An expert in the sociology of the life course and human development, Dale Dannefer—the Selah Chamberlain Professor of Sociology—has been elected to serve as the president of the Society for Longitudinal and Life Course Studies (SLLS). Dannefer will lead the international organizations’ work which focuses on analyzing and disseminating knowledge generated from large-scale cohort studies around the world to understand the dynamics of growing up and getting older between and within societies.
Dannefer has been involved with the organization since 2012 and will serve as president through 2027.
In recognition of his achievement, we spoke with Dannefer to learn more about his relationship with the SLLS and how this role will both complement and expand upon his position at Case Western Reserve University (CWRU).
How did you become involved with SLLS?
To answer that, I will need to offer a brief bit of background. Beginning as far back as the 1950s, scientists in multiple countries began to study children’s and teens’ psychological development, in some cases following these young people well into adulthood. The trend was reinforced by gerontological researchers, who discovered that aging cannot be accurately studied without actually following individuals over time.
The richness of these multi-decade studies of human development and life course patterns sparked the imaginations of behavioral and social scientists and others working in these fields around the world. Today, we have large-scale studies with data on individuals spanning their childhood through very advanced age. However, the complexity of the data have often outrun the theoretical and analytic frameworks available to uncover and accurately characterize the dynamics.
My work in this arena has tended to focus on this challenge—interrogating and reworking basic theoretical assumptions. For example, one robust discovery of life-course scholarship from its beginnings has been the decisive importance of contextual factors and social forces in shaping individuals’ life patterns, while the established ideas guiding the field focused more on internal, individual processes. My work has sought to demonstrate both the practical utility and theoretical payoff of beginning with more contextually informed premises to reframe the underlying assumptions.
What are your goals as president of the SLLS?
I will commence my two-year presidential term next year, so this is a work in progress.
Two of the goals we will likely focus on are increasing diversity of the membership and encouraging continued scrutiny of some emerging theoretical models and their guiding assumptions.
With regards to diversity, the membership of SLLS is international, yet it is not as diverse as we would like it to be. It consists disproportionately of researchers from European countries, North America, East Asia and Australia/New Zealand. The global south is markedly underrepresented in the society, as it is in life course scholarship generally. I want to develop opportunities to expand the reach of the organization and make the research not just international, but truly global.
Regarding the continuing need to interrogate theoretical models, though life-course research has become more multidisciplinary than its personality-oriented origins, individual-level explanations have continued to be very popular. Old ideas really do die hard! But with the wealth of multi-decade cohort studies in so many societal contexts, we are in an exciting place to investigate the contributions of various factors, including social factors, with more rigor and population breadth. In other words, how does one’s social and institutional context shape one’s life chances, net of individual ability and effort?
As president, what are you most excited about and how do you see this tying into your role at CWRU?
CWRU’s Department of Sociology has long had a strong footprint in the fields of aging and life course. For example, two of our faculty members, Eva Kahana and department chair Jessica Kelley, currently serve as editors of major journals in this area. Last year, I co-hosted the first-ever North American meeting of SLLS at Case Western Reserve, bringing to campus participants from 20 countries, with more participating remotely. Many of our current students and recent PhD alumni presented their original research. This opportunity has already spurred the university’s place in shaping the future of the society through collaborations, training and advancing the methodological/theoretical field.
Following up on this conference, Jessica Kelley and I will host an NIH-funded R13 conference here at Case Western Reserve next year on comparative life course methods, which will incorporate many of the influential thinkers of SLLS and life course scholarship around the world.