The life history approach to social research and theory subsumes several methodological techniques and types of data. These include case studies, interviews, use of documents (letters, diaries, archival records), oral histories, and various kinds of narratives. The popularity of this approach has waxed and waned since the early 1900s. It was used extensively in the 1920s and 1930s and was identified with the Chicago sociology of W. I. Thomas, Robert Park, Clifford Shaw, and others. The succeeding generation of sociology witnessed the solidification of quantitative measurement techniques coupled with survey data collection, and the increased use of those approaches paralleled a relative decline in life history research. In the 1970s, however, there began a resurgence of interest in life history research not only in the United States but in Europe. The work of some sociologists, such as Howard S. Becker and Anselm Strauss, has maintained the early Chicago tradition, while newer generations of scholars—such as Norman Denzin and Michal McCall (United States), Ken Plummer (England), Daniel Bertaux (France), and Fritz Schutze (Germany)—have augmented life history research. This resurgence has been accompanied by the creation of Research Committee 38 (Biography and Society) of the International Sociological
Association in the late 1970s and has included a broadened interdisciplinary base through the incorporation of narrative theory and methods from other disciplines. In this broadened use there has been a transition from using the approach as purely a methodological device to using it as method, theory, and substance. It is this transition that frames this article.
The main assumptions of this approach are that the actions of individuals and groups are simultaneously emergent and structured and that individual and group perspectives must be included in the data used for analysis. Accordingly, any materials that reveal those perspectives can and should be regarded as essential to the empirical study of human social life. Life history materials, as described above (see Denzin 1989b, chap. 8; Plummer 1983, chap. 2; Gottschalk et al. 1945), contain first-, second-, and third-order accounts of past actions, as well as plans and expectations regarding future actions. Those materials will reveal significant information concerning the author’s (writer and speaker) meanings. Invariably, these materials pertain also to the processual character of social life, and thus there is a major emphasis on temporal properties such as sequence, duration, and tempo. These assumptions and emphases have been characteristic of the vast majority of life history studies.
The first major empirical study in American sociology that systematically combined explicit theory and method was Thomas and Znaniecki’s The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-1920). The purpose of these researchers was to investigate Polish immigrants in America, especially their problems in adjusting to American urban life. The researchers used their famous attitude-value scheme as an explanatory framework. In this scheme, attitudes referred to individual subjective meanings and values to objective societal conditions. Thomas and Znaniecki proposed a set of causal explanations based on how the relations of attitudes and values were interpreted by individuals and groups. In their five-volume, 2,200-page work, they presented almost 800 pages of life history data in support of their conclusions and generalizations. The data included newspaper articles, letters to family members, records from courts and social work agencies, and a 300-page biography of one person that was presented as a representative case (Blumer 1939).
This research, which the Social Science Research Council in 1938 voted as the most outstanding in sociology to that date, depended solely on life history data. Because of its systematic incorporation of theory and method, it stimulated and became an exemplar for a long series of similar studies. These included research on race relations, delinquency, housing, mass media, migration, occupations, and other issues centered primarily in the areas of ethnic and urban studies (Bulmer 1984). The emphasis during this period was on the contributions of life history methods to sociology as an empirical and scientific discipline. Accordingly, researchers using this approach focused on methodological problems such as reliability, validity, hypothesis formation, and the making of generalizations, although comparatively less concern was given to sampling (Gottschalk et al. 1945). Reflecting the major issue of pre-World War II sociological work, the focus was on the adequacy of this approach for discovering lawlike behavior or empirically valid generalizations. The emphasis, in short, was on the approach as a research tool.
The developments in this approach since the early 1970s, perhaps stimulated in part by increased interest in historical sociology and in part by the articulation of insoluble problems in statistical approaches, have been more interdisciplinary, international, and sophisticated than the early works (McCall and Wittner 1990;Jones 1983; Roth 1987). It is increasingly recognized that all social science data, whether represented in discursive or numeric form, are interpretations (Denzin 1989a; Gephart 1988). This recognition is one of the central tenets of the narrative approach to social research (Fisher 1987; Reed 1989; Richardson 1990; Maines 1993), which makes the ontological claim that human beings are inherently storytellers. This shift in emphasis concerning the subject matter of sociology, in which human behavior is conceptualized as significantly communicative and narrative in nature, is precisely what has reframed the utility and potential of the life history approach.
Current uses of life history research display considerable variation as well as more precise conceptual distinctions. Terms such as life story, biography, discourse, history, oral history, personal experience narratives, collective narratives, and sagas are now distinguished from one another (Denzin 1989b, pp. 184-187), and frameworks for linking types of verbal accounts to types of generalizations have been developed (Sperber 1985, pp. 9-34). Moreover, these developments have occurred within and across different theoretical approaches and disciplines.
