Human Development in Historical Context

Glen H. Elder, Jr.

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill


Presented at the XXVII International Congress of Psychology Stockholm, Sweden July 23-28, 2000

I acknowledge support by the National Institute of Mental Health (MH 00567, MH 52429, MH 57549), research support from the MacArthur Foundation Research Network on Successful Adolescent Development Among Youth in High-Risk Settings, a grant from the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development to the Carolina Population Center at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (PO1-HD31921A), and a Spencer Foundation Senior Scholar Award.


Human Development in Historical Context

Introduction

Theoretical advances of some note often evolve from very modest beginnings and unplanned circumstances. This observation applies to ways of thinking about the contextual implications of people's lives and times. Perspectives of this kind owe much to a hardy band of American psychologists who launched a series of longitudinal studies of child development over 70 years ago. (1)

They broke new ground with support from colleagues in other disciplines.

These pioneers of the 20s thought they were merely launching studies of children, but the Study children soon became adolescents and then adults. Fortunately, the investigators managed to follow the Study members well into the middle years and others have continued this remarkable effort into late life and a new century.

Whatever the studies' flaws, and there were many, these pathbreaking projects expanded our appreciation of longitudinal designs for studies of human development. They set in motion forces that underlie the phenomenal growth of this research design. The studies also challenged us to come up with new ways of thinking about lives and development, with emphasis on their historical context. By extending the span of inquiry across individual lives, they revealed the diverse lives people live and their connections to the larger world which is constantly changing.

Starting in the 1960s, these questions and challenges began to prompt (Elder, 1998a, 1998b): (1) more innovative thinking about how lives are socially organized and evolve over time; as well as (2) greater recognition of the linkages between social pathways, developmental trajectories, and changes in society. Investigators also had to face the obvious limits of child-based, growth-oriented accounts of development. Needless to say, such accounts were wholly inadequate for studies of development across the life span.

Two distinct lines of work emerged during the 60s and 70s in response to these challenges: (1) a life span approach in developmental psychology, and (2) a sociologically-informed perspective on the age-graded life course in changing environments. Both sought intellectual breadth across disciplinary boundaries, though neither fully achieved this objective in practice.

The life-span movement addressed the description and explanation of age-related biological and behavioral changes from birth to death, with emphasis on the adult years (Baltes, 1973; Baltes & Reese, 1984). Variations in age-related change across successive birth cohorts were investigated initially (Nesselroade & Baltes, 1974). However, research soon shifted away from the differential effects of a changing environment. More compelling was the issue of invariant behavioral change across cohorts.

Informed largely by the social sciences and especially by sociology, life course thinking emerged as part of a broad trend toward a contextual understanding of developmental processes (Elder, 1975, 1998a, 1998b; see also Goldhaber, 2000). Today some interpret their relational dynamics as developmental contextualism (see Lerner & Kauffman, 1985). The initial objective in life course study was to develop a conceptual framework of age-graded pathways and their relation to social-historical conditions. Historical contexts were largely uncharted in relation to developmental processes at the time.

I begin with these two perspectives, life course and life span, and note the contrasting paths they have followed in dealing with the historical contexts of human development, across stages of life and historical time/place. The (1) social pathways of individual lives represent one type of historical context, (2) historical times and places represent another. In this presentation, historical context refers to both the life course and its historical time and place. Principles of the life course provide ways of relating developmental outcomes to these contexts.

Life Course and Life Span

From the beginning, life course ideas focused on the changing contexts of lives and human development, whereas life-span thinking centered more on developmental trajectories. The concept of "pathways" in life-span models typically refers to these trajectories. By comparison, in life course studies, pathways depict social careers, or social trajectories. Thinking about the organization and change of people's lives led to greater awareness of age-sequenced events and social roles. When people change the way they live (their "social pathway or trajectory"), this change is likely to change the course of their development.

