananda,
terrain to the explanatory efforts of other disciplines with its own research questions and problems. Both
(1959, p. 13–18). This chapter is concerned with the are essential to a full discussion of ALC theory.


The biographical perspective is focused on depicting has characterized life course analysis in North
the trajectories and transitions that characterize indi- America, whilst European scholars have elaborated
vidual lives. Studies in this tradition have numerous the problem of the life course as a structural feature of
intellectual foci ranging from identifying the impact society (Hagestad & Dannefer, 2001; Mayer, 2009).
of individuals’ early experiences on subsequent life
outcomes to studies that examine historical change in
transition behavior. In this tradition, the explananda STRATEGIES OF EXPLANATION
consist of the empirical patterning and/or outcomes
of individual lives. For most research within the bio- Within each of these two types of life course phe-
graphical tradition, the individual is the unit of analy- nomenon or problematization, several strategies of
sis (George, 2009). However, the unit of analysis can explanation – explanantia – have been advanced. It is
also be collective. Indeed, the cohort is often the unit often in the type of explanation a researcher proposes
of analysis in several important lines of life course that theoretical ideas enter the analysis, regardless of
research, such as studies of cumulative dis/advantage whether the theoretical claim is explicit or implicit.
that rely on measures of inequality, and studies of life Strategies of explanation can be generally categorized
transition behavior based on cohort-level measures. in to the two encompassing categories of personologi-
The institutional perspective focuses on the life course cal and sociological. Personological refers to postulated
as a component of social structure and culture. As such, explanations that locate the presumed cause prima-
the life course is a property not of individual human rily within the person rather than in the domain of
actors but of social systems, manifested in rules, prac- temporally proximate experience and context. Such
tices, law, policy, and operative aspects of social institu- causal factors may range from general organismic
tions. This approach is prototypically illustrated in the processes of aging to psychosocial processes involv-
formulation of the institutionalized life course (here- ing skills, memories, or “choices.” Sociological
after ILC) first set forth by Martin Kohli (1986, 2007). explanations, by contrast, are those in which the
The social apparatus that organizes age also includes explanation is located externally to the person, in
the realm of ideas – in “expert” knowledge and in aspects of the temporally proximate micro-, meso-, or
norms and aesthetics that serve to legitimate and natu- macro-level environment. Within each of these two
ralize age-graded practices. Such pronouncements are broad categories, a range of different subtypes can
often based on age-related notions that are accorded be distinguished. A matrix of life course explananda
the status of authoritative knowledge (deriving from and explanantia (Figure 1.1) will be used to organ-
areas such as science or medicine), and are sometimes ize the discussion, including examples for each
used to sanction behavior as well as inform policy for- cell. Emphatically, this is a classification of types of
mulation. Here, the study of aging intersects with the research, not of researchers. The work of many scholars
sociology of science (Dannefer, 1999a). In sum, from cannot be confined to just one of these categories.
the institutional perspective, the set of social institu-
tions, practices, and ideas that defines the life course is
itself the central problematic of analysis. THE BIOGRAPHICAL PERSPECTIVE
While both biographical and institutional foci are
described in the seminal formulations of Cain and Perhaps the most popular type of problem for life
of Riley and associates, these two approaches reflect course analysis, especially in North America, con-
a differential emphasis between North America and cerns individual life trajectories and outcomes and their
Europe. Research on biographical life course outcomes shaping by earlier life circumstances.

Personological Sociological
A1 B1
Biographical General age-related change processes Trajectory change via adult opportunity
Stable individual differences Predictive adaptive response
Individual Early life experiences Social effects on physical change

A2 B2
Collective Population aging & cognitive change Inequality, poverty, and social policy
Social change in transition timing/choice Cumulative dis/advantage by opportunity structures

Cohort norm formation Institutionalization of the life course
Institutional Age norms
Naturalization of age by developmental theories

Figure 1.1  Explananda and explanantia of the life course.


