Life history (sociology)  

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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. 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".

The approach later fell into disrepute as quantitative methods became more prevalent in sociology. The method was revived in the 1970s, mainly through the efforts of 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 later undertaken in Germany, Italy, and 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.

Unless indicated otherwise, the text in this article is either based on Wikipedia article "Life history (sociology)" or another language Wikipedia page thereof used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License; or on research by Jahsonic and friends. See Art and Popular Culture's copyright notice.

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