Studying social change in human lives: a conversation

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Richard A. Settersten Jr Oregon State University, USA

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Dale Dannefer Case Western Reserve University, USA

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Glen H. Elder Jr University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA

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Jeylan T. Mortimer University of Minnesota, USA

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Jessica A. Kelley Case Western Reserve University, USA

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This commentary reinforces a central commitment of life course research: to make visible how social change matters in human lives. This paper captures a moderated conversation with four senior scholars about how they came to study the intersection between social change and life experience, why this intersection is so important to life course studies, and theoretical and methodological imperatives and challenges that come with it.

Abstract

This commentary reinforces a central commitment of life course research: to make visible how social change matters in human lives. This paper captures a moderated conversation with four senior scholars about how they came to study the intersection between social change and life experience, why this intersection is so important to life course studies, and theoretical and methodological imperatives and challenges that come with it.

Note: This conversation took place on 24 October 2022, in a panel session at the annual meeting of the Society for Longitudinal and Lifecourse Studies (SLLS) in Cleveland, Ohio. SLLS president Dario Spini co-organised the session with Rick Settersten but was unable to attend the meeting. Moderator Jessica Kelley played a role in planning the session, collaborating on themes and questions to structure the discussion. Dale Dannefer, Glen Elder, Jeylan Mortimer and Rick Settersten served as panellists. This transcript has been gently edited to remove extraneous material and to smooth or clarify text. All speakers have seen the full transcript and agree with the final version of the manuscript.

Introduction

Rick Settersten: The last few years have been a powerful reminder of how much a rapidly changing world affects human lives: how it has left people feeling disoriented; how it has demanded their coping and adaptation; how it has exposed their inequalities; how it has altered their opportunities and options in ways that are both profound and often unforeseen.

This reminder renews one of the central commitments of life course research: to make visible how history matters in individual and collective lives. In the process, we as researchers must critically reflect on our roles and responsibilities in contributing or responding to these historical events and changes – the imprint of wars, the pandemic, economic recessions and depressions, racial injustice, climate change and other events that affect and condition human lives.

This panel will open this discussion, which we envision as highly interactive. We will discuss some of the challenges and potentials that are found in studying the messy nexus between historical and social change in the life course and learn from each other as our field more comprehensively and rigorously begins to probe these influences on our theories and methods, and in our data analysis.

We invite all of you into this conversation. Our hope is that the session will leave you with some new insights into how history and social change might matter for the topics and the populations you study. We hope you’ll ask yourselves how history and social change might lurk behind your subject matter and findings; how they might change the questions you ask, the data you gather, the method to use. And in longitudinal studies, which virtually everyone in this room is committed to, we must ask how we can better trace the legacy of history and social change forwards and backwards in human lives.

Panel discussion

Jessica Kelley: What are the most important lessons we have learned thus far by working at the intersection of the life course and social change?

Glen Elder: The best way to answer that question is to tell a brief story about my arrival at the University of California at the Institute of Human Development and being assigned to work with the Oakland Longitudinal Study there with John Clausen, who was the director. The Oakland study had children, adolescents actually, who lived their lives through the Great Depression.

As I started working with the archive, I realised that one could not focus on socio-economic change at a point in time because it was changing all the time. The lesson really was that one needed to think about a conceptual model that would link periods of time through experiences. And so that’s basically what I got into. John Clausen was following what I was doing, though he didn’t really know how it would turn out at all. We were going to work together, but he was too busy running the show to collaborate, so he gave me the responsibility of linking childhood to the later years in the Oakland sample. That was a wonderful gift because I started thinking about age and experience: when you’re eight years old, what experiences are you going through at that time in the world you lived in? That’s really a short way of saying: if you have an opportunity to follow people across time, you need to take advantage of it because the answers to your big questions are going to emerge from that instead of a cross-sectional view.

The longitudinal model was very attractive to me right from the beginning because I always wanted to link childhood with the later years, even when I was working on a master’s degree. Maybe that came from my mother. I think this interest came from the changes that occurred in my life, from growing up in Cleveland and then moving to a farm. Can you imagine going backward like that? Usually, you go from a farm to the city but we went the other way. It really underscored the importance of focusing on change.