Cell A1: Individual Life Course For example, a person with a genotype favoring
high reasoning ability may choose work that is
Outcomes Accounted for by
substantively complex, which tends to provide
Personological Factors further opportunities for enhanced intellectual
Personological explanations for individual life course functioning. (2003, p. 605)
outcomes take numerous forms, including: (1) general Although interactive, the primacy of a postulated
age-related change processes; (2) putatively stable indi- genetic cause is clearly articulated here in a straightfor-
vidual-difference characteristics such as genes, traits, ward way. Numerous examples of research postulating
temperament, or personality; (3) prior experience such a unidirectional logic of causality from genetic
including the development of habits, creative poten- endowment to phenotypic characteristics and life
tials, and coping skills; and (4) “agency” or “choice.” course outcomes can be found in research on an array
of topics relevant to life course studies (e.g. childbear-
General Age-Related Change Processes ing and family formation, crime, twin studies). This
The assumption of an inevitable age-related decline in work represents an important early step in bringing
functioning was, of course, famously formalized in the together work on the life course and GE interactions.
universalized propositions of disengagement theory As will be discussed below, however, such approaches
(Cumming & Henry, 1961). Like other stage mod- comprise a relatively narrow set of a broader spectrum
els, disengagement is a version of organismic theory of ways that GE interactions are currently being con-
(Dannefer, 1984; Hochschild, 1975). This approach ceptualized (see also Chapter 10).
continues to be an influential idea in numerous areas of
research such as cognitive aging (Alwin & Hofer, 2008) Early Life Experience
and in social science applications lifespan theories such
Much research in the life course tradition has empha-
as Baltes’ Selection-Optimization-Com­pensation model
sized the importance of early experience on life
(e.g. Kahana et al., 2002). Descriptive evidence point-
course outcomes. Indeed, the prototypical logic of life
ing to age-related decline as a general trend for many
course research introduced by Glen Elder in Children
individual characteristics probably sustains the plausi-
of the Great Depression (1999 (1974)) and related
bility of these ideas, even though they often entail the
writings is based on a straightforward logic that seeks
risk of what Riley (1973) called a “life course fallacy” –
to account for outcomes later in the life course on
mistaking cross-sectional observations for biographical
the basis of earlier life experiences. By demonstrat-
ing the consequences of early experience, this work
Stable Individual Differences helped make clear that aging cannot be understood
as a purely individual matter. It provided a major cat-
Beyond explanations that focus on species-wide or gen-
alyst to demonstrate the importance of social science
eral age-related factors, some studies take an individual
approaches in the study of aging, opening a window
differences approach, focusing on trait-like features of
onto a horizon of context and social structure.
the individual. Whether regarded as innate or as devel-
Such work has clearly extended the reach of the
oping early in the life course, such characteristics are
sociological imagination. Nevertheless, in this
often hypothesized to predict later life outcomes.
approach, measurement of the environment is
Some of the work on GE interactions fits within
often limited to the initial wave of data collection,
this category, reflecting a growing interest in the
so that subsequent circumstances and events are
“social or environmental influence on the expres-
not considered. This practice, called “Time One
sion of genetic predisposition” (Guo & Stearns, 2002,
Encapsulation,” means that context only matters
p. 884; see also Chapter 10). As life course scholars
at the point of initial data collection and its effects
have become concerned with integrating developments
“are thus carried forward through time and assumed
from the expanding discourse on GE interactions into
to manifest themselves as a characteristic of the
their work, one form that such interaction can take is
individual in middle and later life” (Dannefer &
expressed in the simple assumption that genetically
Kelley-Moore, 2009, p. 395).
determined or constrained characteristics may shape life
A second example of Time One Encapsulation is
course outcomes. Shanahan et al. (2003) describe three
provided by Doblhammer and Vaupel’s (2001) lon-
ways that genetic endowment may “correlate” with
gitudinal study of the link between seasonality and
environmental influences: passive, reactive, and active.
mortality. They find that mortality risk at age 50 is
Even the most interactive of these (active) clearly locates
related to month of birth, with lower risk for persons
the primary explanatory force within the individual, at
born in Autumn than in Spring in both Southern and
the genetic level:
Northern hemispheres. Despite the strength of the
The active correlation refers to the person finding, the use of vital statistics records limits explo-
actively selecting and molding settings that are ration of unmeasured social factors that may mediate
congruent with his or her genetic endowment. or underlie the birth-month–mortality connection,


