The Life Course Theory of Crime


Life-course theory, commonly known as the life course perspective, was founded by Glen Elder over six decades ago in his efforts to explore the world of crimes. It was not approved formally until the 1990s when rapid economic and population changes took place (Robert, 2018). These variations intensified the historical influences and multidimensional processes on family change and stability. Case studies were prompted by the advancement in statistical methods and the invention of better ways of analyzing criminal data. Research that took place between 1970 and 1980 engineered its attention to incorporate various arguments regarding the Life Course Theory, and historical changes in an individual’s life cycle (McGee& Farrington, 2019). The conceptual framework started soaring in the late 90s when Glen Elder progressed his research on developing principles that guide the Life Course Theory of crime.

In this context, life course refers to a pattern of social events and roles that a person perpetuates over time. The conjecture was formed by integrating disciplines from different aspects of crime. According to the theory, crime is driven by multiple factors such as ecological, biological sociological, psychological, and economic motives. Through the integration of different theories, the framework became free from deficiencies that could be easily spotted in other preexisting concepts in this niche.

This integrated approach used for explaining the causes of crime proposed that the factors influencing crime may vary depending on the age of a person. According to Bengston and Allen, the significance of process, time, context, and meaning on human development and family life is well developed in detail by the life course phenomena (McGee& Farrington, 2019). This, therefore, means that the motives that push a person to commit a crime at a young age may not be the same as those that drive them at their old age. Family as an element is a group of individuals sharing a common history and socially interacting across time and space.

The Life Course Theory, therefore, explores the intersection of social and historical factors in a person onto which the study of family structure directs research on matters regarding conceptual development and identification of crime-inducing concepts. The phenomenon of Life Course has been synthesized with other suppositions like Bengston and Allen’s human development theory, Hareven’s family history model, Uhlenberg’s demography, Elder’s human development concept, and Bronfenbrenner’s ecological perspective.

According to longitudinal research, most offenders, regardless of their background, engage in smoking, gambling, irresponsible sexual behavior, relationship issues, drug abuse, and drunk driving. Offending is a single element of antisocial behavior that tends to persist over time in an individual. In studying the development of crime, the age-crime curve is the core phenomenon of consideration. Teenagers tend to be highly involved in risky and unwanted behavior, while young adults have a lower tendency to offend.

The male’s age-crime curve has a sharper peak relative to the female’s age-crime curve, which can be described as curvilinear. The average age associated with high crime involvement ranged from 33 to 35 years (Farrington, Kazemian & Piquero, 2018). From a general perspective, many adults in the forecited age bracket have confessed to experiencing a negative transition in their life highly characterized by marital disputes and alcohol abuse. The age bracket, commonly referred to as the mid-life crisis phase, recorded the highest number of adult detainees in correctional facilities.

In marginalized areas occupied predominantly by the Black-American communities, the rates of crime are usually high. Minors as young as 12 years are serving time in juvenile detention centers while cases of first-degree murder, abuse of narcotic drugs, and armed robbery continue to skyrocket (Boman & Mowen, 2018). Criminal gang rivalry, unemployment and lack of proper educational institutions have been cited as the key predisposing factors responsible for the high crime rate. The section below highlights some of the academic critiques that have surfaced since the inception of this conjecture.

Academic Critiques of the Theory

The theory of life course explores various transitions and changes that take place in a person’s life. It has successfully attained its frame, tribute to the historians, psychologists, sociologists, and demographers who played major roles in this achievement. Glen Elder, the father of the Life Course Theory of Crime, established four concepts correlating with the model in the early 90s, namely, linked or independent lives, historical times, human agency in decision making, and timing of lives. Other themes, such as developmental risk protection and variation in life cycle behavior, were later discovered by Elder and Boysenberry, reinforcing Elder’s ideology of the Life Course Model.

In the timing of life theme, transitions and events occur at specific ages. The timing of the transitions as either on-time or off-time helps individuals to identify their statuses and roles at distinct times. Depending on the society, childbearing in adolescence can either be on-time or off-time. In human lives and historical time’s theme, individuals born in different generations experienced different opinions about life and behavior. Glen conducted more research in 1974 to explore the impact that the Great Depression had on teenagers’ perceptions of life. He concluded that the youths are more vulnerable to family hardships during an economic decline and hence can easily engage in crime.

In the interdependent lives theme, the association of human lives and their interrelationships is well explained. According to the phenomenon, the source of support and control in an individual’s life is the family. The research conducted by Elder involving children raised during the Great Depression further revealed that teenagers either had difficulties in nurturing their children (Farrington, Kazemian & Piquero, 2018). They later faced a higher likelihood of being emotionally distressed and exhibited criminal traits in their later stages of life.