Jeylan Mortimer: Following up on that, I’ll describe how I got interested in historical change when I embarked on the Youth Development Study, which initially was concerned with employment among teenagers. There was a big debate going on at that time about whether teens should work. I had no idea that this would become a historical study because at that time practically all teenagers were employed during high school. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the situation completely changed for a variety of reasons, including changes in the economy, the decline of the retail sector, the disappearance of whole occupations, like the gas station attendant or paperboys and -girls and so on. But I was studying the developmental impacts of work, and I thought that this would be a kind of perennial experience and universal, and I learned a lot about how children grow up and learn about work. But now it’s fairly rare for children to have jobs during high school, and so we have to think about other ways that teenagers learn about work and get interested in vocation and career choice and vocational development. So, what started as a developmental study also became an historical study.

Jessica Kelley: Will you talk a little bit about how you got into this kind of work?

Dale Dannefer: In Graduate School, one of my professors was Matilda Riley. It was also Warner Schaie’s and others’ work showing that the cross-sectional patterns about cognitive performance declining with age that everyone took as the truth turned out to be totally wrong when you actually follow people longitudinally. He showed that the only reason it looks like there’s age-related decline is because when you do it cross-sectionally there are cohort differences in education. That’s not the only reason, but a major reason. The importance of following actual people was made clear from research like that, which began to get a lot of attention in the late 1960s and beyond. Taking that seriously led to the recognition of a need for major longitudinal studies.

I will say something in response to your first question, and it’s probably heretical in this room, but what exactly is the status of the concept of ‘social change’ and ‘history’ in science? The problem is that the attention to unique events of social and historical change, while fundamentally important, have had a tendency in our field to eclipse attention to the role of regular and irrepressible social processes in studying the life course (such as processes of stratification and social reproduction). For example, in the earliest formulations of Matilda Riley (representing sociology) and of Paul Baltes (representing the lifespan perspective in psychology) there is a tendency to equate the relevance of social forces with social change [see the first chapter of Dannefer’s book Age and the Reach of Sociological Imagination]. Thus, the focus on change eclipses attention to the actual social processes and mechanisms that are going on when we learn, for example, that intelligence is sensitive to context – which is what the longitudinal research showed us – as is every other kind of characteristic one would want to look at.

To understand the immediate influence of social forces, we need to examine the actual things going on in people’s lives that lead to the outcomes we want to look at. What historical change provides is kind of a natural experiment to look at different kinds of social context and processes. That is what we have to get to: an understanding of the actual processes that are going on. One thing that we see in some research on social change is how some social, structural and processual factors are remarkably stable. The impact of family factors and social class, for example, comes up again and again as a predictor across historical time, even though it interacts in interesting ways with changes that are going on.

Rick Settersten: I’ll answer the question on how I first came to this subject matter. I’ve always been interested in the rhythm of human life and its clockwork. As a graduate student I was really fascinated with the idea that there were age timetables for life course transitions. Not just the actual timing of transitions, but socially expected scripts for how life is to unfold for men and women and trying to understand the consequences of being on time or off time, whether that’s early or late, or running out of time, with respect to the key transitions people are striving for or going through. That meant that even though I started off with a more social psychological lens, the subject matter demanded that I begin to look outward for explanations of the phenomena I was studying: whether it was about how transitions were being accelerated in particular moments, or delayed in particular moments, or altered in some fundamental ways. Or how members of different cohorts had distinct ideas about the script for life, and how in the context of families, those cohort-based ideas about what Neugarten (1969) called the ‘normal, expectable life’ were making their way into family relations. Those are many of the reasons that I started looking at questions about history and social change.

You asked about lessons. If there’s just one lesson I’ve learned, it’s that the whole notion of a life course is a 20th century construct. That it’s built on predictability that emerged in the last century, predictability that was created by demographic change, by welfare states, by the differentiation of life spheres. The long arc of the last century also leans towards a much better standard of living and the expansion of higher education, for example. All these things made life more predictable. But it also brought some challenges in that when people take or are pushed onto paths that depart from that normal, expectable life course, there are new risks to be encountered and understood. I think that’s what the [COVID-19] pandemic really reminded us of. It reminded us of a ‘world we forgot’, to use Martin Kohli’s (1986) phrase (and as described in Settersten et al, 2020). It reminded us of a time when life couldn’t be counted on, and when health couldn’t be counted on. It’s what disrupted us so much. We realise we need each other. We realise how much our well-being rests on the stable and positive functioning of governments. We’ve learned how quickly that sense of the normal, predictable life can come undone. For me, that’s a big lesson: all the things we come around as researchers and theorists today are related to a construct – the life course – that emerged in the last century.

