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Life Course Case Study Essay


In this assignment I conduct a life course case study of a seventy-four year old man, Mr. Gambina, in order to find out whether structure or agency has been most influential throughout his life. The agent is the person who actually performs the action, while structure refers to the main structures in society that influence the way the agents act. Most structuralists share a conviction that individual human beings function solely as elements of the (often hidden) social networks to which they belong.

The life course theory emerged in the 1960s out of the need to understand human development as occurring across the life span. This field, which emphasizes how individual lives are socially patterned over time, and the processes by which lives are changed by changing environments. Life-course studies emphasise the importance of epistemology in the study of society. Thus, collecting information on the four interrelated dimensions of the life story: structural, socio-cultural, interpersonal and personal story. According to Janet Z. Giele and Glen H. Elder, Jr., “Any point in the life span must be viewed dynamically as the consequence of past experience and future expectation,” I have tried to keep this in mind while conducting my study and analysis of Mr. Gambina’s life span.


The sociological theory that I shall be taking into consideration is that of C. Wright Mills. Mills’ aim was to develop what he called sociological imagination. The sociological imagination, he argued, is an outlook on society that focuses on the intimate connections between larger structural issues (what he called Public Issues) and the daily problems that confront individuals (Personal Troubles). Mills sought to demonstrate how issues of power, ideology and class are tied up with the daily troubles of ordinary individuals. Mills also sought to expose what he saw as the tragedy of sociology – the inability, unwillingness or refusal to cultivate the sociological imagination.

An important assumption underlying Mills’ work is that social reality is both macroscopic and microscopic. Sociologists should try to understand social reality in terms of the meanings that social structures have for individuals. Failure to comprehend these macro-micro inner-connections results in sterile, pseudo-sophisticated rambling, which contributes little to the development of the social sciences or to the usefulness of sociology for progressive social change. This reluctance to cultivate the sociological imagination is, for Mills, the tragedy of modern sociology.

Mills thought that social structure has a reality independent of the activities of ordinary individuals. Nonetheless individuals make and remake the social relations of everyday life. The aim of good sociology is to sensitise us to the many ways that social structure influences the daily lives of ordinary people. His greatest political and intellectual concern was that people in advanced societies would be manipulated into a state of acquiescence and political impotence, a state where the role of human reason would no longer play be an important force for progressive social change. He says, “we cannot adequately understand ‘man’ as an isolated biological creature, as a bundle of reflexes or a set of instincts, as an ‘intelligible field’ or a system in and of itself. Whatever else he may be, man is a social and an historical actor who must be understood, if at all, in close and intricate interplay with social and historical structures” .

Literature Review

There have been many life-course studies in the last century, each focusing on a separate element of the interviewee’s life, ranging from why and how people choose their friends to the female social climber .

A similar study to the one I am conducting is Katherine R. Allen and Robert S. Pickett’s 1984 life-course study of women born in 1910, in America. Allen and Pickett paid particular attention to the variations in life patterns and choices fostered. They realized an increased trend in the employment of women, the expansion of educational careers, significant alterations in marriage and divorce patterns, a prolongation of the life course and a great imbalance in the proportions of women to men in their later years.

Also in 1984, Dieter Ulich and Winfried N. Saup conducted life-course research, conducted towards coping with crises in old age. They found negative stereotypes and self-concepts in the elderly. They argued that gerontology would help towards coping with stress.

Susan De Vos and Steven Ruggles explored the connections between the life course and the kin group, in 1985, focusing on the demographic determinants of kin groups, such as frequency and timing of births, deaths and marriages, which all define the context within which rules of kinship operate. Steven Ruggles used microsimulation (following the kinship path of the individual as they age) to examine the connection between an individual’s life course and the nature of his or her kin group and its sensitivity to overall demographic conditions.

A more recent study is that of Ulrich Karl Mayer in 1997, which examined the challenges faced in cross-cultural comparisons of life courses. He constructed two complimentary ideal types, based on life courses in deregulated societies and flexibly co-coordinated societies. Mayer found that links between macroinstitutional structures and individual life courses must be constructed as mutually reinforcing systems to enable successful cross-national comparisons. He concluded that cross-national comparisons of life course patterns should contain a description of the institutional configurations and of the make-up of collective actors and models of incentive systems and individual-level transitions.

However, none of the life-course studies I reviewed deal specifically with the influence of structure and agency throughout the individual’s life, the topic which I am dealing with.

Methodology and Methods


There are two main kinds of research: quantitative and qualitative. In this case study I use qualitative research, also known as interpretive research, naturalistic research, phenomenological, descriptive research. There are three main types of qualitative data collection: interviews, observation and documents, the product of which is a narrative description. Qualitative research is very dependent on the researcher as a person. The researcher is an instrument, not a mechanical device or test instrument, as in quantitative research.

