Vulnerability of Life Trajectories in Turbulent Times

The NCCR LIVES, in collaboration with the Swiss Society of Sociology, organises a plenary session during the ESA Congress 2011, entitled "Vulnerability of Life Trajectories in Turbulent Times". This plenary session will be held on September 8, 2011 in Geneva.

The chair Laura Bernardi, Deputy Director of the NCCR LIVES, and the discussant Michel Oris, Co-Director of the NCCR LIVES, and Eric Widmer, Director of I-DEMO, invite the Professors Hans-Peter Blossfeld, Hannah Brückner, and Dale Dannefer on September 8. More information on ESA dedicated website.


Hans-Peter Blossfeld: Globalization, Rising Uncertainty and the Vulnerable. Transition from Youth to Adulthood in Modern Societies

Increasing uncertainty about economic and social developments is a definitive feature of globalization in advanced economies. However, increasing uncertainty does not impact all individuals in the same way. There are institutional settings and social structures, historically grown and country-specific, that determine the degree to which people are affected by rising uncertainty. This paper develops a multi-level theoretical framework and summarizes the main empirical results from the GLOBALIFE project. There is empirical evidence that youth in all countries are clearly exposed to more uncertainty in the course of globalization. Yet uncertainty is unequal, with risk accumulating in certain groups, generally those at the bottom. Uncertainty impacts family formation, with those in more precarious positions more likely to postpone or forgo partnership and parenthood. Youth develop rational responses to this uncertainty, which the paper identifies in the form of diverse behavioral strategies. A notable result is that young men and women are affected and respond differently to uncertainty, resulting in an unmistakable gender-specific strategy, particularly in the male-breadwinner societies. The paper demonstrates overwhelming support for the expectation that nation-specific institutions serve to shield or funnel this uncertainty in unique ways and to particular groups of youth.

Dale Dannefer: Vulnerabilities of the Life Course, Vulnerabilities of Knowledge and “Sociological Imagination"

Despite the technical and economic gains of the 20th century, a renewed array of challenges confront individuals throughout the life course. With economic retrenchment, globalization and pressures to scale back the welfare state, many individuals in post-industrial societies are likely to face increased vulnerability and risk. It is important to distinguish such societal trends and disruptions from the basic structure of cumulative disadvantage (CDA) processes, which are endemic to the life structure of each succeeding cohort. Nevertheless, threats to economic security and well-being may amplify tendencies toward CDA, as the challenges facing the disadvantaged are further amplified, and as the effects of strains in one domain reverberate in other important domains such as health and family life. Beyond such straightforward and relatively direct effects on individual life chances, present social strains can also affect the public definition and the political and intellectual framing of the problem, adding further to multiple kinds of vulnerability. Because such influences (e.g., the tendency to frame the crisis in public discourse as one that has its source and solution at the individual level) are less direct and immediate, their impact may be unnoticed. As an example, I consider in this paper the topic of genomic research, with special attention to gene-environment (G-E) interactions and their relation to the general public narrative addressing the current economic distress. I review the public presentation of these scientific claims, with special attention to the response of sociologists and other social scientists to them. I contend that the social science community, from which something more might be expected, has allowed oversimplified interpretations of genetic and biological causation to go unchallenged, and has been slow to recognize the new vistas of sociological explanation that are opened by such work. The uncritical acceptance of unidirectional, individual-level causal ideas entails a co-optation to forces that increase the vulnerability of the disadvantaged and that simulatenously renders sociology and the sociological imagination itself vulnerable to intellectual containment. To the extent that these intellectual vulnerabilities lead to a public vacuum of awareness of the power of social forces, they may also contribute further to the vulnerabilities of those most disadvantaged by offering an implicit endorsement of the dominant ideology. I conclude by considering how an enlivened “sociological imagination” can contribute, within and beyond sociology, to a more adequate understanding of the processes at work in people’s lives.