Life history (sociology)

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Life history method[edit]

The method was first used when interviewing indigenous peoples of the Americas and specifically Native American leaders who were asked by an interviewer to describe their lives with an insight as to what it was like to be that particular person. The purpose of the interview was to capture a living picture of a disappearing (as such) people/way of life.

Later the method was used to interview criminals and prostitutes in Chicago. Interviewers looked at social and police-records, as well as the society in general, and asked subjects to talk about their lives. The resulting report discussed (i) Chicago at that particular time; (ii) how the subject viewed their own life (i.e. `how it was like to be this particular person') and (iii) how society viewed the subject and whether they would be incarcerated, receive help, perform social work, etc.

The landmark of the life history method was developed in the 1920s and most significantly embodied in The Polish Peasant in Europe and America by W.I Thomas and Florian Znaniecki.[1]The authors employed a Polish immigrant to write his own life story which they then interpreted and analyzed. According to Martin Bulmer, it was "the first systematically collected sociological life history".[2]

The approach later lost momentum as quantitative methods became more prevalent in American sociology. The method was revived in the 1970s, mainly through the efforts of French sociologist Daniel Bertaux and Paul Thompson whose life history research focused on such professions as bakers and fishermen. Major initiatives of the life history method were undertaken also in Germany, Italy, and Finland.

In the German context, the life history method is closely associated with the development of biographical research and biographical-narrative interviews. The narrative interview as a method for conducting open narrative interviews in empirical social research was developed in Germany around 1975. It borrowed concepts from phenomenology (Alfred Schütz), symbolic interactionism (George Herbert Mead), ethnomethodology (Harold Garfinkel), and sociology of knowledge (Karl Mannheim). The development and improvement of the method are closely connected to German sociologist Fritz Schütze, part of the Bielefeld Sociologist’s Working Group, which maintained close academic cooperation with American sociolinguists and social scientists such as Erving Goffman, Harvey Sacks, John Gumpertz, and Anselm Strauss.[3] The analysis of life histories was further developed by the biographical case reconstruction method of German sociologist Gabriele Rosenthal for the analysis of life history and life story.[4] Rosenthal differentiates between the level of analysis of the narrated life story (erzählte Lebensgeshichte) and the experienced life history (erlebte Lebensgeschichte).[5]


In both cases, the one doing the interview should be careful not to ask "yes or no"-questions, but to get the subject to tell "the story of his or her life", in his or her own words. This is called the "narrative" method. It is common practice to begin the interview with the subject's early childhood and to proceed chronologically to the present. Another approach, dating from the Polish Peasant, is to ask participants to write their own life stories. This can be done either through competitions (as in Poland, Finland or Italy) or by collecting written life stories written spontaneously. In these countries, there are already large collections of life stories, which can be used by researchers.


  1. ^ Goodson, Ivor (November 12, 2009). "The Story of Life History: Origins of the Life History Method in Sociology". Identity: An International Journal of Theory and Research.
  2. ^ Martin Bulmer (15 August 1986). The Chicago School of Sociology: Institutionalization, Diversity, and the Rise of Sociological Research. University of Chicago Press. p. 54. ISBN 978-0-226-08005-5.
  3. ^ Köttig, Michaela; Völter, Bettina (December 2015). ""Das ist Soziologe sein!" – Ein narratives Interview mit Fritz Schütze zur Geschichte seines Werkes in der Soziologie" (PDF). Rundbrief 69/ Dezember 2015 der Sektion Biographieforschung in der Deutschen Gesellschaft für Soziologie: 35–53.
  4. ^ Rosenthal, Gabriele (2018). Interpretive Social Research. An Introduction (PDF). Göttingen: Universitätsverlag Göttingen. ISBN 978-3-86395-374-4.
  5. ^ Rosenthal, Gabriele (1993). "Reconstruction of life stories: principles of selection in generating stories for narrative biographical interviews" (PDF). The Narrative Study of Lives. 1 (1): 59–91.

Further reading[edit]

  • Bertaux, Daniel (ed). 1981 Biography and Society: The Life History Approach in the Social Sciences. Sage London
  • Chamberlayne, Prue et al. (eds). 2000: The Turn to Biographical Methods in Social Sciences. Routledge, London
  • Jolly, Margaretta (ed). 2001 The Encyclopedia of Life Writing. Autobiographical and Biographical Forms. Routledge, London and New York
  • Rosenthal, Gabriele. 2018 Interpretive Social Research. An Introduction. Universitätsverlag Göttingen, Göttingen.
  • Stanley, Liz. 1992 The Autobiographical I: The Theory and Practice of Feminist Autobiography. Manchester University Press, Manchester
  • Thompson, Paul. 1978: The Voices of the Past: Oral History, Oxford University Press, Oxford