Jeylan Mortimer: There are many lessons that could be discussed, but the one that’s really been important for me is the common way of thinking about the life course – as if it’s kind of stable and really goes through constant kinds of sequences, and so forth, and thinking that the things that we find in our studies are universal rather than specific to a certain historical period. I think that we fall into that trap, but we have to keep reminding ourselves of the lesson: whatever we say about the organisation of lives is probably historically specific. Phyllis Moen and I wrote a chapter (Mortimer and Moen, 2016) on the way we think about stages of life and how that’s changed historically both in popular culture and among commentators. It used to be that we would think in terms of childhood and adulthood, and then G. Stanley Hall around 1900 said there’s ‘adolescence’ in between. And then a century later, we started talking about emerging adulthood and transition to adulthood and so on. At the older stages of life, we used to think about people as elderly, but now we have the young-old, encore adults, the old-old and the frail elderly. These are definable stages. They’re products of changing institutions and affect not only behaviour but the way people think about themselves, their identities.

Glen Elder: Studying people over time is really critical for doing life course studies, and it took a long time for that to happen in this country. Great Britain in 1946 launched the first study of longitudinal cohorts, which was a very innovative approach. I wanted to go back to the 1920s and the emergence of a scientific concept of the child, and to point to investigators that were really moving outside of this cross-sectional view of people. If you’re going to study children, the first thing you need to realise is how they develop, you have to do it over time. And so, the birth of the scientific concept of the child was really critical for the early foundational studies in the US, and a number of them were launched, one at the University of Minnesota. The Berkeley study, which began in 1928–29, was also one of them, way before 1946 [when the British study began]. This concept was well developed if you are studying how people develop and change. But it took us a long time to move from the study of children in this way to the study of young people, for example, and following them into their middle years and late life.

One of the things that was really a path-breaking development for me was when I got into the library at Chapel Hill (University of North Carolina), and I was located on the third floor with all the psychology books. My carrel was there, and curiosity led me to plough into a lot of things I didn’t know about. I read a number of these monographs. This is when my doctoral studies began in 1958 and I was working on that cross-sectional study of adolescents when I came to Chapel Hill, and I was unhappy about that because I really wanted to look at how children move into adolescence and so on. I ran into this wonderful set of monographs on these early longitudinal studies, and one of them was the Berkeley monograph. We need to keep this in mind: if you’re going to study people over time, you’d better come up with a model that will enable you to understand how people change over time. I really have always wanted to give priority to the push that longitudinal studies gave us. If you’re going to follow people across time, you then have to understand why they’re changing. I mean, during the Great Depression, I didn’t see how one could understand these families that were losing income, like 30–40% of their income, and ignore the fact that they’re changing. They’re basically losing their jobs and are unemployed for a period of time. The opportunity I had to get into an archive that was following people across time was really fundamental to giving me a push to think about how to represent this change.

Audience comment: Thank you very much for this very stimulating and inspiring discussion. It is so important that we actually document changes over time, that we have archives of events as they happened and as they were experienced at the time, because when we go back to them our interpretation always changes. I think we are very glad at the moment that we have all these vast resources now of longitudinal data. But when Glen started out there was very little representation of the historical events in the data. The lesson I would draw is that we catch changes over time and record historical events – like now going through the COVID-19 pandemic – to really have life records, life histories, life experiences, as well as the demographic data to get really good records of ongoing history, because we are all making history.

Audience question: I would like to ask the panel something based on what we have learned, following Dale, about the [power of] cumulative advantage and disadvantage, and also [Glen’s] work on turning points: how do we help people get off the train of approaching life course outcomes as an inevitability and recognise that things change, and often around some exogenous work?

Glen Elder: I’ll just refer to a very significant line of work on following kids who got in trouble, a longitudinal study. They found basically that getting married was one of those turning points: getting out of the institution [i.e. criminal justice system] and getting married. It’s an example of how turning points occur. They put you in a different world, a transition that leads to different expectations, different constraints, all of that. It’s simply an example of how discontinuities can occur and can in fact be sought or you are thrown into a situation with the loss of a spouse, for example. Your world changes and you have to adapt to it. Things of that nature are turning points and one has to respond to the new life course that is emerging from them.