According to life course theory, diverse routes to adult roles have different developmental consequences. The same can be said about successive birth cohorts. People in historically different roles tend to age in different ways. However, not all members of a birth cohort are exposed in the same way to historical change. A case in point is the variable experience of Chinese youth in the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s to the mid-1970s (Zhou & Hou, 1999), a time when millions of urban youth were sent down to rural villages. Other young people of similar age remained in school, and followed different life paths to adulthood and the middle years. Studies are beginning to assess the impact of these pathways.

By comparison, life span models are more likely to focus on individual development in a "typical life course." Hetherington and Baltes (1988, p. 9) observe that "child psychologists are likely to postulate a 'typical' course of ontogeny and to view non-normative and history-graded factors as modifiers, not as fundamental constituents, of development." A typical life course would take the form of a conventional pathway to young adulthood that excludes life variation as a potential source of behavior change.

"Typical" environments could also take the form of an assumed "historical continuity" across successive birth cohorts. In contemporary life-span studies, cohort-sequential designs are ways of establishing multiple samples for testing the boundaries of generalization. The purpose has nothing to do with a greater understanding of historical change. Indeed, any variation between adjacent birth cohorts is likely to be viewed more as statistical error than as a plausible source of historical effects with developmental implications (Baltes, Cornelius, & Nesselroade, 1979). This indifference to environmental change brings to mind the early California studies (by Jones, MacFarlane, & Bayley) and their neglect of changing worlds in the lives of Study members.

Has the life-span movement become broader in scope and more contextual over the years? Warner Schaie (1984) seemed to draw this conclusion in the mid-80s by pointing to a shift in the focus, from the search for purely developmental patterns of a normative nature to the context in which development occurs." However, I see little evidence of this contextual shift among studies of child and adult development in the life-span tradition (Baltes & Baltes, 1990). Research on class and child outcomes, for example, does not place developmental processes in social pathways or in historical context (see Bronfenbrenner & Crouter, 1983).

When life-span models view contexts of development in terms of the organism, as they generally do, the approach neglects both history and the life course as constituents of human development. The approach does not investigate the process by which a particular environmental change makes a difference in lives and behavior. However, life-span models do lead to research on the process by which people select themselves into particular social roles and situations (Caspi & Bem, 1990), a process that has much in common with a life course view of the individual actor - a person who makes choices that construct the life course.

Up to the present, the life-span movement has focused on developmental trajectories across the life span, giving little attention to the life course and its developmental effects, and especially its historical ecology. By contrast, life course ideas address contextual issues. These issues have prompted study of the developmental implications of life patterns and their variation by historical time and place. Before exploring these implications, I briefly note concepts that are relevant to the life course.

The life course can be said to represent a "theoretical orientation" with special relevance to contexts of human development. In a broad sense, theoretical orientations (see Merton, 1968, on types of theory) establish a common field of inquiry with a framework that guides explanatory research. As a theory of human development, the life course is rooted in what Pepper (1961) has called a contextual world view, in contrast to more mechanistic and organismic models. Contextual methodology (Goldhaber, 2000) is designed to advance current understanding of the person-in-context.

Basic concepts of the life course include trajectories and transitions, with their complimentary perspectives. Social trajectories provide a long view based on role sequences of family and work, for example. Transitions are embedded in trajectories and represent a change in state or states, such as when children leave home and get married. During any life transition, a substantial change in direction represents a potential turning point. These conceptual distinctions also apply to developmental processes.

Age and its various meanings provide an essential dimension of life course theory (Riley, Johnson, & Foner, 1972; Neugarten, 1996). It does so by linking age to time, context, and process, producing an awareness of "life course variation," including an appreciation of historical time and place. The meanings of age "structure" the life course through expectations and informal sanctions, social timetables, and generalized age grades (such as childhood, adolescence). A normative concept of social time specifies an appropriate age for transitions such as entry into school, marriage, and retirement, leading to notions of relatively early and late transitions. Birth cohorts locate people in historical time, and thus differ from concepts on the generations in "the timeless realm of the abstract."

Several concepts are used interchangeably with the life course, but they represent important life course distinctions:

Life span indicates the temporal scope of inquiry and specialization, as in life-span developmental psychology or life-span sociology.

