Life Course - Challenges And Developments In Conducting Life Course Research
Challenges and developments in conducting life course research
Researchers adopting a life course perspective face a number of challenges in studying life course processes in specific historical contexts. Some of the greatest challenges are presented by data limitations. Answers to many life course questions require data collected over time. Researchers interested in long-term pathways must thus choose between following respondents for long periods of time before they can answer their research questions, collecting retrospective information, or using longitudinal survey data collected by others. There are strengths and weaknesses of each of these options, but the growing availability of many large longitudinal data collections has made it increasingly feasible to examine life course processes for large numbers of people.
An additional challenge for those studying the influence of historical events on the life course is that they have to depend on data collected during that time period. Thankfully, a number of long-term longitudinal studies were conducted throughout the twentieth century, but contemporary researchers using older archives must be cautious when using the data to answer very different questions than those for which the data were originally designed (Elder, Pavalko, and Clipp). Data repositories such as the Henry Murray Center at Radcliffe College that collect and store old survey archives are particularly valuable for those wishing to do historical life course research.
Growth in the number of longitudinal data collections is matched by a parallel expansion in the tools available for longitudinal analyses. Researchers are thus presented with a wide range of techniques such as event history analysis, hierarchical linear modeling, and sequence analysis for analyzing single or multiple events, patterns and sequences of roles, or more gradual patterns of stability and change. The complexity and range of available analytical tools presents both challenges and opportunities. As new approaches are developed to capture different kinds of processes, they provide greater flexibility for measuring and analyzing life course processes in multiple ways. At the same time, our ability to measure process in multiple ways, whether it be sequences, events, pathways, or more simple change, pushes us to more clearly specify the nature of the processes we are trying to study.
While challenges in answering life course questions are increasingly being met with new data and analytical tools, a persistent challenge inherent to the life course perspective is balancing attention to the complexity and variability of individual lives with a goal of generalizing patterns across individuals (Settersten). Is attention to variation in the historical and structural contexts in which lives unfold at odds with efforts to develop a more generalizable understanding of life course processes? At what point does attention to the complex dynamics of lives, such as the interlocking trajectories of family, work, and health, become so unwieldy that it threatens the usefulness of the perspective? There are inherent tensions in any perspective that seeks to understand lives in context, but they are particularly salient for life course research (Settersten).