Dale Dannefer: Well, I have two reactions, neither of which, if it were an exam, would probably get very good grades! The first is that there are different kinds of turning points. I mean, some are not expected or predictable, such as the loss Glen just mentioned. But the emergence of the institutionalised life course is about the homogenisation of turning points. Some key turning points, like the transition from school to work and to retirement, and everything that happens from age three through high school. These things became more and more standardised, as Rick mentioned earlier, across the 20th century. And now it may be going the other direction; we’ll see. But the institutionalisation of the life course has very specific political and economic and social causes. The other turning points do too, but they’re not centralised and organised in the same way.

That was one thought. The second is, and I’ve noticed this in discussing issues of cumulative advantage with various colleagues, there is – it’s important to try to keep them clear, even though they’re inherently empirically confounded – historical change and biographical change. As I’ve argued about cumulative advantage, it is a cohort-based process. It is something that happens biographically, collectively to each cohort as it moves through the life course. At the same time, we’re in a historical period where there are some increases across historical time. For instance, if you take something like income or wealth inequality, that’s increasing for everyone historically. Steven Crystal and his colleagues (e.g. 2020) have done interesting work lately showing how those two things – the biographical tendency for inequality to increase over the life of a cohort and historical increases – interact. But those things sometimes are as hard to keep separate conceptually as they are empirically.

Jeylan Mortimer: It’s a very interesting question. The life course perspective really grew out of the social structure and personality tradition of social psychology. Many of the questions that were of interest concerned inequality, cumulative advantage and their impacts. Just looking at the programme here, so many of the papers deal with the impacts of social location, which has been studied in this way through the decades – the effects on health and well-being, and much of my own work. What we really have to be looking into now and in the future are the major changes of our time that are probably going to make for huge turning points in many people’s lives and really be upending, like the Great Depression and the Second World War were.

But now we have climate change and the prospect of mass starvation for populations, tremendous migration, the pandemic and more. Life course scholars have something to offer in studying these big changes, but we’re not used to studying them. We are used to studying the effects on the person of living in a hierarchical social structure, but we need to collaborate more with people in other fields to study these trends, especially economists and political scientists. It requires us to get out of our groove. What is it about the experience of recent cohorts that is different from the earlier cohorts, for example, that makes people so receptive to disinformation and distrust of science and medicine and government, and so forth. We’re seeing major changes in our society and in the world that are really going to upend life courses for millions of people.

Rick Settersten: I’d like to kick it up a level. The recent book that Glen, Lisa Pearce and I wrote, Living on the Edge (Settersten, Elder, and Pearce, 2021), chronicled the lives of a group of people born in 1900 through the revolutionary changes of the last century. For me, the question of turning points also has to be understood in ways that reveal the big swings of history. We might now be studying the pandemic on its own, or we might have studied the Great Depression on its own. That’s fine. But you can really only fully understand the effect of the Great Depression when you set it against the Second World War, which comes immediately after. It’s that zigzag that we spent so much effort trying to trace. It’s the combination of those kinds of large-scale swings that leave a special imprint. We should be thinking about this with respect to the pandemic, of course. In the Great Recession [2007–09], which was not that long ago, for example, young people who were coming of age experienced significant disruption as they moved into adult life; and now, in the pandemic a dozen or so years later, they are in the middle of family formation and raising young children. Bam, trouble comes again; they’re hit twice at critical points in life. Again, it’s the swing, the zigzag, that becomes so profound and so important for us to understand in harnessing the kinds of longitudinal data we have, as [the audience member said] there is important information there on those external shocks. The world around us is changing. As long as there’s nuanced information about context in those data, then we can look in much more nuanced and informative ways at those kinds of constellations, taken together.

Jessica Kelley: You’re already touching on the fact that we’re experiencing rapid social change – refugee migration, climate change, the pandemic, war, all these things – and the idea that we may never return to a predictable life pattern that many expect. So, I’m wondering: how do we get to the action? Who should we be studying? What should we be doing in our work on the life course to make sure that we’re seeing it, and capturing and documenting it, in real time?

Glen Elder: By the way, Living on the Edge is really a take-off on an extraordinary century. That’s the kind of model that we place this work in because the amount of change across the 20th century, from 1870 to 1970, is unparalleled. One of the children of a study member observed what an unparalleled century this was: we had people in this country travelling by foot and by wagon train 100 years ago, and now we have people going to the moon and beyond. You put it all together and it’s really enormous. You think of the field of medicine, how that’s transformed our world. During the 1930s, for example, the incredible pressure that men were under with the unyielding demand that they support their family; there was no alternative. The cardiovascular disease rate was extraordinary during that period; we lost a lot of men from the 1900 generation. So, we really need to keep in mind what an incredible time we are living in, and all the challenges we are faced with. A lot of people feel somewhat overwhelmed by all these changes, and this is reflected in the attitudes and ideologies we see today as people are unable to keep up with the changes.

