Life Course Criminology

III. The Life Course Paradigm

Running in parallel with these criminal careers studies, the fields of sociology and psychology have outlined a life course paradigm. The life course paradigm can be defined as a series of pathways throughout the developmental process in which there are varying age-dependent expectations and available options in an individual’s decision-making process. These decisions, along with the natural course of life events, are seen to shape the trajectory of an individual’s life and can be influenced by transitions and turning points (Elder, 1985). Trajectories are viewed as pathways of development over the life span, such as work life, marriage, schooling, or involvement in crime. They are seen as long-term behavioral patterns that are marked by a sequence of life events and transitions. These transitions are then described as distinct life events that occur in shorter intervals that may alter an individual’s behavioral trajectory (e.g., first job, first marriage, first child; Elder, 1985, pp. 31–32). According to Elder (1985, p. 32), the interlocking nature of trajectories and transitions may generate turning points or changes in the life course.

More recently, Sampson and Laub (1993) extended this framework by focusing on the strong association between childhood events and adulthood experiences and the idea that transitions can redirect an individual’s life course behavioral pathway. They indicated that life course analysis focuses on the length, timing, and the order of significant life events (including crime) and their effect on future social development. Attention to the impact of life events is critical, because research has shown that committing a crime has a considerable behavioral influence on the likelihood of an individual committing crime in the future (for a review, see Nagin & Paternoster, 2000). Furthermore, Sampson and Laub (p. 303) focused on age-graded life transitions and argued that institutions of formal and informal social control matter and vary over the life course. They contended that age-graded informal social control is essential for promoting interpersonal bonds that link individuals to the larger social institutions in which they live (i.e., work, family, school). They also acknowledged that both continuity and within-individual changes do occur over time and that specific life transitions and other factors related to development may intervene in one’s pathway of offending (Farrington, 1986b, referred to this as the stepping-stone approach). Ultimately, the life course paradigm is best summarized as “pathways through the age-differentiated life span,” where age differentiation “is manifested in expectations and options that impinge on decision processes and the course of events that give shape to life stages, transitions, and turning points” (Sampson & Laub 1993, p. 8; see also Elder, 1985).