Life history typically refers to a chronology of events and activities across life domains, such as residence, household composition, and education, as in the use of a retrospective life calendar or an age-event matrix (Freedman et al., 1988; Caspi, et al., 1996).

And life cycle refers to the generational succession in which newborns are socialized to maturity, give birth to the next generation, grow old, and die. The cycle is repeated from one generation to the next in a population. Some people do not have children and thus are not part of an intergenerational life cycle.

All concepts discussed up to this point have relevance to "core principles of the life course" and their complimentary accounts of lives in context. By "lives in context," I refer to the life course and to historical circumstances of time and place. Both types of contextual influence are best studied in longitudinal panels that begin in early childhood and extend across stages of life.

Paradigmatic Principles and Developmental Contexts

Five life course principles make a contribution to the contextual study of development. I begin with the principle on "lifelong development and aging" and the challenge it presents for assessing the effects of changing contexts. Next in order is the principle of "human agency" which is expressed in choices that select certain kinds of life experiences and options. A third principle underscores the role of "times and places" in locating people relative to ongoing social changes. The fourth principle of "timing" asserts that the effects of social change and transitions have much to do with when they occur in a person's life. And the fifth principle of linked lives views the individual over time, embedded in relationships with other people and their lives.

(1) Human development and aging are life-long processes.

The principle of life-long development reflects the shift from "age-specific" studies to research that extends across long segments of the life span. Assuming that human development and aging take place across the life span, behavior cannot be fully explained by restricting analysis to a specific life stage in question, whether adolescence, mid-life, or old age. From this perspective, childhood is relevant for understanding late-life adaptations, as well as for young adulthood. By following children into the adult years, we can chart their social paths and developmental trajectories, including their cumulative disadvantages and advantages.

By lengthening the temporal span of study, life course projects inevitably pose issues, such as: (1) the continuous interplay of changing lives and changing times; (2) greater sensitivity to continuity and change between the two halves of the life course; and (3) a multi-generational perspective that links phases of the life course. The longer a person's life, the greater its exposure to societal change. Long lives are thus most likely to reflect the particular contours of a changing society.

On the first point, lives and times are linked and represent an ever-changing dynamic across the years. One of the most dramatic examples comes from the reunification of Germany in the lives of men and women who grew up in communist East Germany and now find themselves in a new country with little appreciation for their work skills as they enter the later years (Noack, Hofer, & Youniss, 1995). This contrast also applies to children who were born and reared in East Germany.

Second, issues of social and behavioral continuity and change are heightened by an extension of the span of study to the "entire" life course. Why do some behavioral patterns persist while others fade after many decades? What influences play a role in this change? We are just beginning to identify relevant mechanisms. Historical influences are likely. Caspi and Bem (1990) refer to proactive, reactive, and evocative interactions as interpersonal mechanisms.

In some cases, general models provide an orientation to potential mechanisms. Thus, Keating and Hertzman (1999, p. 8) refer to a "pathways model" which emphasizes the cumulative effect of life conditions and the reinforcing influence of socioeconomic and psychosocial factors across the life course. As a case in point, a child's total years in poverty significantly increase the risk of intellectual impairment (Korenman, Miller, & Sjaastad, 1995). The cumulative effect is substantial.

Third, the lives of the young, the middle-aged, and old are interwoven in the life course of individuals. The development of parents and their children are mutually interdependent and we are beginning to study this reciprocal process (Cowan & Cowan, 1992). Likewise, the mutual influence of grandparents and grandchildren requires knowledge of their life histories. From this perspective, intergenerational studies can be viewed as an approach to lifelong development and aging.

An account of people "moving across the life course" involves human agency and choice, social influences from others, and dispositions that are brought to the new situation. Life shaping choices usually reflect the situational constraints and options of life transitions, as well as the continuing relevance of prior experiences and social influences. Such elements of human agency have always been prominent in life history studies (see Thomas & Znaniecki, 1918-20; Haidt & Rodin, 1999), and they are central to life course theory that relates individuals to the broader social world. Within the particular limitations of their world, people are planful and make choices in circumstances that enable them to shape their life course (Clausen, 1993). According to the principle of human agency,

(2) Individuals construct their own life course through the choices and actions they take within the opportunities and constraints of history and social circumstances.