By using qualitative research, the researcher gets much more depth and detail than in a standardised questionnaire, and it helps the interviewer see the world view of the people studied, the respondents’ categories, rather than imposed categories. Descriptive research attempts to avoid pre-judgements, although some disagree here as we always make judgements, but just don’t admit it, for example the choice of one location or group over another is a judgement. The goal is to try to capture what is happening without being judgemental; to present people on their own terms, try to represent them from their perspectives so reader can see their views.

However, qualitative research gives a much less generalised result, and makes it difficult to collect data and make systematic comparisons. Some claim the qualitative research is too dependent on the researcher’s personal attributes and skills.


In this case study the method I used is that of an intensive, or in-depth, interview. This is an unstructured one-to-one interview, in which broad questions are asked, giving the interviewee a starting point and then asking questions to help push him or her in the right direction.

Interviews are the most flexible means of obtaining information, since the face-to-face situation helps answers to be in more depth and detail. Also, information can be observed by the interviewer without having to ask the specific question. Unlike in mail or telephone questionnaires, sensitive questions cannot remain unanswered, and the interviewer can be certain who exactly is answering the questions, family members will not be able to confer.

On the other hand, one-to-one interviews may create and interviewer bias: physical appearance, age, race, sex, dress, non-verbal behavior and/or comments may prompt respondents to answer questions untruthfully. In general, interviews are a disadvantage because a lot of time and money is required, but this is not the case for this particular life-course study, as it only deals with one person.


Birth and Family or Origin

The respondent, Mr. Gambina, born in 1927, was born during the lull between the two World Wars. When I asked him about his childhood, he told me that it was very normal, referring to things all children do, in particular his holy communion, confirmation, and that he was an altar boy. He had only good things to say about his parents, describing them both as quiet and devoted to their family. The little trouble he got into with his parents was to do with going out instead of staying home to study; he said he felt very carefree during his teenage years, telling me that they used to play in the streets, even though a war was on. The most significant even of his teenage years was the Second World War, and his father being repatriated to Sicily because of it.


Mr. Gambina remembers enjoying school, in particular remembers his teacher who he described as gentle and well meaning. One of his lasting memories of school is the lessons being interrupted by air raids. He had a talent for languages, and remembered the name of an important book, Manzoni’s classic ‘I Promessi Sposi’ after only a second of thought. When asked about the role of education in a person’s life, he immediately replied, “Education is everything”.

Love and Work

Mr. Gambina was 17 when he had his first date, which was a walk on the front. What he remembers as difficult about dating was that he a girl who he would have liked to ask out was always with a female friend of hers, making her very unapproachable. The respondent’s attitudes towards sex have always been in sync with the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. He said that one of the main reasons with his wife was that she was a woman with her own mind, and he realized that the relationship “meant business” straight away. He held that he always wanted to get married and have a family of his own; in fact he went on to have four children, two girls and two boys. He describes the best part of marriage was the birth of his children, and the worst his wife dying. The values the interviewee tried to impart on his all his children are those of the Roman Catholic Church.

The respondent’s ambition was only to live a normal life, which he succeeded in accomplishing. When he was young he had wanted to be a notary, but since schooling had to be paid for, and he was relying on his brother for income, he could not continue studying. He said the war helped him to understand and accept his adult responsibilities, and he realized he had become an adult when he began working as a clerk, which he decided to do because he liked office work, also there was not much choice at the time, as it was just after WWII.

Historical Events and Periods

As already mentioned, the Mr. Gambina lived through the experience the Second World War; also he mentioned the granting of Malta’s independence as the important historical events he saw. He has seen the development of cooking on the Maltese traditional kenur to gas ovens, and remembers old wives tales to cure sickness put into practice. He was, and still is, and active member of the community, from being an altar boy as a child, to being an active member of the Legion of Mary now: visiting old people’s homes, the mental hospital and parishioners in their own homes. He considers the most important thing his family gave him as honesty, the most important thing that he gave his family as affection and the most important thing he gave to the community as his time.


Mr. Gambina remembers feeling relieved when he retired from his full-time job, as it was during Mintoff’s government, and he was boarded out for being a nationalist supporter. He went on to part-time work with a relative, but eventually had to stop because of health problems. He says he doesn’t miss work, that he’s living a happy life now and commented on how nice it is not to have to wake up early every morning, rain or shine. The worst thing about being retired, however, is that, since he is a widower and his children do not live with him any more, it can get lonely.

His time is occupied now with working for the Legion of Mary (as mentioned earlier), running errands for himself and his children, and baby-sitting his grandchildren. He says he is very proud of his grandchildren, the best thing about them being their affection, and the worst thing when they argue. He hopes that they will always give importance to family unity.

Inner Life and Spiritual Awareness

The interviewee says he had a happy childhood, he definitely felt loved; one of his happiest childhood memories is preaching the Christmas sermon. He counts his turning point as a teenager as WWII, especially since his father was not with him, and his turning points as an adult as getting married and becoming a father. He says the greatest stress of being an adult is responsibility. Spirituality plays a major role in the interviewee’s life, his primary beliefs being to love God and his neighbour, and giving importance to saving his soul. Even though he sometimes doubts, he feels he has inner strength, which he gets from God and when he feels drained renews his strength through prayer. He feels at peace with himself, which he says was achieved by keeping hope alive.