The sequence of interdependence is a result of the events and transitions through life and keeps changing when war takes place or when the economy declines. For immigrants, when children learn a new language or new culture, the sequence of mutual support between them and their parents is disrupted. The theme of links with the outside world postulated by George Hernandez asserts that behavioral transitions in the family are majorly influenced by work. According to the National Longitudinal Survey of the Youth research, middle-aged children exhibited aggressiveness or depression that was attributed to the type of work done by their parents.

The subject of heterogeneity in behavioral patterns as explored by Ronald Rindfuss theorized that women experience greater levels of violence-related tendencies than males since their lives are more intertwined with the family. The research, lasting six months, involved 1300 parents and examined their patterns of homemaking relative to their professions (Robert, 2018). It was further discovered that the children’s code of conduct depended on the amount of time spent with their parents. Children who spent more time with their parents grew to have children with high moral standards and ethics. The section below highlights some of the strengths and weaknesses of the theory.

Strengths of the Life Course Theory of Crime

The theory of life Course, having succeeded due to the integration of several theories, is based on fundamental strongholds. The model emphasizes linked lives that derive attention from the relationships between generations and families. Learning such associations helps in appreciating one’s past and understanding the history of a person’s conduct. Greater attention to the behavior of an individual, both historically and socially, is essential in changing patterns across the globe.

The phenomena of the timing of lives probe the psychological, social, and biological processes that explain crime. It makes the theory free from insufficiencies that could otherwise be there if it only addressed a single process. Concerning the human urgency theme, individuals can change their code of conduct (Farrell& Zimmerman, 2018). This implies that crime is not permanent and that the capacity to change lies within the individual’s ability. Current research explains that crime can be prevented as there is strong evidence based on its nature and predisposing factors.


Life-course as a theory of crime fails to connect individuals and families in the micro world with the organizations and institutions in the macro perspective. The model is based in nature as its only point of concern is the middle-aged teenagers. Should the researcher study individuals from different age groups over time, perhaps different findings would be gathered and comparisons made from the different groups. This is because people perceive crime differently in different stages of their life. The life course theory, like other theories that explain the conduct of an individual, seeks the sequences of behavior, ignoring its processes and mechanisms.

The Interactional Theory, developed by Thomberry in 1987, is greatly connected with the life course theory of crime. This school of thought contains three fundamental elements that are contained in the life course theory. The former takes a life course perspective that suggests a direct involvement in delinquency, which appears over time. For some individuals, it may be a departure, while for others, a termination. Individuals experience different influences on their behavior at different ages. Secondly, misconduct is often reinforced through interactions with one another or family members. Thirdly, the theory asserts that misconduct is a result of multiple causes that vary in causal force as well as magnitude, an argument that correlates with the life course theory.

Sampson and Laub’s Age-Graded Theory of Informal Social control asserts that performing a crime is partially a result of the loss of bonds to society. This is seconded by Glen Elder’s perspective about the implication of societal bonds on behavior. Crime, therefore, is caused by informal social controls such as peers, school, and family, an idea that corresponds with Elder’s model of crime. In addition, Farrington’s Theory of Delinquent Development established that individuals could prevent or control themselves from offending even when the crime is within their backgrounds or history. For this to apply, factors such as shy personality and closeness to one’s parents must hold.


The theory’s success is attributed to its efforts to explore the twists, turns, and continuities in an individual’s entire life cycle by defining how history influences the conduct of a person. It is based on biological, psychological, ecological and sociological factors of crime which can be connected to familial interactions and upbringing. The concept of crime is caused by multiple triggers such as biological sociological, psychological, economic motives and ecological factors, which are jointly blended in Glen’s model. Therefore, the model can be used by students to explain different aspects of social behavior and upbringing and its association with crime.


Boman IV, J. H., & Mowen, T. J. (2018). The role of turning points in establishing baseline differences between people in developmental and life-course criminology. Criminology, 56(1), 191-224.

Farrell, C., & Zimmerman, G. M. (2018). Is exposure to violence a persistent risk factor for offending across the life course? Examining the contemporaneous, acute, enduring, and long-term consequences of exposure to violence on property crime, violent offending, and substance use. Journal of Research in Crime and Delinquency, 55(6), 728-765.

Farrington, D. P., Kazemian, L., & Piquero, A. R. (Eds.). (2018).Oxford Handbook of Developmental and Life-Course Criminology. Oxford Handbooks, 25(2), 101-115.

McGee, T. R., & Farrington, D. P. (2019). Developmental and life-course explanations of offending. Psychology, Crime & Law, 25(6), 609-625.

Robert, A. (2018). Stability and change in crime over the life course: A strain theory explanation. In Developmental Theories of Crime and Delinquency, 13(3), 112-123.

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LawBirdie. "The Life Course Theory of Crime." July 15, 2023.