Social systems vary in whether and how they enable expressions of human agency. Thus, work units in Communist China made most decisions for urban youth during the Cultural Revolution (Zhou & Hou, 1999), but even in this constrained world young people had choices among alternatives that made a profound difference in the quality of their lives. In contemporary accounts, real world constraints and options are beginning to inform psychological accounts of human agency. For example, this appears in research based on action theory (Brandstädter, 1998) and in studies of self-efficacy (Bandura, 1997). A constructionist perspective that takes real-life constraints into account has become a vital element in theoretical analyses of the life course and human development, as seen in studies of human migration.

The choice-making process of human agency, with its weighing of difficult alternatives, is vividly revealed in John Hagan's (in press) account of American war resisters during the Vietnam War and their anguished decision to take the "northern passage" to Toronto, Canada, a legal sanctuary from the Selective Service System. Thousands chose to defy the military draft and even the counsel of their family in this action. Some came with female friends, and most carried on their protest of the war. The author made this journey to Canada and was warned by his father that he was making "the worst decision of his life."

Any immigration event can be thought of as a turning point, a redirection of the life course and a redefinition of one's identity. The motivating force behind the "northern passage" made this experience a wrenching psychological act for many. The war resisters had made their decision to live in Canada after countless appeals and protests, recognizing the moral stigma of their action in the American public. Life history interviews recall this traumatic time and the process by which "each decision against service in the war" constructed a deviant life course from the perspective of American society. More generally, projects on immigrant children are flourishing and provide an excellent opportunity to study the developmental effect of life transitions.

A decision to immigrate depends on the availability of this option, and underscores constraints on the expression of human agency. The principle of historical time and place speaks to such constraints and options in peoples' lives.

(3) The life course of individuals is embedded in and shaped by the historical times and places they experience over their lifetime.

The ecologies of historical time and place are expressed in Bronfenbrenner's pioneering book, The Ecology of Human Development (1979) which viewed children's environments as multi-level contexts in history. These ecologies range from the macro level to the micro environment. For many years, we merely described such levels. We could not do more until methods were devised by Raudenbusch (with Bryk, 1992) and others to investigate the developmental influence of multiple levels. But multi-level models of context typically produce "skeletal" versions of people's lives that are unchanging. We need to find a way to recover the full complexity of lives over the life course in different times and places.

Hierarchical linear models have been employed in countless studies of school, peer, and neighborhood influences (Cook, Herman, Phillips, & Settersten, under review). Latent curve models also provide opportunities to assess these influences as time-varying covariates of developmental trajectories. In terms of data collection, studies are now being designed to collect information on the "person and context" over time, as seen in the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health (USA) - with information on schools, peer groups, neighborhoods, and the larger community. Close friends and romantic partners in adolescence are being followed-up into adulthood.

We frequently view historical effects in terms of cohort variations, but members of a cohort do not always share the same history. For example: one of the most dramatic examples of this point comes from a longitudinal study that is following 12th grade students in 1983 from regions of the former Soviet Union up to 1999 and beyond (Titma & Tuma, 1995). Called "Paths of a Generation," the study assessed the life expectations, achievements, and backgrounds of these young people before the Soviet Union disintegrated, and then traced their lives into a period of extraordinary change and instability. One region has maintained the command economy of the old Soviet Union (Belarus), while others have adopted a market economy (e.g., Estonia) or returned to a more primitive rural exchange system, as in Tajikistan. The socioeconomic lives of these young men and women resembled the changes of their respective regions in the old Soviet Union. The Estonian cohort is most prosperous, whereas downward trajectories are common among men and women from Belarus and the Ukraine.

Despite great regional differences in this study, and profound social instability, the future of this cohort to date was written in part by their lives when they were first contacted in high school. Periods of transition and instability can accentuate individual differences (see Caspi & Moffitt, 1993), and this study finds that academic success and high aspirations are more predictive of subsequent occupational status and income in 1999 than family background. Interestingly, the young men who had become entrepreneurs were most distinguished in high school by their ambition and self-appraisal of personal skills in managing people.

