Penn State Penn State: College of the Liberal Arts

2015 Conference

Together Through Time: Conference on Social Networks & the Life Course

Penn State University, May 27-28, 2015

Penn Stater Hotel and Conference Center, University Park, PA


The focus of the two-day conference developed a set of presentations that currently serve as the basis of thought and discussion regarding the potential of life course theories, in combination with innovative social network approaches and methodology, to advance knowledge about the interplay of human development and social structures as mediated by social environments and cultural norms. The ultimate goal of the conference would be the publication of a book of collected papers on this topic.

Organizing Committee

Duane Alwin, Penn State University
Diane Felmlee, Penn State University
Michelle Frisco, Penn State University
Derek Kreager, Penn State University
Jeremy Staff, Penn State University

Substantive Orientation

Individuals are often the primary focus of sociologists, and yet individual lives are linked to one another. People inhabit a multi-layered environment, a set of nested structures, like a set of Russian matryoshka dolls. In short, lives are lived interdependently. People inhabit what are called N+2 systems—dyads, triads, tetrads, and larger interpersonal structures, but our methods for studying individuals rarely includes information on the environments they inhabit and their social networks. Social network analysis has developed into its own field, existing at the intersection of several different disciplines.

Most social network studies focus on social ties and how they produce structures of relationships and do not always incorporate data on individual characteristics and those of their network ties; similarly, studies of individuals typically do not include the characteristics of other persons who are in their social networks. Yet, marriage, friendship, kinship, caregiver, work, organization, and neighborhood ties are all relevant to outcomes for individuals, and increasingly, sociological studies are focusing on the social network ties, or the social structures, that bind individuals together.

Greater integration of social network science and sociology is needed, and innovative methodological approaches (especially with respect to gathering data) are necessary to advance knowledge about the interplay of human development and social structures as mediated by social environments and cultural norms. It would be valuable if sociological theory and methodology were to draw more upon the mathematical and other contributions of social network science (graph theory, visualization tools, block modeling, etc.) with applications to the study of people’s lives.

The life course perspective assumes that people’s lives are uniquely shaped by the timing and sequencing of life events (both intended and unintended). Lives are embedded in institutional structures and historical contexts, and distinctive birth cohort experiences are considered to reflect many of these exogenous influences. Individual lives are linked both inter-generationally and intra-generationally, and social network phenomena are captured within the life course perspective viz. the concept of “linked lives,”which emphasizes the fact that lives are lived interdependently.

The life course framework further assumes that early life events and exposures contribute in meaningful ways to later life outcomes, and that events and transitions occurring in the life course of one individual often entail transitions for other people as well. Various strands of individual life trajectories, (such as schooling, work, military service, marriage, family, wealth and health) are interconnected to one another, hence, “linked lives,” and to the life trajectories of persons within the interpersonal contexts and micro-level settings inhabited by multiple people.

At the same time, the concept of “linked lives” appears to be less developed than other aspects of the life course perspective, at least as compared to the concepts of life transitions, trajectories, and historical change. Moreover, the concept of linked lives may be operationalized relatively narrowly as the connections between children and their parents, for instance, but not likely to extend to include the potentially powerful school network in which those children are located, for much of the waking hours. A social network perspective, therefore, stretches the concept of “linked lives” to include far-ranging sets of ties, such as those of the school, the neighborhood, friendships, an extended kin network, the workplace, or the institutional setting. A number of sophisticated methodological advances within the social network field, also could be useful for life course perspectives, such as the focus on network centrality, cliques or subclusters, weak ties, brokerage, as well as recent exponential random graph models.

On the other hand, the field of social networks also could benefit from consideration of life course theory. Social network research often focuses narrowly on specific, methodological innovations and often fails to integrate theoretically with broader sociological approaches. It would be useful if network specialists were to further develop the ways in which their approach overlaps with general, sociological theory; the life course perspective, with its emphasis on “linked lives,” appears to be a particularly useful sociological perspective for such a task. Life course theory offers novel avenues of investigation for network researchers. Its dynamic focus on social change, for instance, highlights the notions that the linked lives of networks will seldom remain stable over time and that historical events shape social ties, as well. The life course focus on turning points, furthermore, points to potential stages in time when people’s networks are apt to change abruptly, such as when young people exit school.

The goal of the conference will be to encourage discussion regarding intersections between the life course perspective, its concept of linked lives, and the field of social networks. We hope to further theoretical, methodological, and substantive developments as a result and believe there is much to be gained for both life course and network research.

You may view the list of participants, program, and abstracts visiting our 2015 Conference Documents page and 2015 Conference Abstracts page.

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