thereby encapsulating the primary explanans for the exemplary set of studies demonstrating the contin-
later-life mortality differential in early life. gency of adult outcomes on recent as well as bio-
graphically prior experiences. Based on a follow-up
Agency of the participants in the Gluecks’ classic study of
Agency is frequently invoked in the discourse on the delinquent boys begun in the 1940s, they demonstrate
life course, sometimes nominated to explain what that changing opportunities and circumstances in
is “left over” as unexplained variance, but in other adulthood can “reset” what happens earlier. For exam-
cases as a central component in a carefully articu- ple, they found that the post-World WarII GI Bill dis-
lated model. For example, in stress research (Pearlin & proportionately benefited veterans with a delinquent
Skaff, 1996), concepts such as proactive aging and past (2003, pp. 48–51), demonstrating how emergent
“preventive proactivity” have received increasing atten- opportunity structures can create a dramatic change in
tion (Kahana et al., 2002; Ouwehand et al., 2007). what once appeared to be a stable trajectory. Marriage
As a second example, consider research on work and stable work circumstances also predicted a reduced
and retirement. In this area, choice is assumed in eco- likelihood of criminal activity. Laub and Sampson
nomic models that rely on a few predictor variables demonstrated that these findings cannot be accounted
aligned with rational choice theory (Costa, 1998; for by a turnaround in delinquent behavior that pre-
Lee, 2001). Such models involve a series of difficult cedes these work–family changes, and that such life
assumptions that invite more careful empirical analy- course developments cannot be explained by selection
sis, including attention to work–family issues (Han & effects. At least in the post-World WarII environment,
Moen, 1999; Shuey & O’Rand, 2004), the equation it appeared that military experience combined with the
of age and disability, and other issues (Kelley-Moore, GI Bill led both to a severing of earlier peer relation-
2010; O’Rand, 2005; Warner et al., 2010). ships and a diminishment of the stigmatization deriv-
ing from having earlier been labeled a delinquent.

Cell B1: Individual Life Course

Outcomes Explained by Predictive Adaptive Response: The
Sociological Factors Interaction of Fetal Development with
Sociological explanantia of individual life course out- Adult Health
comes are those that refer to temporally proximate fea- Especially in domains related to health, some of the
tures of social structure and the dynamics of ongoing clearest demonstrations of the effects of social forces
social life. There has been no shortage of sociological on individual outcomes have come from outside
research that illustrates the impact of the immediate the social sciences, as discoveries in the health sci-
social circumstances on life course outcomes. Often, ences have continued to point to the role of multiple
such circumstances have no explicit connection to age, aspects of social experience (e.g. nutrition, toxin expo-
but in many familiar and relevant instances they do – sure, lifestyle factors). Among the consequences of
as in the case of retirement policies, age grading in such research has been the establishment of an emerg-
schools, and the documented salience of the correlated ing field of biology: ecological developmental biology
factors of age and time-in-job in the construction of (e.g. Gilbert & Epel, 2009). Barker’s (1998) work relat-
careers (Hermanowicz, 2007; Kanter, 1993; Lawrence, ing birthweight and adult obesity was an important
1996). Indeed, the social meanings and rules assigned catalyst for this developing field, which emphasizes
to age may themselves become a force that explains the interaction of early and subsequent environments
life course outcomes. Thus, age-graded social structures in determining the form of gene expression.
such as the ILC are relevant not only as a problem to The unavoidable necessity of incorporating the
be explained (to be discussed below) but also as an analysis of social forces into such research is well illus-
explanation – as a factor that shapes individual and trated in the work of biologists Peter Gluckman and
collective life course trajectories. Whatever the property Mark Hanson, who describe their version of “a life
being studied, the importance of looking at temporally course approach” in remarkably familiar terms: “There
proximate social characteristics is well-illustrated by are at least three aspects to consider: the various
cases in which circumstances in adulthood change the strands of inheritance, the environment experienced
course of earlier trajectories. during development, and the environment now being
faced” (2006a, 2006b, p. 204). Gluckman and Hanson
The Potential of Social Circumstances coined the term “predictive adaptive response” to
describe components of fetal or early childhood devel-
in Adulthood to Modify Life Course
opment that “set” the developing organism’s pattern
Trajectories of gene expression, with sometimes counterintuitive
The work of Laub and Sampson on crime over the effects on adult health. The term refers to the capacity
life course (2003; Sampson & Laub, 2005) offers an of fetus and infant to “sense its environment,” and to