It is now common to regard life histories as a legitimate form of data in which currency is established through the propositions contained in narrative theory. Some of the uses found in contemporary work include the following. Schutze (1983) has developed what he calls the narrative interview. This approach focuses on establishing event sequences across the life course on the basis of interview data. These sequences are derived from detailed analyses of biographical materials, with special attention to the structural factors that have shaped the person’s life. Analytical summaries are developed and, through analytical inductive procedures, are compared to subsequently developed summaries. The goal is to produce theoretical interpretations centering on various analytical interests such as life course transitions, career models, or natural histories. Riemann and Schutze (1991) provide a substantive application of this method in the area of chronic illness.
Bertaux (1981; Bertaux and Kohli 1984) has long been an advocate of life history research and was the primary organizer of the Biography and Society Section of the International Sociological Association. He has conducted a number of projects that have goals similar to those of Schutze. His collaborative research on social movements (1990), for example, used life history data from members of students movements in the United States, England, Ireland, Italy, West Germany, and France. There he shows the application of the method in large-scale comparative research projects. The epistemological approach was not to gather data on lived, biographical experiences of the activists but to analyze those data in collective, generic terms. That is, his strategy was to focus on similarities rather than differences across nations and to ground empirically theoretical statements about, for example, processes of commitment to social-movement ideologies. The contention of this research is that biographical and life history data from ordinary people will reveal those similarities and thus make contributions to cross-national research.
Dolby-Stahl (1989), a folklorist, has developed a variation of the life history approach. She calls it literary folkloristics, and it focuses on personal narrative data. She uses reader response theory to develop an interpretive method for studying the interdependence of personal narratives (stories) and collective narratives (e.g., ethnic group folklore). Her procedures entail locating the respondent (storyteller) in large collectivities (e.g., single parents), identifying salient themes (e.g., day care), and connecting personal to collective narratives (e.g., the respondent’s accounts of day care and media or community accounts). The assumption of this approach is that personal and collective narratives are inherently connected, and thus a personal story is always in some way a collective story. Further, the assumption that the researcher in varying ways is part of the collective story requires facing the interpretive nature of data collection. In this respect, the researcher draws on her own shared cultural experiences to analyze the life history or narrative data provided by the respondent. These procedures locate the life history approach squarely in interpretive social theory, in which credible interpretation is the goal as opposed to, say, producing explanations justified by measures of reliability and validity.
Similarly, Denzin (1989a) has developed an interpretive approach that draws conceptually from postmodernism and phenomenology, and methodologically from Clifford Geertz’s advocacy of thick description. He calls his method interpretive biography, and it is designed to study the turning points of problematic situations in which people find themselves during transition periods. Data include documents, obituaries, life histories, and personal experience stories, with the emphasis on how such information is read and used. The basic question he asks concerns how people live and give meaning to their lives, and how meaning is represented in written, narrative, and oral forms. His approach thus addresses an enduring problem in sociology, which C. Wright Mills located at the intersection of biography and history, as well as the newer problem articulated by interpretive theories regarding the interpretations of texts, cultural forms, and personal acts.
Most of the developments in the 1990s continue to be flamed largely under the rubric of narrative inquiry, signified by the 1991 inception of the Journal of Narrative and Life History. These recent lines of work can be organized loosely into four categories. First, there have been a considerable increase in substantive studies. Ezzy (1998) joins a rather large number of scholars (e.g., Angrosino 1995) studying narrative identity, which Orbuch (1997) moves more generically into the arena of accounts. Gubrium (1993) uses narrative data in his examination of quality of life among nursing home residents. Plummer (1995) uses similar data to study sexuality. Maines and Bridger (1992) studied the narrative character of land-use decisions. Randall (1999) has studied the narrative aspects of intelligence. Eheart and Power (1995) assess processes of success and failure in families with adopted children. Maines (1999) has provided data about how racial attitudes about justice are embedded in larger narrative structures. TenHouten (1999) has used life history interviews in a comparative analysis of temporality among Austrialian aborignies and Europeans.
These substantive topics overlap with the second line of work pertaining to historical sociology. Barry Schwartz (1996, 1997) has rekindled sociological interest in collective memory to show how historical processes contribute to changing cultural representations (see also Wertsch and O’Conner 1994). Another strand of work has pertained to causal analysis. Abbott (1992) articulated his version as narrative positivism which focuses on the properties of events and sequence to move quantitative sociology from the study of variables to the study of actual events. Griffin (1993) uses data on lynchings to propose a similar approach, utilizing computer-assisted event structure analysis that focuses directly on temporality. Gotham and Staples (1996) follow these studies with a theoretical analysis of narrative in the relations of agency and social structure, as does Berger (1995) in his analysis of Jewish Holocaust survivors. Mahoney (1999) addresses nominal, ordinal, and narrative dimensions of causal analysis, noting that ”narrative analysis has the obvious strength of allowing the analyst to show sensitivity to detail, process, conjuncture, and causal complexity” (p. 1168).
