Central Concepts

The Center's research program was oriented toward answering three sets of questions:

  1. The first set of questions focuses on the relationships between the macrolevel structure of societies and patterns of the life course. In what manner and with which outcomes do institutions shape the patterns and distributions of individual life courses? We look at life courses as generated by social norms, by institutional configurations, and by opportunity structures, all of which vary across social groups as well as specific national and historical contexts. Life courses are a summary concept for the intertwined processes of residential migration, family history, education and training trajectories, employment, and occupational careers, as well as the temporal patterns of relationships to the social insurance systems. Therefore, with respect to institutions, we are primarily interested in schools and training institutions, the occupational structure and labor market, the family, and the welfare state. The relevant time dimension here is the historical time of socioeconomic change.
  2. The second set of questions focuses on the levels of individual and group action. How do individuals and families actively construct their lives? How do they experience their individual and collective life histories under the given conditions of their own prior biography, their immediate family and work environments, and the generational contexts of their peer birth cohorts? Here we are primarily interested in the proximate influences of the mesolevel of informal groups, formal organizations, and local opportunity structures, as well as microlevel endogenous processes of the individual life course. The relevant time dimensions here are chronological age and the individual aging process, the duration of membership in families, households, and firms, as well as the time dimension of cohort and generational succession.
  3. The third set of questions focuses on feedback processes from the microlevel of individual action to the macrolevel of structural and institutional constraints. How do changes in life-course patterns shape distributional and aggregative features of social structure and institutional arrangements? What are the implications of such processes for social policies? Irrespective of how they arise, life-course patterns are powerful contexts for individual and group action. Life courses form the qualitative and quantitative basis for macrosocial change and for collective political decision-making. Accordingly, the empirical and descriptive social accounting of life-course patterns is an important research task.