use nutritional or hormonal signals from the mother utilizing structural MRI brain scans, significantly
to determine key settings for “mobilizing nutrients to increased “gray matter volume” was found in both
support…development” (2006b, p.166). hippocampal lobes of licensed London cab driv-
Two key elements of these processes are relevant to ers (who must study for a minimum of 10 months,
life course theorizing. The first is “epigenesis,” or the memorizing the city’s map to qualify) compared with
regulation of genetic expression by environmental a control group (Maguire et al., 2000).
conditions (see Chapter 10). Second is the “setting” Other developments demonstrate that the relevance
or stabilization of the epigenetic outcome into a spe- of the sociological imagination in adulthood also
cific set of metabolic and hormonal “habituations” reaches to the genetic level. Here, one promising line
that constitute the organism’s prediction of its future of discovery concerns features of social experience,
environmental circumstances. If, for example, the specifically of one’s social network. Social isolation
food supply changes so that nutritional intake does and connectedness are of increasing interest to some
not match predictions made at the very beginning of biologists, who have found effects of the quality of
the life course, severe health problems may ensue. The social experience to be correlated with gene expression,
prototypical example, found in alarming proportions with consequences for immune system functioning.
in a growing number of societies, is ready access to For example, in an analysis of 55-year-olds (using the
high-fat, high-carbohydrate diets of individuals who Chicago Health, Aging, and Social Relations Study),
were undernourished as infants – a recipe for obes- differences between individuals reporting high and low
ity, diabetes, and other health problems. Such a case levels of social isolation were found in the expression
makes clear that the risk of health problems in adult- of 209 genes in circulating leukocytes. The authors con-
hood can be understood neither by Time One nor clude that the “data identify a distinct transcriptional
Time Two information alone, but as the product of fingerprint of subjective social isolation in human
their interaction (Gluckman & Hanson, 2004). This leukocytes, which involves increased basal expression
case makes clear the growing recognition in biology of inflammatory and immune response genes.” (Cole
and genetics of the sustained importance of social et al., 2007, p. 10). Interestingly, biological researchers
and environmental forces over the life course. In the began to look at such issues, in part through concern
context of aging, similar arguments have also been about the societal issues of television and computer
developed concerning life course risks for developing usage, and the substitution of such activity for face-to-
dementia (Douthit, 2006; Douthit & Dannefer, 2007). face social interaction (Sigman, 2009).
Such cases illustrate vividly the limitations to knowl- Across these several horizons of discovery of the
edge that may accompany Time One Encapsulation. importance of social forces in shaping biosocial
Efforts to link genetic influence to complex human interactions and genetic expression, it is interesting
activity and behavior have shown relatively little to note the extent to which intellectual questions
success, compared to the powerful effects seen in are being driven by biological researchers. Such lines
“Mendelian” outcomes involved in disease proc- of research suggest that new measures of physical
esses that are determined or largely determined by change at both the genetic and cellular levels provide
one allele (Guo et al., 2009). Findings such as those opportunities to link such characteristics to social
discussed here suggest that advances in such efforts science measures, and hence to apply the sociologi-
will require more detailed information on social and cal imagination to a much wider range of age-related
environmental factors. Such work has the potential and life course outcomes than previously envisioned.
to enhance simultaneously our understanding of the
life course, and the value of social science theory and
techniques for colleagues working in other disciplines. Cell A2: Collective Life Course
Outcomes Accounted for by
Physical and Genetic Effects of Experience Personological Factors
During Adulthood Cells A2 and B2 are concerned with the life course out-
The development of brain imaging techniques has comes of a population or other collectivity. Typically,
made it possible to show the impact of environ- in life course research, the cohort comprises the collec-
mental change on brain growth during childhood. tive unit of analysis. Examples are distributional char-
Children who have lived under sustained traumatic acteristics such as intracohort variability or inequality,
or near-feral circumstances have the effects of those or measures of cohort transition behavior such as the
experiences inscribed in abnormal patterns of brain interquartile range. Cohort size can also be a factor
development, but such physical abnormalities can of interest. An example is provided by the analysis
be corrected by effective early interventions (see, for undertaken by Alwin and associates, who focus on
example, Perry & Svalavitz, 2006). However, such the societal costs and policy implications of cognitive
socially regulated cognitive and physical changes do decline assumed to accompany population aging. In
not appear to be limited to childhood. In a study their view, declines in physical and cognitive function


