Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Work, Gender and the Life Course: Social Construction and Individual Experience

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of Sociology

Work, Gender and the Life Course: Social Construction and Individual Experience

Article excerpt

Abstract: This paper examines the impact of family and labour market on male and female life course patterns. For women in particular, aggregate survey data have often suggested orderly, phased transitions between family and work. A combination of quantitative and qualitative methods reveals not only a much greater discontinuity in women's life courses, but sheds light on the hidden "normality assumptions" that affect women's self-perceptions and shape their work histories. Data come from two German research projects. One followed the life sequences of women -- now in their 60s -- between the years 1949 and 1991. The other examined the life course data of their husbands.

Resume: Cet article examine l'impact que la famille et le marche du travail ont sur les modalites de la vie des femmes et celles des hommes. Les donnees cumulees d'etudes precedentes avaient souvent suggere que ces modalites etaient organisees selon des transitions periodiques et ordonnees, en particulier dans le cas des femmes. Notre etude qui combine methodes quantitatives et qualitatives, revele deux elements contredisant cette affirmation. Scion nos resultats, les modalites de la vie des femmes connaissent une plus grande discontinuite que celles des hommes. Cette etude met aussi en lumiere l'existence de suppositions cachees de normalite; ces suppositions affectent la perception qu'ont les femmes d'elles-memes et modelent l'historique de leur vie professionelle. Nos donnees proviennent de deux projets de recherche allemands. L'un de ces projets a suivi de la vie des femmes sur une periode qui debute en 1949 et se termine en 1991. Ces femmes sont maintenant dans leur soixantaine. L'autre projet se concentrait sur les donnees de la vie de leur mari.

IntroductionparAlthough a relative newcomer to sociology, life course research with its ability to follow a variety of social and personal dynamics through a person's life span has created a number of theoretical and methodological challenges for sociology (Elder, 1992; George, 1993; Kohli, 1986; Hagestad, 1991; Rosenfeld and Birkelund, 1995; Hakim, 1993). One of its most productive areas has been the intersection of personal life courses with social institutions such as education, family, labour market, or the welfare system (Heinz, 1991; Kohli, Meyer, 1986; Mayer, 1986; Mayer, Muller, 1986; Levy, 1977, 1991). These institutions order the life course by creating formal entry and exit points, but also through informal norms which influence people's ambitions, stock-taking, and self-image at various times during their lives.

This perspective is of theoretical relevance for the structure-agency debate in sociology because tracking multiple dimensions of life course development over an extended period of time makes it very clear that structure and personal action determine the life course. But life course research has also revealed new policy challenges stemming from discontinuities between schooling and labour market entry (Blossfeld, 1987; Heinz, 1991; Heinz et al., 1985; Krahn, Lowe, 1993; Lowe, Krahn, 1992), labour market changes and loss of employment, or gender- or age-dependent labour market exits and resources for retirement. Such discontinuities disrupt individual life plans and may require profound changes in personal as well as institutional strategies designed to cope with the resulting stress and insecurity (Esping-Anderson, 1990; Leibfried and Pierson, 1995; Beck, 1986; Weymann, 1989).

This study looks at the structural and normative impact of the family and the labour market on male and female life courses. We examine how their institutional characteristics translate into gender-specific differences in female and male life course patterns and their personal interpretation.

Data and MethodsparAn examination of the interaction between organizational contexts and subjective meanings requires both quantitative and qualitative data analyses. Such a combined methodology has never before been used in life course research. …

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