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Study notes

Families - Life Course

  • Levels: A Level
  • Exam boards: AQA, Edexcel, OCR, Eduqas, WJEC

The life course refers to the social phases we progress through, throughout our lives. Traditionally, these were seen as quite fixed, especially for women (who would be expected to be dependent on their parents until being married, at which point they would be dependent on their husbands and bear and rear children).

However, the personal life perspective, suggested by Carol Smart among others, suggests that increasingly individuals are able to make choices about their life course: to try and plan it and make choices for it. They are not completely individual actors, unaffected by social forces; gender, social class and other factors will influence their life course, but it will not determine it.

By thinking about the life course in terms of personal life rather than simply family, we can see how diverse that life course can be. Many young people spend a significant time outside a traditional family-based household, either living with friends, flatmates or alone. The work of both Judith Stacey and Jeffrey Weeks support Smart’s position with Stacey looking at the way women in particular have been able to change families and choose structures that suit their needs, and Weeks focusing on choice and people being open-minded. Stacey wrote about how people would form relationships with people who were not kin, for example divorced women maintaining relationships with their ex-husband’s extended family. However, Weeks also supports Chester’s conclusion that, despite all these trends, most people still live in apparently traditional family structures (couples with children) as shall be discussed in the next section.

The way people’s personal life changes through their life course is a key element of family diversity too, as most people live in several family forms and household structures through their lives.

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