are “to some extent intrinsic to the organism rather cross-national (Hoffman, 2008) variation consist-
than brought about by the environment; and they ent with predictions based on policy differences and
occur in a pattern that is characteristic of all mem- change, such as the effects of social security and other
bers of a given species” (Alwin, 2010; see also Alwin & pension systems in the US and the implementation
Hofer, 2008). Thus, the projected rapid expansion of more extensive welfare state policies in European
in the numbers of aging individuals likely to experi- societies. Due to the link between resources and
ence cognitive decline poses a societal problem that health that comprises the socioeconomic gradient,
requires attention because of the population-level such patterns may also reflect effects on health.
strains it will place on the social system.
A second example is offered by demographic stud-
ies of cohort differences in transition behavior. During The Institutional Perspective:
the twentieth century, research consistently suggested Cells C and D
trends toward increasing homogeneity among age peers
in making the transitions to adulthood (e.g. Buchmann, Although great variation exists among and within
1989; Hogan, 1981) and retirement (Blossfeld et al., societies over time (e.g. Achenbaum, 1978; Chudacoff,
2006). This increase in conformity in transition behav- 1989; Ikels & Beall, 2001), the established practices
ior has been interpreted as resulting from economic of every society deal with matters of aging. In each
prosperity, which provides greater opportunities for society, a particular mode of apprehending aging is
individual expression or choice (Costa, 1998; Modell, an integral feature of language, culture, and social
1989). As has been noted earlier, this interpretation organization. Cells C and D are concerned with this
is quite paradoxical, in that it presumes greater choice phenomenon – with age as an integral and organizing
leading to greater conformity (e.g. Dannefer, 1984; feature of social structure.
Kohli, 2007). More recently, there has emerged some
evidence that this trend toward age-based conformity
Sociological Accounts of Age and Life
in transition behavior may be showing signs of reversal
with the delay of marriage (Harper & Harper, 2004;
Course as Elements of Social Structure
Lehrer, 2008), extended educational careers, erosion of The early North American formulations of the life
work life and career stability (Fitch & Ruggles, 2000), course (Cain, 1964; Riley et al., 1972) acknowledged
and boomerang children. Yet again, choice and individ- the importance of age and life course ideation as a
ual decision making often figure in the interpretation feature of social structure. Yet this idea has been given
offered for such changes. its most systematic elaboration in several lines of
European work, beginning with the pioneering work
of Martin Kohli (1986) on the life course as a social
Cell B2: Collective Life Course institution.
Outcomes Accounted for by From this perspective, the particular constellation of
roles, age-based legal statuses, policies, norms, and expec-
Sociological Factors
tations that comprises the life course of late modernity
A topic of growing interest in the study of ALC has can be analyzed as a social institution that is an emer-
been the process of cumulative dis/advantage, which gent feature of the modern state, which first institution-
is concerned with the intersection of age and inequal- alized age grading in childhood (see, e.g. Gillis, 1974;
ity (e.g. Crystal & Shea, 2003; Dannefer, 1987, 2003a, Kett, 1977), and then in later life through the establish-
2009; Ferraro & Shippee, 2009; O’Rand, 2003). As ment of retirement (Ekerdt & DeViney, 1990; Macmillan,
noted earlier, inequality and variability are inher- 2005). Such demographic “age homogenization” gave
ently properties not of individuals but of cohorts (or rise to further increases in “age consciousness” and to age
other population units), and the outcomes of interest norms (Settersten & Hagestad, 1996).
concern the distribution of a characteristic over the Kohli’s framework is not limited to the analysis of
specified population unit and the construction of life the structural and symbolic apparatus of society. An
course trajectories of inequality. Several studies in this important element of his overall argument concerns
tradition present trajectories of inequality (e.g. Crystal & the effect of the institutionalization of the life course
Waehrer, 1996; Dannefer & Sell, 1988), although oth- on individual lives, which was noted earlier. As such,
ers examine inequality by comparing subgroup dif- numerous properties related to the hereafter ILC, such
ferences (Farkas, 2003; Ferraro & Kelley-Moore, 2003; as pension policy or age norms, stand as explanantia
Mirowsky & Ross, 2005). In this work, the underlying in relation to biographical life course outcomes. The
theoretical framework focuses on macro-level social order provided by such structures, Kohli suggests, is
processes believed to amplify inequality as individu- one form of solution to the enduring social problem
als move through age-graded opportunity structures. of order in modernity. Gemeinschaft is thus replaced
This argument is supported by related work show- not by some new form of collectivity, but by “individ-
ing historical (e.g. Leisering & Leibfried, 2000) and ualization” and “temporalization,” which bring a sense


