Sociology and the Study of the Life Course

The Center for Sociology and the Study of the Life Course (Director: Karl Ulrich Mayer) focused on the interdependencies between family, education, and labor markets in the context of changing welfare states. The research center existed from 1983 to 2005.

At the core of the research program was the analysis of life courses as an intersection between institutional environments, human development, and socio-economic change. The empirical studies conducted by the Center therefore not only made a contribution to basic research but were also of high socio-political relevance. Three main issues were addressed:

  1. In what manner and with which repercussions do institutions shape the patterns and distributions of individual life courses? From this perspective, the scientists looked at the relations between the macrolevel structure of societies and patterns of the individual life course. Life courses are informed by social norms, by institutional configurations, and by opportunity structures, all of which vary according to social classes, strata, and subcultures as well as to specific national and historical contexts.
  2. How do individuals and families actively construct their lives? How do they experience their individual or collective fate under the given conditions of their own biography, their family and work environments, and relative to the fates of others in their birth cohort?
  3. How do changes in individual or generational life-course patterns affect social structures and institutional configurations? What are the implications of such processes for social policy? Irrespective of how they arise, changes in life-course patterns—such as in family behavior or vocational biographies—pose challenges to the individual way of life and social policy.

The empirical basis of the Center’s research strategies was above all the institute’s own German Life History Study (GLHS) based on representative surveys of over 12,000 West and East German women and men from the birth cohorts 1919-21, 1929-31, 1939-41, 1949-51, 1954-56, 1959-61, 1964 und 1971 (West Germany und West Berlin) and the birth cohorts 1929-31, 1939-41, 1952-54, 1959-61, and 1971 (East Germany).

The projects explored issues such as the impact of a sudden system transformation on life courses in East Germany and Poland, the pathways to education and employment for West German women and men born between 1964 and 1971, and the problem of fit between vocational training and occupation.

Research period: 1983–2005

Further information on Karl Ulrich Mayer as Director emeritus at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development is available on the page Emeriti of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development.


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