I want to say how extraordinary this gathering is. I’ve done so many talks about the life course but never in this kind of conversation round. Everyone is assembled here, and we’re facing each other talking about some big issues. This is really special for me.

Audience question: You’ve pointed out a couple of times across the panel that we need to understand why social changes are happening. Now my question to all of you is: how do we go about doing that? We’ve got a great reliance on statistical models that supposedly pull out causal mechanisms. But the moment you start trying to get these complex things into a model that explains behaviour, are we overlooking too many things?

Jeylan Mortimer: That’s a very big question. But you know, we’re all here interested in longitudinal data, and the main way of dealing with it is to have a cohort and study it over time. And if we are really interested in social change what we should be doing is comparing cohorts and, instead of doing a sequence analysis of longitudinal data, compare different cohorts and their sequences, and try to get a handle on social change that way.

Glen Elder: I can give you an example of that, which came out of the work I was doing in the Berkeley archive. The Berkeley study children born 1928–29 are one cohort moving through time. The other is the Oakland children of the Children of the Great Depression (1974) study. They were born in 1920–21 and were adolescents during the 1930s. So, you have a birth year difference of eight to nine years separating those two cohorts. For the youngest cohort, they were very young in the Great Depression and hitting the war years in their youth. The boys had a very difficult time in families with their fathers, who were angry about the fact they had no jobs during the Depression and were taking it out in many ways on the family, especially the boys. And you think about the 1920–21 cohort, in comparison. They were adolescents during the Depression and became young adults in the war years. That’s an age difference that is profoundly important. They were old enough to play a role in their families. They came out of the Great Depression period by and large with a sense of competence. Then they were mobilised into the Second World War. For the young boys the war years were very tough because they felt incompetent, and they did not do well in school. So that age difference really made a difference.

But the Berkeley boys had another opportunity when the Korean War emerged in their lives and about 76% of the boys were mobilised. They came out of that experience with a sense of competence that was almost equivalent to what we saw among the Oakland boys, who basically had a mastery experience through this period. So, going to Jeylan’s point, we need to think about our longitudinal studies in a cohort way and in terms of a comparative analysis. I did Children of the Great Depression and people immediately said, well, does this apply to so and so? To other cohorts, to younger and older? And by golly, it really didn’t for the boys. The boys in the Oakland cohort came out of the war years – 91% of the males served in the Second World War – and they were part of this amazing generation of the Second World War and they were very different from their younger cohort peers. This is a strategy of analysis I learned in working on Children of the Great Depression because it was such a long enterprise. It took about a decade. I learned that you’ve got to look at this other comparative cohort to try to make sense out of what you have here. Do you generalise or don’t you generalise? Does it apply or not?

Jessica Kelley: I should note that the conference theme is harnessing the power of comparative research, so we are right on. Excellent plug.

Dale Dannefer: I actually will ask Glen a question. I have a couple responses to your question. But one is that certain things are maybe unique but this process you describe of developing competence because of a tough experience or set of experiences – that’s not the only place you saw this in your work. It seems to me that is a more general principle that you’ve proposed or tried to argue for – like in [Elder and Liker’s 1982 article] ‘Hard times in women’s lives’, to show that upper-middle-class women who had a tough time during the Great Depression also did better later on, which you would attribute to that principle. It seems to me that these are occasions for natural experiments, where you’re developing a principle as a result of it.

One other thing your question made me think about since you mentioned the comparative approach: when you talked about cardiovascular disease going up with the tough time that men faced during the Great Depression. That is something that is also typical of African American men, both the daunting prospects for work and cardiovascular issues right along. That was a very small part of your sample of course, but one way to address your question and as well as the comparative issue is to pay more attention to differentiation, stratification, within each cohort. It’s going to be harder not to do this given all the deinstitutionalisation and turbulence that we’re confronting now, as Jeylan was also mentioning.