of orderliness to individual biography – a solution to demographic transition (Lesthage & Neels, 2002) and
the threat of anomie never anticipated by the classical globalization are leading to a de-institutionalization of
theorists: the life course, if greater economic uncertainty threat-
ens the stability of the life course regime (Kohli, 2007;
The model of institutionalization of the life
Macmillan, 2005; Phillipson & Scharf, 2004).
course refers to the evolution, during the last two
From the “life course as structure” perspective,
centuries, of an institutional program regulating
the uncritical acceptance of social or psychologi-
one’s movement through life both in terms of
cal theories of individual aging (whether in terms of
a sequence of positions and in terms of a set of
age-graded roles or “life stages”) is a form of natu-
biographical orientations by which to organize
ralization (Dannefer, 1999b) that is content to make
one’s experiences and plans (Kohli, 2007, p.255).
general extrapolations about aging from a superfi-
For life course scholars, a key point is that these cial description of observed life course patterns in
developments rely on chronological age as an organiz- the immediate and local present, without probing to
ing criterion. Kohli refers to this process as “chronolo- understand the causal forces underlying such patterns.
gization,” and it receives support from historical work
documenting the development of age awareness and
age norms in North America (Chudacoff, 1989). Of Personological Approaches to the Life
course, the ILC can take a variety of forms across as well Course as Structure
as within societies (Mayer, 2001). Moreover, it is clear To the extent that discussions of age norms or life
that the generic structure of life course institutionaliza- course institutions emphasize individual aging as a
tion is much broader and can be configured in ways reality to which social structure must accommodate,
that are dramatically different from the dominant narra- they provide examples for Cell C – personological
tive form of the ILC as a component of the welfare state. explanations for the institutionalization of the life
Consider, for example, the career stages (tiny gang- course. That is the implication of selection-based
ster, li’l homey, homeboy, O.G.) of the abbreviated life psychological models applied to age (e.g. Baltes &
course that is institutionalized within the social world of Freund, 2003; Charles & Carstensen, 2007), and
urban street gangs in the US (Bing, 1991; Burton, 2007; of Callahan’s “expectable life course,” proposed
Burton et al., 1996; Dannefer, 2003b). The life course of as a rationale for limiting medical care to elders, in
such “marginal” social worlds can easily pass unnoticed response to projections of rising health care costs
by middle-class researchers, but it is enduring and resil- (1995; for an analysis see Binstock, 2002).
ient; in the US, street gang culture is older than the cul- In addition to arguments that presume inevita-
ture of schools. It is intriguing to consider whether the ble organismic change, human agency has also been
life course perspective may add to, or be informed by, an proposed as an explanation of change in the social-
analysis of the structural interdependence of such mar- structural organization and meaning of age. That is
ginal yet resilient subcultural structures with the official what Matilda Riley attempted to do with her idea of
and state-sanctioned versions of the ILC. cohort norm formation (1978). Using as an example
Another aspect of the ILC that requires sociologi- age-related changes in women’s status in the 1970s,
cal analysis is its ideological function in legitimating she proposed that changes in age norms – specifically
and naturalizing age. The dominant narrative of the age-related changes in gender expectations – resulted
ILC has made specific ideas about “age normality” or from a large aggregation of individual women simulta-
“age-appropriateness” widely plausible and popular, neously making similar decisions about their lifestyle.
giving them a sense of taken-for-granted-ness. This While her depiction is not incorrect, it is inevitably
naturalization of the life course has been sanctioned by incomplete since it does not address the contextual
psychological and developmental theories that declare factors behind the decision making processes of the
the life stages comprising the ILC to be universal women in question. Rather than a matter of decon-
expressions of human nature. In each case, historical textualized “pure choice,” this was seen as a response
and social analysis have shown how such theories are to the women’s movement and the attendant cultural,
recent innovations that have followed the emergence political, and economic developments of the time.
of an institutional apparatus leading to a social preoc-
cupation with a particular life stage (see, for example,
Kett (1977) on adolescence, Hochschild (1975) and
Riley (1978) on disengagement, and Dannefer (1984, SOCIAL SCIENCE THEORIES OF
1999b) on adult development theory). Thus, such
theories can be analyzed as components of an ideo-
logical apparatus that supports the ILC by conferring THE SOCIOLOGICAL IMAGINATION
upon it the status of “human nature.”
Currently, scholars of the ILC are debating whether Although the sociological imagination has been alive
the challenges posed to the welfare state by the second and well in the study of ALC, recent developments


