life course perspective | Definition

Doc's CJ Glossary by Adam J. McKee
Course: Criminology

The life course perspective is a theoretical framework in criminology that seeks to understand the complex interplay between individual development and social structure over the course of a person’s life.

Imagine a river. It starts as a small stream, growing and changing as it journeys to the sea. Along its course, it interacts with the landscape, carving valleys, flowing around mountains, or getting blocked by a dam. Similarly, our lives are like rivers. We are born, grow, change, and eventually, we end our journey. During this time, we interact with the world around us, shaping and being shaped by it. This concept of studying the journey of life is the life course perspective.

The Power of Social, Economic, and Cultural Factors

Just as a river can be shaped by the land, our lives are shaped by various factors. These include social, economic, and cultural aspects. For instance, the family we are born into, the economy of our country, and our cultural practices all influence who we become. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle where each piece plays a crucial part in completing the picture.

Importance of Long-term Development and Immediate Factors

In the life course perspective, two key elements are considered. One is the long-term trajectory or path of a person’s life, and the other is the immediate social and environmental factors influencing their behavior. It’s a bit like looking at the weather. We can study climate patterns over the years to understand long-term changes. Simultaneously, we also consider today’s temperature and rainfall to understand the immediate weather conditions.

Life Experiences and Social Contexts

From the life course perspective, our life experiences and the social contexts we live in are considered vital. Over time, these experiences and contexts change, much like seasons in a year. These changes can significantly affect our behavior and outcomes. For instance, a person’s behavior might change when they move from school to a job, just as a tree sheds leaves in autumn to prepare for winter.

A Tool for Understanding Crime

In criminology, the life course perspective proves very useful. It helps us understand why individuals might engage in illegal activities and how they might stop, known as desistance. By looking at a person’s life as a whole, including their family background, friends, education, job opportunities, and social and economic factors, we can understand why they might turn to crime and how they might leave it behind.

For example, a person who grows up in a violent home falls into a bad group of friends and lacks job opportunities might be more likely to engage in criminal activities. Understanding these factors can help address the root causes of their behavior.

A Framework for Creating Effective Strategies

The life course perspective provides a valuable framework to understand how personal growth and societal structures interact. This knowledge can be used to create strategies to prevent and reduce criminal behavior. For instance, if we understand that a lack of job opportunities contributes to criminal behavior, we can create policies to increase job opportunities, potentially reducing crime.


In conclusion, the life course perspective offers a comprehensive way of understanding the journey of life and how it interacts with society. It accounts for long-term development, immediate factors, life experiences, and social contexts. In the field of criminology, it provides a deep understanding of why individuals might engage in crime and how they might stop. This understanding can guide researchers and policymakers to create effective strategies to reduce crime. Ultimately, by seeing life as a river interacting with the landscape, we can gain profound insights into human behavior and societal structures.

[ Glossary ]

Last Modified: 05/29/2023

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