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A life-course perspective on social exclusion and poverty

The British Journal of Sociology
Volume 54 No 1 March 2003
pages 109-128


This article assesses whether it is possible to reconceptualize the traditional research approaches to the relationship between poverty and the life cycle on the basis of different sociological perspectives on the life course found in the literature. While the family-cycle approach, which was originally formulated by Seebohm Rowntree (1902), is criticized for being static, descriptive, normative and inflexible, dynamic poverty research is mostly confined to the quantitative analysis of income trajectories, and thus offers only a partial solution to our problem. However, the life-course perspective allows us to combine the best elements of these traditional approaches and to reconceptualize them into a general framework for the study of social exclusion and poverty. To this end, three sociological perspectives on the life course are considered: the traditional North-American life-course perspective formulated by Elder (1974), the Continental institutional approach, and a combined approach which we label the 'political economy of the life course'. Drawing from these three perspectives, we propose a general framework of analysis and formulate hypotheses regarding the phenomena of social exclusion and poverty over the life course which can subsequently be empirically validated.

Keywords: Social exclusion, poverty, life course, longitudinal analysis, deinstitutionalization, welfare state

Caroline Dewilde
Research Group on Poverty, Social Exclusion and the City (OASeS), Panel Study on Belgian Households (PSBH), University of Antwerp