compel scholars of ALC to think in more interdiscipli- social practices or outcomes to genotypic variation.
nary, global, and critical terms. As population aging Numerous such studies exist in the psychological
becomes an increasingly global phenomenon even as and social-psychological literatures, dealing with
globalization challenges the capacities of post-indus- issues as diverse as crime, poverty, sexuality, and even
trial societies to maintain policies that support grow- religiosity.
ing elder populations, the organization and meaning To illustrate the logic of containment in such
of age may change again. And at the individual level, work, the typology of GE interactions presented by
we are learning more about the extent to which Shanahan and Hofer (2005) offers a useful starting
aging is shaped by experience, and hence by the social, point. In their four-fold typology, social conditions
political, and economic structures that organize every- may (1) trigger, (2) control, (3) compensate, or (4)
day life. enhance genetic potentials. Except for triggering,
It is ironic that at the same time that social scien- each of these four categories entails a heuristic of
tists are seeking to integrate concepts from fields containment, because in each case one single socio­
such as behavioral genetics and evolutionary biol- environmental variable is introduced; everything not
ogy into their work, biologists are emphasizing the accounted for by this single factor is implicitly cred-
importance of environmental influences on physical ited to the genotype.
change, including the regulation of gene expression, Consider as an example one popular idea in stud-
throughout the life course. Such dynamics unavoid- ies of GE interactions, which is that the amount
ably cross disciplinary boundaries and involve mul- of repressive control one experiences regulates the
tiple kinds of multi-level processes. Within and influence of the genome. As Guo and Stearns (2002,
beyond the study of ALC, efforts to understand and p.885) contend:
conceptualize such processes are still at an early
Within a society, individuals may enjoy different
stage. Clearly, this comprises an important horizon
levels of opportunities or face different levels of
for the sociological imagination.
societal constraint with respect to a particular
One way to consider the place of the sociologi-
behavior. Individuals who live under greater
cal imagination in theorizing ALC is to contrast two
societal constraint have more difficulty in
broadly different heuristic postures toward the inves-
realizing their genetic potential.
tigation of individual life course outcomes with social
forces: first, a heuristic of containment, and second, a Similar arguments by others have suggested that
heuristic of openness. As will be seen, these two heu- genetic differences can explain phenomena as diverse
ristic postures or attitudes correspond to two different as school performance and historical variation in sex-
modes of theorizing – first, the symbiosis of func- ual activity (Dunne et al., 1997).
tionalism and developmental theory that has guided Such discussions acknowledge the importance
much theorizing in social science approaches to ALC of social context as an operative factor in regulat-
and that rests on a modified organismic model of ing activity, including genetic expression, but only
development, and, second, a social-critical or consti- in the matter of social control as indexed by one or two
tutionalist approach that begins with a recognition of factors, such as long-term social change or family stress.
human development, age, and life course as consti- Remaining variance is assumed to be accounted for
tuted to the core only in and through social processes at the individual level, and assigned to the genome.
(Dannefer, 2008). The problem with this approach should be obvi-
ous: The sociological imagination recognizes that
one or a few measured social factors cannot begin
to represent the total effect of social forces, nor can
Heuristic of Containment all remaining variance properly be ascribed to the
The heuristic of containment refers to explanatory genome, for at least two kinds of reasons that respect
models in which the logic of the analysis implicitly, if entirely the importance of genetic differences. First,
not explicitly, limits and contains the effect of social consider the point – well-established but seldom rec-
forces. Such logic has a long history in social science ognized – that some genetic characteristics (e.g. skin
approaches to aging. For example, cohort analyses color, height) trigger interactional cues from oth-
have often been conducted with a heuristic of con- ers that shape behavior (e.g. Jencks, 1980; Joseph,
tainment, as when environmental effects are equated 2004; Marmot, 2004). Thus, the behavioral signifi-
with intercohort differences, while ignoring intra- cance of gene-based traits is socially organized. A
cohort variability. In such cases, intracohort variation second kind of issue concerns what is overlooked in
has the conceptual status of noise, or uninteresting terms of psychosocial dynamics. For example, it can
error variation. be questioned whether the kinds of change gener-
Another arena in which a heuristic of containment ally depicted in such analyses represent a reduction
can be discerned is in discussions of GE interactions in social control rather than, possibly, a reconfigura-
that credit an unwarranted amount of variation in tion of social control – locating it, for example, in the


