Life course and biography

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Whereas the life course points to an institutionalised construction of (culturally defined) patterns of ‘female’ or ‘male’ (normal) lives, the biography can be regarded as the “told life”, i.e. the subjective meaning-making with regard to one’s individual life course.

The institutionalisation of the life course is connected to the development of welfare and education systems in the context of modern nation states. In the context of late modernity, in which life course transitions increase, notions of life course normality become more and more fictitious. Thus, life course research increasingly has to consider both stability and change in lives as they unfold across time and generations and in historical, social, and cultural contexts. It has to reflect upon gendered demands and challenges to understanding the forces and experiences that shape human development. The life course perspective considers educational trajectories throughout the whole life span recognizing that developmental growth refers not only to childhood and youth but continues through adulthood into old age. It therefore suggests a multisdisciplinary approach and an ecological model placing families and individuals in the context of historical, demographic, and social change.

Whereas the life course perspective is institutional, the biographical perspective refers to subjective constructions. One analytical link between both perspectives may be seen in a general “biographisation” of the life course. Due to the de-standardisation of life courses trajectories and transitions turn into something highly individual and “biographical”.

The biographical approach is widely recognized since the 1970s in social research in general, but especially in gender studies and youth sociology in terms of „first order constructions“ as the basis for scientific interpretations as „second order constructions“. This approach criticises a positivistic understanding of social phenomena and takes the dimension of subjective experience into account. Epistemologically, the roots of the biographical approach lay in symbolic interactionism, pragmatism and the Chicago School which have in common a dialectic instead of a dualistic understanding of the relationship between individual and society respectively structure and agency. This allows for a critical re-construction of processes in which all dimensions of diversity and “doing difference” can be de- and re-constructed. Biographies therefore are subjective documents of sociality.

In GOETE, life course and biography represent important framework concepts for analysing educational trajectories, and will help to carry out case studies which take into account institutional demands as well as biographical developments.


Heinz, Walter R. (ed.) (1991) Theoretical Advances in Life Course Research. Vol I (2nd edition 1998). Weinheim: Deutscher Studien Verlag.

Chamberlayne, Prue (2000) The turn to biographical methods in social science: comparative issues and examples. London: Routledge.

Mortimer, Jeylan T. and Shanahan, Michael, J. (eds.) (2003) Handbook of the life course. New York et al.: Kluver.

Schütze, Fritz (2003) ‘Hülya's Migration to Germany as Self-Sacrifice Undergone and Suffered in Love for Her Parents, and Her Later Biographical Individualisation. Biographical Problems and Biographical Work of Marginalisation and Individualisation of a Young Turkish Woman in Germany’, Forum Qualitative Research Volume 4, No. 3, Art. 23 – September 2003, [13 –4 –2006]

(Barbara Stauber & Mirjana Ule)