Major Life Themes

Mr. Gambina says that the most important gifts he has gotten are the values passed on to him from his parents, pointing out that they are the same as those of the Catholic Church. His crucial decisions were deciding to get married and have a family, which taught him to appreciate life more. He can handle disappointment serenely, knowing that life goes on. His greatest joy has been the births of his children and grandchildren, while the worst points are the deaths of his father, mother, wife and brother. His greatest worry is that he has to leave this world. Though he knows he stopped changing a long time ago, he does not feel old and believes he can cope, adding that his children and grandchildren keep him alive.


Agency and Structure both play important factors in our lives. Agency is the power of actors to operate independently of the shaping constraints of social structure. Structure, on the other hand, is the main structures in society and their sway on our personal lives, such as the government, religion, education, and the work place, as illustrated through this life-course study. My job now is to determine where both structure and agency have influenced the subject’s, Mr. Gambina’s, life.

When asked about his childhood, Mr. Gambina said he considered his it to be normal with reference to activities related to the Roman Catholic Church (namely his First Holy Communion, Confirmation, and that he was an altar boy), this is a clear indication that the structure of the Church has played a very large role in his life, so large that he defines himself by it. We can also see this influence in Mr. Gambina’s attitudes towards sex as a teenager, the values he tried to impart on his children (those of the Roman Catholic Church), which he also considers to be the most important gifts from his parents and what he considers to be that happiest memory of his childhood – giving the Christmas sermon. We can also see the weight religion carries for him in his choice of activities: working with the Legion of Mary, one of their activities being going to people’s houses to pray with them, and to give them a statue of the Virgin Mary to pray to for a week.

Another structure that played a significant role in Mr. Gambina’s life is education. Though he did not continue his education past ordinary level standard, this was not because he did not want to, but because it was too expensive to do so at the time. This obviously does not mean that he does not treat getting an education as important, and when he was asked, he himself said, “Education is everything”.

Inevitably, the war played a large part in Mr. Gambina’s life. He counts it as the event that turned him into an adult. Also, since his father was repatriated to Sicily, his teenage years, the years in which he needed a father’s guidance most, were spent without that support. In this way, we can see, again, the dominance of structure in Mr. Gambina’s life course.

In his work, Mr. Gambina was also affected by structure. Starting work when he did was due to the fees that had to be paid to continue schooling, which his family could not afford. The type of work he did was influenced greatly by structure to, although he wanted to work in an office job, he did not have much selection at the time, as it was just after the Second World War had ended, and there were a lot of people left unemployed (this is also another way in which the war affect Mr. Gambina’s life). I also cannot ignore the comment Mr. Gambina made about being relieved to have retired, as he was discriminated against, and in his own words, “boarded out,” of his job as a clerk because of his political beliefs.

One aspect that structure did not control was Mr. Gambina’s choice for a wife. It was not common at that time for women to be working, but this is precisely what first attracted Mr. Gambina to who would become Mrs. Gambina. He liked that she was an independent woman. In this circumstance, we see that agency playing its role.


The life course study conducted was to indicate to what extent the respondent’s life was a product of structure and/or agency. All individuals are affected by social structure, and at the same time, each and every structure is made up of individuals, all performing diverse social actions.

In examining Mr. Gambina’s life story, it becomes clear that structure has played a much more prominent influence in his life than agency. First and foremost the Second World War, which affected not only Mr. Gambina’s everyday life, but also the life of each individual that lived through it. Education, another structure, is also a factor that Mr. Gambina considers to be important. In his work, we can see Mr. Gambina being affected by structure in the type of job he opted for, and also the influence of the government, even in his office, which had influenced his everyday life, and caused him to detest his last two years of work.

In the case of Mr. Gambina, the great importance that he has given to his religion has throughout his life, as illustrated in both the results and the discussion, obviously leads to the reasoning that structure, and especially that of the Roman Catholic Church, has been given priority in his life span. The only case I could find in Mr. Gambina’s life of agency taking control is when he chose his wife, and his decision to rear a family, though I must admit, I am not exactly sure that the choice to have one’s own family is a choice made completely independently.

In conclusion, I think the answer to the question ‘has agency or structure been given priority throughout the life course of Mr. Gambina?’ is indisputable. Structure has been the major influence in his life story, and still remains so.


Richard T. Schaefer, Sociology, seventh edition, McGraw-Hill, 2001

C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, 1959

Janet Z. Giele and Glen H. Elder, Jr., Methods of Life Course Research

Roger D. Wimmer and Joseph R. Dominick, Mass Media Research, An Introduction, Wadsworth, 1994

Internet sources


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