Life-long human development, its historical and spatial context, and human agency underscore ways of thinking about timing and life contexts, as expressed by the principle of timing.

(4) The developmental antecedents and consequences of life transitions, events, and behavior patterns vary according to their timing in a person's life.

Historical changes have different implications for people of unlike age and development - that is, for people who differ in life stage (Ryder, 1965). One rationale for this variation involves the developmental meaning of different life stages, from childhood to young adulthood and later life. People of different ages bring different experiences and resources to their life stages and consequently adapt in different ways to the new conditions. Adaptations of this kind structure or recast the life course.

Over the past 20 years, longitudinal studies have documented with impressive consistency a proposition on the timing of war mobilization in lives (Elder, 1986, 1987; Elder & Chan, 1999; Sampson & Laub, 1996): that the lifetime effects of war mobilization and related experience vary by when the transition occurs in men's lives. A military transition may have some beneficial effects when it occurs "on time" according to age expectations, usually immediately after secondary school or in the late teens and early 20s. In this case, the event occurs before marriage and careers, and consequently does not disrupt or disadvantage lives as much as it does at a later time, such as the early 30s.

The timing of lives thus has much to do with "social synchrony" and the principle of linked lives. This principle leads inquiry away from age-specific studies by enhancing awareness of shared experiences and their developmental implications across stages of life. Relationships with significant others can be thought of as developmental contexts, to borrow from Hartup (1991), and as lifetime convoys of social support (Kahn & Antonucci, 1980).Thus, knowledge of adult development is relevant to an understanding of behavioral changes in young children. This also applies to young people as well and their middle-aged parents.

(5) Lives are lived interdependently and social-historical influences are expressed through this network of shared relationships.

Linked lives extend beyond the family to peers, teachers, and residents in one's neighborhood. Theories of resilience commonly assume that positive influences can offset negative effects. From this perspective a positive school environment might be able to make up for a youth's punitive family environment or for a drug-infested neighborhood. Another perspective stresses individual differences and the differential impact of environments on young people. For example, less able students might benefit more from a small than a large school, owing to more contact with teachers and greater opportunities for social leadership.

Social influences could also be cumulative and not interact in their effects. Support for this latter perspective comes from a large suburban study in the Washington DC area, USA, by Tom Cook (Cook, Herman, Phillips, & Settersten, under review). The joint role of families, friendship groups, schools and neighborhoods was assessed on healthy adolescent development (7th-8th grades). The quality of all four contexts had independent and additive influences on adolescent "success," defined by a composite of school performance, social behavior, and mental health indicators. However, the study did not find interactions among the four contexts. The effects of any one context did not amount to much over the 19 months of the study. However, the total contextual effect was large and consequential. Imagine what this cumulative effect would be over the entire "dependency phase" of life.

Another angle on "linked lives" comes from an important study of peer networks (Bearman & Brückner,1999) in the US. The study found that peer influences operate at multiple levels - such as best friends, close friends, and acquaintances. Best girlfriends, the focus of most peer research, had little influence on girls' sexual involvement and pregnancy. A girl's circle of close friends and her wider peer network mattered more than best friends, and the effects were predominantly protective.

As noted in these examples, the influence of multi-level contexts on human development can be understood from the perspective of each life course principle. Lifelong development focuses attention on the continuous impact of changing environments across lives. Social change in childhood interacts with subsequent change across the life span. Variable times and places in lives can be understood by investigating the timing of lives. Historical settings, the timing of events, and linked lives enable us to understand the context in which life choices are made, in line with the principle of human agency.

I began this presentation by describing the different paths that life span and life course studies have taken in relation to the "social contexts" of human development and aging. These contexts refer to both the social pathways of peoples' lives and the times and places in which they live. Both types of context have been neglected, although life span studies have made impressive contributions to an understanding of developmental trajectories. We need models in which both traditions inform research.