Jeylan Mortimer: Another way of approaching this is by doing multigenerational studies. Glen’s work is so amazing, that that short interval of time between cohorts would make so much of a difference in lives. Our Youth Development Study is a multigenerational study now. And so, we have parents who have been studied since their adolescence and now we have their adolescent children. Going back to my earlier point about not thinking of processes as universal, we’re finding very significant differences in what they’re responding to, how they’re developing, and what kinds of orientations make a difference for their achievements in school. The current children are growing up in a much more unsettled period in which it’s more difficult to make plans and transitions to adulthood. In recent analyses we found that, whereas the parent’s achievement was more responsive to their ambition, their aspirations and their plans, those things didn’t really affect the achievement of their children. Instead, it was more their optimism, their sense of efficacy, general orientations that will help them cope with changing times. Maybe it’s just more difficult for kids to think about their futures in such a turbulent situation.

Rick Settersten: I will make a plea for greater attention to two things. One is that the things people carry into their experiences with social change affect the outcomes that stem from it. So, the more dedicated we can be about probing the resources people have going into a situation – whether they’re personal capacities or social or economic resources – the better. Knowing something about what people carry with them tells you a lot about how the experiences and outcomes might be differentiated. So, first, there’s that: the things we carry.

Second, I would say that a lot of what results from an experience has to do with how we appraise it, the subjective interpretation of it and our evaluation of its place in our lives. It’s a reminder that we have to study lives from both the outside and the inside. In analysing longitudinal secondary data, we can piece together an incredible story about the connections between events and transitions over time. The longer the span of time, of course, the more complicated the array of potential variables we can bring to the table. And yet, the persistent question is: how does the person themselves see it? Would they make the same attributions? What interpretation do they assign to the things that happen to them? Those things also make a difference in terms of what results later. In our work with ageing veterans, we saw over and again that for men, especially men who were in combat in wartime, how they appraised their experience early on had a deep and direct connection to their appraisals later, and more positive appraisals also led to more positive outcomes. So, my second plea is for us to probe the subjective aspects of life experience alongside the more ‘objective’ stories we might tell from the outside.

Audience comment: I want to pick up on quite a few things that Rick just mentioned: the idea of privilege, and the fact that we were in a privileged position in the 20th century, as you have described, to be able to study people’s lives, to be able to study them over time because of the new predictability. I want to add that privilege is not equally distributed, and I don’t think anyone would suggest that it was not that way. And so, we are privileged in being able to tell the stories. But I think the point that you just made here, Rick, is that we must be really careful to understand the feelings or lived experiences of the individuals we study, because most of the individuals we are interested in studying probably have less privilege than we do. The idea of the voice, the inner voice and how it impacts on people’s lives, needs to be more a part of what we are doing in observing from the outside. We need to bring those things together, and that brings complexity when we come to analysis. But we have new ways – machine learning, artificial intelligence and other processes – that can allow us to bring qualitative and quantitative data together, for example, so we get new chances to do this.

There’s one other aspect of privilege I wanted to mention, which is that – given the current environment, the shocks that have been experienced by everybody, the COVID-19 pandemic, the ongoing climate crisis, the gender inequalities that we still face in our world today – we [as researchers] are privileged because we have existing cohort studies, and we can measure what is happening to those cohorts when a sudden exogenous shock occurs. That is a huge privilege because we need to study the impact of COVID-19, for example, on a group of people. We are privileged because we know what was happening before and we can come along and find out what has happened for these people and document that context, because context matters. Before we analyse the data, we are in a position of responsibility to collect context-specific as well as individual level and systemic information about what’s going on – so that then when we do the analysis, we’ve actually got the information we need and we’re not trying to extrapolate beyond what we have.

Audience question: I have a question about data infrastructure. In most of Europe and Continental North America, we have a lot of cohort studies that were launched a very long time ago and we know fairly well what comes out of these data. In other parts of the world, there’s no data infrastructure. There’s no information. You can’t get an accurate birth rate. You can’t get an accurate death rate either. For example, I had a colleague who wants to study in Pakistan, and they have very different types of information available. What we learned is that we take the infrastructure in Europe and North America for granted, and we try to apply the same model to study these areas and it simply doesn’t work. My question to the panel is, if we want to expand life course and longitudinal studies into these previously uncharted territories, where do we start and what do we need to keep in mind?

