Methods Vignettes: Life Histories

Women working in a waterlogged field



Life history as a method for appreciating the social and cultural dynamics of individual lives has been widely used in anthropology and psychology. Focusing on changes in the lives of individual human subjects, published life histories have provided detailed understandings of meanings ascribed by people to past events and experiences. Life histories offer a way to map multiple perspectives on actual events, which correspond with different co-existing and competing points of view in the same culture or society (Bourdieu 1999). They help account for the different ways in which people internalise social norms (Kothari and Hulme 2004). Anthropologists are also able to map how their respondents’ cultural traditions of storytelling and unequal relations of power influence the making and narrating of individual life stories. In this way life histories have been used by social scientists to capture broader sociocultural contexts that shape individual lives, while accounting for the personal vicissitudes and uncertainties faced by individuals in their lives.

The distinction between the sociocultural context (mapped by anthropologists as “ethnographic background”) and the content of individual lives raises two issues that must be considered. First, particularly for individuals who may be poor or marginalised, social scientists often end up presenting the broader context (e.g., in the form of social structure or capitalism) as determining the course of individual lives, leaving little room for appreciating the agency of the life history subjects. Even when agency may be accounted for, its framing may be overly driven by the broader context of capitalism, as “agents in a free market”, or by “social structural factors [which] limit considerably their freedom of action” (Kothari and Hulme 2004: 28-29). Second, distinguishing between context and content, social scientists tend to situate broader social norms and collective imaginaries as ‘general’, while the meanings attached to them by people in their everyday settings are presented as ‘particular’. This is based on the assumption that the general in the form of a society’s norms or a community’s imaginaries, as mapped by the social scientist, travels into diverse social and material situations without any transformation. In this way the general is given the ability to describe the particular, but the particular “does not itself enter into the description of any other particular.” (Whitehead 1978: 48). As a result, overlooked are the ways in which meanings associated with normative categories and collective themes move between different so-called particular situations and become re-constituted within each (new) situation.

Presenting the individual subject of a life history as typical of her/his culture, or as deviant within it, many early anthropological life histories were marred by the fallacy that a culture (or at least some aspect of it) is homogeneous and can therefore be portrayed through a typical life story or two (Crapanzano 1984). Moving away from this, in Development Studies and other disciplines, life histories later afforded ways to counter generalisations about any sociocultural circuit (e.g. the dynamics of poverty or protests) and take into account voices that were marginalised or silenced in the forwarding of a shared and general view of a community or any other collective (Kothari and Hulme 2004).

What’s involved?

Life histories are often mapped using extended interviews, to allow the respondents to describe events and changes over a lifetime in their own words. Life histories may be treated as part of the broader movement of oral history interested in writing ‘histories from below’. They are especially interesting for the oral historian wanting to map “narrative identity” (Jackson and Russell 2010: 172). Memory is central to the life history method. Memory though is not reduced to an archive of facts about past events, but rather treated as a process that is constituted by a variety of contemporary influences intermingling with more or less accurate remembrances of events past (Kothari and Hulme 2004). Memory thus is “an active process of creation of meanings” (Portelli 1991: 52, in Jackson and Russell 2010: 174).

Depending on the aims of their research social scientists, in life histories interviews, may encourage their respondents to emphasize some aspects of their lives such as those related to mobility, migration, food, agriculture or poverty. Interviewees may also be requested to focus on some critical junctures in their lives, such as times of particular hardship due to health issues or times of rapid change due to participation in major entrepreneurial activities. Such critical junctures may be identified using data from past sources (if available) or using other quicker methods with the respondents, such as Rivers of Life, that use the metaphor of the river to chart journeys through professional and personal lives on a large sheet of paper.

As in all fieldwork-based research methods, the material collected as part of life histories is a product of the relationship between the respondent(s) and the field researcher(s). In general, observing the dynamics of this relationship through the course of life history interviews may be as important as the process of writing up of the life historical text by the researcher. Behind the text are a series of translations that take place between ‘life as lived’, ‘life as experienced’, and ‘life as expressed’ (Bruner 1986). The latter may itself be sub-divided into ‘life as told’ in the collaborative relationship between the research and her respondent, and ‘life as written’ by the researcher in the end. The final product may only be “conventionalized gloss on [complex] social reality that, from a strict epistemological point of view, we cannot know” (Crapanzano 1984: 959). Perhaps then a fruitful basis for any conceptual development, using the life history method, is provided by the dynamics of the relation between the interviewee and the interviewer rather than the life historical text itself.