peer group rather than community-level constraints activity (Baars, 1991; Berger & Luckmann, 1967;
(as regards sexual behavior [Dunne et al., 1997]), or, Dannefer, 1999b). Only by recognizing the actual
paradoxically, in community-level constraints rather processes through which social relations are consti-
than the peer group or street gang (as regards intel- tuted will we be in a position to apprehend the multi-
lectual development (Guo & Stearns, 2002)). More level power of social forces in shaping the life course.
generally, scholarship on historical change in the Thus, the heuristic of openness begins with the
self contends that what is imagined to be an increase recognition that emphasizes developmental plastic-
in freedom is merely a shift in the mode of control ity at every level, beginning with a recognition that
from, for example, religious to commercial regulation the translation of the genome into a phenotype is
of impulses (Ewen, 1976; Schor, 2004; Turner, 1976; irreducibly an epigenetic process. It recognizes that a
Wexler, 1977). human organism will never be formed into a person
at all without massive influences upon gene expres-
sion by environmental interaction (from chemical to
Heuristic of Openness
the purely social), and the intricacies of the pheno-
The heuristic of openness entails a logic that imposes type that emerges will depend fundamentally on the
no preconceived foreclosure on the scope of influ- nature of experience (Cole, 2008; Dannefer, 2008).
ence of social forces, and considers the possibility
of their effects in domains where they may be unex-
pected. Developing work in areas such as ecological
developmental biology make clear that this strategy SUMMARY: AGE AND THE
can be pursued not just by social scientists, but by
natural scientists as well, when confronted with clear
empirical evidence of the importance of the social, IMAGINATION
as, for example, in the earlier discussion of the effects
of social isolation on gene expression. The study of ALC faces an era of new possibilities,
The heuristic of openness begins with an explicit and with it new obligations, to exercise sociological
recognition that, since before the event of birth, imagination. The ideal types of “containment” and
the genetic material contained in each individual “openness” each have their own distinctive posture
has been immersed in a pervasive social and physi- to approaching research and theory, and offer a dis-
cal environment that regulates the expression of tinction that may be useful in clarifying assumptions
genes, with long-term consequences for the pheno- that underlie postulated explanations that cut across
type (Gluckman & Hanson, 2006b; Jablonka & Raz, disciplines.
2009). Subtle but relentless forces of everyday life, In view of the apprehensions of some social sci-
from diet to the quality of social contact, are respon- entists toward physical and biological factors, it is
sible for setting initial parameters on genetic expres- noteworthy that biometric techniques such as brain
sion and continue throughout the life course. imaging and gene mapping have provided compel-
In seeking to understand GE interactions, the ling arguments for the unrecognized reach of social
sociological imagination thus compels the rigorous forces, and hence for a heuristic of openness. Failing
development of hypotheses concerning how social to press the question of the possibility of an effect of
processes may regulate genetic expression in previ- social forces is a betrayal of the sociological imagina-
ously unrecognized ways and in every type of social tion and a failure to perform the central task of social
environment. The power of social life to influence science, which is to ensure that the full power of
individual development and aging (whether measured social forces in shaping reality is recognized.
at biochemical and cellular levels or through direct The issues that are at stake in considering these two
measures of, for example, health, cognition, or activ- heuristic postures are not limited to abstract theo-
ity) does not change with a change in social regime. retical discussion or debates over how to interpret
It is a constant of human existence and human devel- research findings. They may reach to other domains,
opment. From this perspective, the idea that social or ranging from general cultural constructions of age
environmental effects might “enhance” or “compen- (which, as noted, naturalize differences between and
sate” for the genotype (Shanahan & Hofer, 2005) must within age groups) to the formulation of research
rely on an assumption of the existence of a “normal” agendas by funders (Falletta, 2010). It may also reach
situation against which enhancement or compensa- to the arenas of policy and practice. For example, a
tion is measured – a “normal” situation that is itself strategy of containment is integral to the structure
socially constructed. Such an assumption, integral to and operation of nursing homes, which by their logic
the functionalist-developmental symbiosis that under- assume the passivity and incompetence of residents.
lies the heuristic of containment, must be rejected if Such an assumption can be quite destructive, since
we are to recognize that social contexts, no less than it entails a social organization and cultural logic that
individuals, are continuously reconstituted in social focuses on the vulnerabilities of frail elders rather than


their remaining strengths – a focus that has implica- ALC is to encourage, model, and nurture the care-
tions for the goals of care and the structure of oppor- ful examination of such assumptions. Such scrutiny
tunities afforded frail elders for engagement and can be enhanced by the deliberate thought required
growth in everyday life (Barkan, 2003; Dannefer et al., by theoretical formulations. Even more fundamen-
2008; Kane et al., 2007; Kayser-Jones, 1990). Despite tally, however, such scrutiny will require a lively and
the proliferation of alternative residential models and sustained sociological imagination. Nurturing such
culture change initiatives (Kane et al., 2007; Thomas, imagination is the central task of a social science
1996), the traditional model of containment remains approach to theorizing and the life course.
Across multiple domains of research, policy, prac-
tice, and popular constructions, implicit theoretical
assumptions organize and guide our understanding ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
and consciousness concerning the nature and pos-
sibilities of age, development, and the life course. In The author wishes to thank the editors, Linda George
some cases, such assumptions may be correct and and Joe Hendricks, and Elaine Dannefer, Kathryn
useful. In many cases, as gerontologists well know, Douthit, Lynn Falletta, Gunhild Hagestad, Jessica
they can be empirically wrong and humanly destruc- Kelley-Moore, Michael Shanahan, Robin Shura, Paul
tive. Yet to the extent that they are taken for granted Stein, and David Warner for comments on earlier
as inevitable aspects of aging, they cannot be sub- drafts of this chapter. Thanks also to Rachel Bryant
jected to careful empirical and intellectual scrutiny. and Mary Ellen Stone for comments and for research
Therefore, a key contribution of efforts to theorize assistance, and to Debra Klocker for clerical assistance.


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