One way to think of this convergence is to consider the "points of entry" in a study. As a rule, complex studies have "multiple entry points." Robert Cairns (1994, p. 250) has identified multiple points of entry that are relevant to a study of aggression, extending from the individual and inter-individual levels to social networks that link people, connections between networks, and the larger cultural-ecological system.

Life course studies suggest a number of promising research directions for studies of human development in historical context. I have noted analytical advances that enable us to study the multi-level influences of children's environments, e.g., hierachical linear models. This line of work often draws upon both qualitative and quantitative data in a mixed-method design (Furstenberg, Cook, Eccles, Elder & Sameroff, 1999). The creative integration of ethnographic and quantitative data represents an important step toward greater understanding of human development in historical context. For example, new studies are mapping historical contexts over time with field notes and geographic information technology (GIS).

Life course study has flourished over the past 30 years, and we see this advance in terms of theory and method, empirical projects, new questions, and the establishment of new sources of data. Looking back on studies of lives in context and the perspective itself, psychologist Anne Colby (1998, p. x) describes the life course approach as one of "the most important achievements of social science in the second half of the 20th century." The contextual achievements of this work owe much o four related developments:

I. To the stunning growth of longitudinal samples and studies. When I began my career in the 60s, I knew of only seven longitudinal studies:

- three Berkeley longitudinal studies of people born in the 20s;

- David Magnusson's pioneering IDA project in Sweden;

- and two British birth cohorts, 1946 and 1958.

Today there are literally hundreds of such studies, small and large. In addition, we have perfected the retrospective life calendar so that ti can retrieve "social" information with accuracy on a "lost past."

II. To remarkable advances in methodological design and statistical models for complex life history data:

- I've mentioned the new dynamic, trajectory, and multi-level models;

- also noteworthy are network methods, the holistic methods that cluster people and situations; and

- the spatial methods that map data across situations and time;

- and the recasting of "old data" so that it addresses new questions.

III. To the crossing of multiple disciplines in which new synthetic models result. Psychology, sociology, genetics, history, to name just a few.

IV. To the posing of new questions. What will be the new questions of the 21st Century?


Conclusion


When the pioneering studies of child development were extended up to and across stages of adulthood, new ways of thinking about how lives are organized and change began to emerge. Since changing lives often reflect changing times, this greater span of study called for theories that would place lives in historical context. Life-course ideas in sociology eventually produced a theoretical orientation to social pathways in time and place.

This orientation to the life course calls attention to a set of principles; to human development and aging as lifelong processes, the role of human agency and choice-making, timing and the interdependence of lives, and the historical time and place of individual lives. Each principle contributes to research that places human development and aging in context.

By extending the field of study across life stages, the life histories of individuals form historical contexts with behavioral implications. The timing of events and transitions brings life stage and past experience together in structuring developmental environments. Individuals select social environments and in doing so they construct their own life course. Linked lives specify the behavioral influence of interpersonal contexts. And the principle of historical time and place relates life changes and aging to specific times and places.

Life course theory is well suited to research on human development that follows children into young adulthood and the later years. It locates the individual along diverse social pathways and connects their life course to the changes taking place in society. For example, American children of the Great Depression entered the Second World War and benefitted from postwar prosperity in their 40s. The postwar generation experienced a different world.

We know little about historical changes across the entire life course of individuals, though methodological innovations may enable their sequential study over long segments of the life span. Most importantly, the social forces of particular times and places shape individual pathways and together they become constituents of human development and aging. "Where we have been in our lives tells a story of who we are."

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Endnotes

1. An account of the three longitudinal studies at the Institute of Human Development can be found in volumes edited by Jones, Bayley, Macfarlane, & Honzik (1971) and by Eichorn, Clausen, Haan, Honzik, & Mussen (1981). One of the most important studies based on the Oakland Growth and Guidance samples following subjects into adulthood was produced by Jack Block (with the assistance of Norma Haan), entitled Lives Through Time (1971). Other major studies include Clausen's American Lives (1993) and Elder's Children of the Great Depression (1999).