The Life Course and Human Development

Theoretical Models of Human Development

  1. Glen H. Elder Jr.1,
  2. Michael J. Shanahan2

Published Online: 1 JUN 2007

DOI: 10.1002/9780470147658.chpsy0112

Handbook of Child Psychology

Handbook of Child Psychology

How to Cite

Elder, G. H. and Shanahan, M. J. 2007. The Life Course and Human Development. Handbook of Child Psychology. I:12.

Author Information

  1. 1

    Carolina Population Center, The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA

  2. 2

    Department of Sociology, University of North Carolina—Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, USA

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 1 JUN 2007


The life course paradigm has replaced child-based, growth-oriented (“ontogenetic”) accounts of the person with models that emphasize the timing, social context, and organization of lives from birth to death. The chapter begins with a story of this intellectual change from the thematic precursors of life course studies to the present. The next section identifies heuristic concepts that capture the dynamic properties of settings and contextualize the individual, including social pathways, the cumulation of experiences, trajectories and transitions, and turning points. The life course paradigm also offers core principles that link social change and developmental trajectories, including those of life-span development, human agency, timing, linked lives, and historical time and place. In combination, these principles represent key contributions to the study of human development. They establish development as a life-long phenomenon that includes aging into late adulthood; to highlight the agentic nature of people as they create and shape their settings within limits; view development as the confluence of age, the generations, and history; and situate each person's trajectory in terms of family, neighborhood, community, and society. Life course insights have been especially revealing in research on health, and offer great promise in the study of biology, experience, and adjustment.


  • social pathways;
  • birth cohorts;
  • contexts of human development;
  • developmental and social trajectories;
  • historical change;
  • transitions