Dale Dannefer: Herbert Blumer, the famous founder of symbolic interactionism, said ‘the first task of science is to respect its subject matter’. I keep coming back to this. What he was railing against was survey research that forced everything into pre-fixed categories. The first thing your question reminded me of was [the audience member’s] work that we were learning about yesterday, where many young children in New Zealand identify with multiple ethnicities and don’t easily fit the grid. And so, the first task is to understand the social world that you’re trying to count things in, and in the terms of the people who are living it.

Glen Elder: Going back to my point about introducing cohort analysis to the Oakland and Berkeley studies, we need to think about our longitudinal studies in a cohort perspective and with a comparative approach. What I came out of this experience with is that we don’t know what we have until we do that. I know that in many studies and many countries we don’t even have the beginning of that kind of resource. I’ve been interacting with colleagues in China who really want to do this work but are faced with constraints of economic support.

One way we can begin to do this is to not be committed to large samples. You can sample in a restricted way if your units are not so large, and you can begin to understand, for example, children growing up in two different kinds of communities, a rural and an urban community. From my experience with the Berkeley study, you can learn a lot that will help to shape and frame your understanding of the changes that are going on. That can be a foundation, that can be a beginning. It can be interviews that give you some richness and can be carried out by a small number of people in each community, for example. It doesn’t have to be large, but it can be very creative and generative and give you some understanding of how a larger study could be framed. But I understand your frustration because I’ve been working in China and Japan for a long time, and I don’t think we’re very far in terms of building a data archive that would enable us to really understand the impact of the changes that are taking place.

Audience question: One question I have, and one reflection I suppose, is around how we as life course researchers might move on from studying social change in human lives to actually influencing social change in human lives in a more immediate or real-time way? Because one of the challenges we have as life course researchers for observational studies is that we have to wait until people’s lives unfold to study them. But then, as we’ve talked about, the policy and societal challenges facing us today can’t wait. We need policy, and we need interventions that are going to make a difference in real time to people’s lives. I would be interested in the reflections of the panel about how we might meet that challenge as a discipline. And in particular, I think there are some examples of longitudinal cohorts where they’re trying to move away from potentially being only observational and instead embedding interventions into them, where we have the idea of exogenous shocks and how we might use policy variations between areas or between countries to try to move beyond observational studies.

Jeylan Mortimer: That’s a very difficult question and it really challenges the basic notion of science as being value-free. We don’t want to change our subjects by studying them. Scholars are concerned even about questioning people and how this might lead to panel conditioning. It really requires a sea change in the way we think about our work.

Rick Settersten: I guess I would just add that it does feel that those questions will become more acute for us going forward as funding agencies also demand that our work have public and social impact, as we’re expected to intervene in ways as you described. And so, despite the discomfort this might bring for some researchers, there will be pressing questions for us to confront, not only about what our roles and responsibilities are as researchers to change the world around us but also to respond to changes in the world around us. There are similarly hard questions right now about what the role of the university is or should be in society – the press we often feel at the university level to comment on the things that are happening in the world around us, and to take positions on it. Regardless of whether there is a sea change happening, the questions you’re raising will have to get sorted out in the years to come, and the very nature of science, university life and our roles as researchers could also shift in tandem.

Dale Dannefer: One thing that discussion makes me think of is action research. It so happened a few years ago that I was involved in a study of nursing homes and the issue was that everybody thought that nursing homes were terrible institutions and needed to be changed – the people who lived there, the people that worked there, certainly the families. This was not a 30-year study, but we studied this over a period of time, and we saw change. The leadership was committed to change. We stayed long enough to see. The issue was sustaining a change that everybody wanted to see happen. Once the project was over, the fear was that the needed change would tend to atrophy back to status quo.

Jeylan Mortimer: Can I follow up on that quickly? We tend to choose our research questions in relation to issues that are important in society, and there is a slow trickle-down process. I’ll give you an example when I started studying teenage employment: the general notion was that this was not a good thing for kids, and it drew them away from school and created a lot of stress and interfered with their mental health. I got a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health because of that. It was just the way people were thinking about it. But then lo and behold, after we did our research, we found that the kids who did best were the ones who were moderate workers, and then this instead became the common wisdom. So, our research does help.

Rick Settersten: What I love about this discussion is that it begs us to ask the question of ourselves: in conducting our research, are we quietly – or not so quietly – trying to rework the life course? This will depend on one’s comfort and the nature of the research and where we hope to take it and its impact. It is an important question for us to imagine whether we are, in doing our research, affecting the very thing we’re studying.

