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Life history (sociology)

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Title: Life history (sociology)  
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Subject: Steven Rubenstein, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America, Outline of information science, Social research, Qualitative research
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Life history (sociology)

In sociological and anthropological research, a life history is the overall picture of the informant's or interviewee's life. The purpose of the interview is to be able to describe what it is like to be this particular person, that is, the one being interviewed.


The method was first used when interviewing indigenous peoples of the Americas. The subjects were native American leaders. One interviewed them, and the subjects were asked to describe their lives as such, 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. The subjects were asked to tell about their lives. The interviewers also looked at social- and police-records, and the society in general in which the subject lived. The result was a report in which one could read about (i) Chicago at that particular time; (ii) how the subject viewed his own life (i.e. `how it was like to be this particular person') and (iii) how society looked upon the subject what the consequence of this was for that particular person—i.e. `social work'/-help, incarceration etc.

The most famous use of life history in connection of the Chicago school, was in connection with the Polish Peasant study by W.I Thomas and Florian Znaniecki. They employed a Polish emigrant to write his own life story, which they then interpreted and analyzed. According to Bulmer, their case study of a Polish-American peasant's autobiography was "the first systematically collected sociological life history".[1]

The approach fell later in disrepute, as quantitative methods gained the upper hand in sociology. Only in the 1970s was the method revived, mainly through the efforts of Daniel Bertaux and Paul Thompson who started doing life history research in such professions as bakers or fishermen. The revival of the life history method spread rapidly through Europe, with major research initiatives in Germany, Italy, Finland.


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. ^ Martin Bulmer (15 August 1986). The Chicago School of Sociology: Institutionalization, Diversity, and the Rise of Sociological Research. University of Chicago Press. p. 54.  

Further reading

  • 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
  • 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
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