Life history interviews are viewed as different from conventional semi-structured interviews used by social scientists. The former interviews are often driven more by a “process of negotiation and collaboration” rather than a rigid set of prepared questions by the interviewer (Jackson and Russell 2010: 178). Additionally, life history interviews do not “attempt to strive for ‘objectivity’ and detachment’ in interview relationships” (Jackson and Russell 2010: 177). Instead, they attempt to build trust between the interviewee and the interviewer, gradually over time. Nurtured by this trust, life history interviews aim to go beyond the public account of past events by leavening it with “biographical detail and personal reflection” (ibid.). This also means that the life history interview has to be underpinned by an ethic of care not only toward the material collected but also toward the entire process of interviewing. Therefore, issues that may be deemed sensitive by the interviewee have to be considered with caution and sensitivity.

Broadening out and opening up

Life histories have been argued to enable the mapping of a diversity of versions of a given event or social situation (Crapanzano 1984). As noted above, they capture the articulation of multiple perspectives, allowing researchers to map different co-existing and competing framings by different social actors (Bourdieu 1999). What may remain hidden in applications of the life history method, however, are the divergent ontological bases of the multiple framings that are forwarded by different actors. These bases may be appreciated by observing the actors’ relations with the social and material world around them (including the relationship of the interviewees with the researcher). Each framing may then be appreciated as being constituted by its own specific tangle of relations, no matter how tenuous the relations and how unstable their tangle might be. Mapping of multiple framings relationally then reveals not only multiple perspectives or points of view, but it also yields an account of the ontological multiplicity of an actual event and entity (Mol 2002).

While allowing research to focus on a specific area of activity, the life history method may broaden out to capture “experience which may be hidden, such as aspects of personal, domestic and family life, dimensions which are rarely brought out in development analyses” (Kothari and Hulme 2004: 13). Similarly, life histories method allows broadening out to include affective elements of people’s lives and relationships – emotions that may be excluded from consideration in other more conventional social scientific methods. These personal and affective dimensions are more easily captured in those interviewer-interviewee relationships where trust has been built and nurtured. Also, life histories focussed on a professional activity such as agriculture may broaden out to include health and disability issues, particularly in so far as they influence (and are influenced by) agricultural practices. More generally, as noted at the outset, even though life histories are focused on an individual, they bring into purview the broader social and cultural context in which the individual’s life unfurls.

Roles, fits and limits

Life histories method is useful primarily for focussed research with a particular (human) subject, to map ups and downs over a lifetime, in the subject’s own words. It can nevertheless be used for scoping work aimed at getting an overview of the diversity of perspectives and pathways of historical change within a small group of actors or a community. With individual interviewees, it can also be used to explore alternative pathways of change which may have been overlooked in the past. Considering the in-depth focus on lives and relations of a small number of people, the use of life histories does raise questions regarding the ‘completeness’ to which the diversity of perspectives and (alternative) pathways is mapped.

Finally, life histories are apt at capturing all four stages of the STEPS methodology. They are underpinned by in-depth engagement with actors in the field; they allow an exploration of different framings of social reality; and they address dynamics within individual lives, also in reference to broader contextual movements. They may also be used to reveal agency, even that of the poor, in accounts that do not privilege structural determinism over the negotiation of social and material relations that form the basis of situated human actions.



Bourdieu, P. (1999) The Weight of the World: Social Suffering in Contemporary Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Bruner, E. (1986) Experience and its expressions, in V. Turner and E. Bruner (eds) The Anthropology of Experience, Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

Crapanzano, V. (1984) Review: Life-Histories. American Anthropologist 86(4): 953-960.

Jackson, P. and Russel, P. (2010) Life history interviewing, in D. DeLeyser et al. (eds) The Sage Handbook of Qualitative Geography, London: Sage.

Kothari, U. and Hulme, D. (2004) Narratives, stories and tales: Understanding poverty dynamics through life histories. Global Poverty Research Group Working Paper Series GPRG-WPS 11.

Mol, A. (2002) The Body Multiple: Ontology in Medical Practice, Durham and London: Duke University Press.

Portelli, A. (1991) The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History, Albany: State University of New York Press.

Whitehead, A. N. (1978) Process and Reality: An Essay in Cosmology, New York: The Free Press.


Material for this vignette was contributed by Saurabh Arora.