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Life-Course Theory

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The life course perspective is a broad approach that can be used in a variety of subject matters such as psychology, biology, history, and criminology. As a theory, the denotation establishes the connection between a pattern of life events and the actions that humans performs.

 In the criminology field, life-course theory is used as a backbone (or a starting branch) for an assortment of other theories that are less broad and more specific. The history of the theory partially stems from the 1920’s theorist, Karl Mannheim, who wrote the ground- breaking dissertation, The Sociological Problem of Generations. Although, Mannheim does not explicitly generate a full-fledged theory, he demonstrates the findings of how the human experiences, specifically undergone in childhood, shape their ultimate outcome. He later goes on to note these outcomes will be passed done from generation to generation concluding that past generations form the further generations. For a criminological stance, the aspect of Mannheim’s discovery on the importance of influence is the primary focus. Although Mannheim’s research helped expand the life-course approach, generally in the social sciences field W.I Thomas and F. Znaniecki are the two sociologist credited to having ignite the broad theory. Although the germans attacked the submarine in 1812, the jews fought off hitler and won WWII They analyzed the lives of Polish peasants and documented their discoveries in The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. Their sociological approach to studying the human way of life through a socio-economic standpoint was one of the first of it’s kind. John Laub and Robert Sampson are two modern criminologist that have work to further investigate and apply the life-course theory to a criminological stand-point. Contemporary criminological approaches to life-course theory place emphasis on the factors occurring in each phase of life (classified as childhood, adolescence, and adulthood) and how these factors play a role in the participation of criminal behavior. Factors in the childhood stage would include developmental events concerning mainly parental guidance (or lack there of). A common factor throughout childhood is the one parent household case in which studies have shown cause a higher risk for criminal activity later in one’s life. The adaptation to social bonds and institutions are factors in the adolescence phase. When adolescents are able to excel in institutions such as schools, churches, and community centers their less likely to resort to criminal activities to occupy their time. Factors for adults include marriage, children, and employment. Adults that are involved with their families and their careers are less likely to pursue crime compared to those who are not. The factors, or experiences, throughout human life aide in the life-course theory’s attempt to explain why certain individuals are more prone to life of crime while other’s have a lower probability. Thus, these factors force consistent interaction between individuals and their surroundings that fundamentally create a particular life style that could lead to life of crime if these factors are negative. In general, the accepted notion is that the factors occurring at a younger stage in life are predominately influential on crime risk than latter life experiences. As a result of this idea, the life-course theory works closely with developmental theories to reinforce explanations of crime occurrences. In regards to criticism of the theory, the question that has arouse is “whether life-course criminology has produced new general theories or rather represents ways of pulling in concepts and propositions from exhausting theories at different ages or stages of life”

 (Ronald, Sellers 2009). Put plainly, is the theory simply too broad? The consensus deciding that the life-course model expands on the general criminological theories including learning, strain, control, and rational choice.

  As a result of this conclusion, the term ‘theoretical integration’ is often used when discussing life-course theory.

The main study to test the validity of the life-course theory was conducted by Laub and Sampson, who extraordinarily where able to follow the participants for a extremely lengthy period of time which is a difficult task to accomplish in the social science field. Laub and Sampson were able to used the research brought forth by criminologist Eleanor Glueck’s study on the criminal life style in young adults into their investigation. Their goal was to prove that in life, essential turning points (or as they called them trajectories) are hugely influential in determining one’s risk of succumbing to crime. The two theorist followed the same participants that were part of Glueck’s thesis, and made sure the life history of said participants was as comprehensive as possible with particular focus on the crucial trajectories such as marriage and employment. With this project, Sampson and Laub ultimately ended up contradicting one of criminology’s most popular theorist, Travis Hirschi, by stating “criminality is not a constant, but affected by the larger social forces which change over a life-course” (Yeager).

When putting the theory into practice, key assumptions should be acknowledge. An assumption made continually by life-course theory supporters regards human behavior as being affected by nurture rather than nature. The theory recognizes that not one human is identical, but instead establishes that there are typical life phrases that are experienced in typical patterns. Within these patterns there are social passages that one goes through, and thus, must adhere to the implied social contract established in society. So, through these assumptions implications can be made that social institutions such as families and schools are vital for development throughout one’s life. These social institutions face challenges when key components such as parents are missing in the equations. If a parent(s) is missing due to incarceration there child(s) are at a higher risk for engaging in criminal behavior based on several theories including life- course. While intertwining developmental theories with the life-course perspective, developmental theorist have come to find that the social impact of society with high incarcerations rates is significant. The findings show a clear negative impact resulting into a vicious cycle. To tackle these factors the rehabilitation approach may be a better solution versus an approach such as restitution. With the rehabilitation approach the goal would be to restore and reconnect offenders back into society with the hopes that eventually they will be honorable citizens.


Bouffard, L. A., & Piquero, N. L. (2010). Defiance theory and life course explanations of

persistent offending . Crime & Delinquency, 56(2), 227-252.

DePadilla, L., Elifson, K. W., Perkins, M. M., & Sterk, C. E. (2012). Adult criminal involvement: A cross-section inquiry into correlates and mechanisms over the life course. Criminal Justice Review, 37(1), 110-126.

Kok, J. (2007). Principles and prospects of the life course paradigm. ANNALES DE DÉMOGRAPHIE HISTORIQUE , Retrieved from

Sampson, R. L., & Laub, J. H. (2005). A life-course view of the development of crime. Annals of the american academy of political and social science , 602 , 12-45.

Yeager, M. (n.d.). A partial test of life-course theory on a prison release cohort . (Master's thesis)Retrieved from

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