The third area concerns methods of data collection and analysis. Holstein and Gubrium (1995) treat the interview as a social encounter that itself constructs the data gathered. In these encounters, respondents are regarded as narrators who tell the story of their ”own past attitudes, feelings, and behaviors” (p. 32). McMahan and Rogers (1994) likewise present oral history interviewing as an interactive, negotiated process. They synthesize a large amount of materials about potential biases, and make concrete suggestions for developing skills to deal with them. On the other hand, Lieblich and associates (1998) present a model for analyzing life story data. Their model is composed of two continua: holistic versus categorical (whether a life story is taken as a whole or dissected into parts or categories) and content versus form (analysis of the substance or structure of life story accounts). This model is suggested as useful for guiding analyses for varying purposes. Mishler (1995) also addresses the diversity of narrative inquiry, and proposes a typology of narrative analyses. These include modes of analysis that focus on (1) the correspondence between temporal sequences of actual events and their textual representation, (2) how types of stories acquire structure and coherence, and (3) the content and function of stories. This typology organizes a large literature on narrative, and serves as a heuristic for discerning similarities and differences in analytical approaches and purposes. Finally, Atkinson (1998) describes procedures for the life story interview, whose ”product is entirely a first-person narrative, with the researcher removed as much as possible from the text” (p. 2). These procedures would encourage respondents to see and tell their lives as a whole, and Atkinson has developed a growing archival data base of over 300 documents suitable for various analytical purposes.
The life story interview merges with the fourth line of work, which focuses on biographies and authbiographies. Smith (1994) provides an excellent overview of biographical methods. He begins with Charles Darwin’s biography and brings the reader to contemporary issues that cut across various disciplines in the human sciences. In doing so, he emphasizes that biographical analysis remains an unfinished project that is filled with both conflict and creativity. Inside that space of conflict and creativity rests the new genre of auto-ethnography, or literally the study of oneself. Bochner and Ellis (1992) provide one of the more interesting instances of this approach. Each author was involved in the same first-time event. Wanting to fully explore the meaning of that event, they first wrote extensive personal accounts of it. Second, they shared those accounts with one another and with friends; and third, they wrote a joint account from the standpoint of their relationship. Through these procedures, they were able to preserve their own biographical perspectives on the event as well as depicting its intersubjective, consensual meanings.
The auto-ethnography stimulates attention to writing as a way of knowing, which is an issue widely discussed in the last decade among narrative scholars. Richardson (1994) discusses an array of issues pertaining to writing as inquiry, and then provides a detailed autobiographical account of how context affects writing (Richardson 1997). Her account includes her family, academic departments, networks of colleagues, and students, and shows how her relationships and experiences with these people were part and parcel of how and what she wrote as a professional sociologist. Her writing, she shows, was intimately tied to constructions of knowledge.
While Richardson and others illustrate what Polkinghorne (1988) has termed ”narrative knowing” Diane Bjorklund (1998) treats autobiographies as sociological subject matter. She analyzed a sample of the 11,000 American autobiographies written from 1800 to 1980 to provide a historical analysis of representations of the self. She shows how social conventions and vocabularies for describing oneself have changed through four discernible eras of American history. By taking autobiographies seriously, this analysis powerfully locates the ”texts” of personhood in cultural and social structural contexts.
Scholars working in the area of life history research accept that all social science data are made up of human interpretations and that nearly all such data are reconstructions or representations of past events and experiences. Because of its development of techniques for gathering, coding, and analyzing explicitly reconstructive data, the life history approach is suitable for studying not only the subjective phases of social life but the historical and structural aspects as well. It can be used for a wide variety of topics and purposes, ranging from research on the trajectories of personal biographies to organizational functioning to migration patterns. It invariably leads to development of theories emphasizing social processes. Recent scholarship on narrative has shown three dominant and related trends. The first, which represents an extension of the life history research of the 1920s, pertains to the linking of collective and personal narratives. The second, a departure from the earlier work, recognizes scholars as active narrators themselves and thus creators of narrative knowing. The third trend is the broad appeal of this area of work. It is found in all disciplines of the human sciences, it uses a wide variety of theoretical approaches, and it incorporates the array of analytical methods typical of sociological work found among American and European scholars.