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that there is no conflict of interest.

References

  • Crystal, S. (2020) Linking the levels: integrating individual trajectories, historical contingency, and social policy choices in cumulative advantage and disadvantage research, Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 75(6): 124558. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbaa059

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  • Dannefer, D. (2022) Age and the Reach of Sociological Imagination: Power, Ideology, and the Life Course, New York: Routledge.

  • Elder, G.H. (1974) Children of the Great Depression: Social Change in Life Experience, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Elder, G.H. Jr and Liker, J.K. (1982) Hard times in women’s lives: historical influences across forty years, American Journal of Sociology, 88(2): 24169. doi: 10.1086/227670

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    • Export Citation
  • Kohli, M. (1986) The world we forgot: A historical review of the life course, in V. Marshall (ed) Later life, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, pp 271303.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mortimer, J.T. and Moen, P. (2016) The changing social construction of age and the life course: precarious identity and enactment of ‘early’ and ‘encore’ stages of adulthood, in M. Shanahan, J.T. Mortimer and M. Kirkpatrick Johnson (eds) Handbook of the Life Course, Vol II, Cham: Springer, pp 11130.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Neugarten, B. L. (1969) Continuities and discontinuities of psychological issues into adult life, Human Development, 12: 12130. doi: 10.1159/000270858

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    • Export Citation
  • Settersten, R. A. Jr, Bernardi, L., Härkönen, J., Antonucci, T. C., Dykstra, P. A., Heckhausen, J., Kuh, D., Mayer, K. U., Moen, P., Mortimer, J. T., Mulder, C. H., Smeeding, T. M., van der Lippe, T., Hagestad, G. O., Kohli, M., Levy, R., Schoon, I. and Thomson, E. (2020) Understanding the effects of Covid-19 through a life course lens, Advances in Life Course Research, 45: 100360. doi: 10.1016/j.alcr.2020.100360

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Settersten, R.A. Jr, Elder, G.H. Jr and Pearce, L.D. (2021) Living on the Edge: An American Generation’s Journey Through the 20th Century, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Crystal, S. (2020) Linking the levels: integrating individual trajectories, historical contingency, and social policy choices in cumulative advantage and disadvantage research, Journal of Gerontology: Social Sciences, 75(6): 124558. doi: 10.1093/geronb/gbaa059

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Dannefer, D. (2022) Age and the Reach of Sociological Imagination: Power, Ideology, and the Life Course, New York: Routledge.

  • Elder, G.H. (1974) Children of the Great Depression: Social Change in Life Experience, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

  • Elder, G.H. Jr and Liker, J.K. (1982) Hard times in women’s lives: historical influences across forty years, American Journal of Sociology, 88(2): 24169. doi: 10.1086/227670

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kohli, M. (1986) The world we forgot: A historical review of the life course, in V. Marshall (ed) Later life, Beverly Hills, CA: Sage Publications, pp 271303.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Mortimer, J.T. and Moen, P. (2016) The changing social construction of age and the life course: precarious identity and enactment of ‘early’ and ‘encore’ stages of adulthood, in M. Shanahan, J.T. Mortimer and M. Kirkpatrick Johnson (eds) Handbook of the Life Course, Vol II, Cham: Springer, pp 11130.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Neugarten, B. L. (1969) Continuities and discontinuities of psychological issues into adult life, Human Development, 12: 12130. doi: 10.1159/000270858

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Settersten, R. A. Jr, Bernardi, L., Härkönen, J., Antonucci, T. C., Dykstra, P. A., Heckhausen, J., Kuh, D., Mayer, K. U., Moen, P., Mortimer, J. T., Mulder, C. H., Smeeding, T. M., van der Lippe, T., Hagestad, G. O., Kohli, M., Levy, R., Schoon, I. and Thomson, E. (2020) Understanding the effects of Covid-19 through a life course lens, Advances in Life Course Research, 45: 100360. doi: 10.1016/j.alcr.2020.100360

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Settersten, R.A. Jr, Elder, G.H. Jr and Pearce, L.D. (2021) Living on the Edge: An American Generation’s Journey Through the 20th Century, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
Richard A. Settersten Jr Oregon State University, USA

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Dale Dannefer Case Western Reserve University, USA

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Glen H. Elder Jr University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, USA

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Jeylan T. Mortimer University of Minnesota, USA

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Jessica A. Kelley Case Western Reserve University, USA

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