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Social Research Glossary

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© Lee Harvey 2012–2019

Page updated 25 January, 2019

Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012–2019, Researching the Real World, available at
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A Guide to Methodology

CASE STUDY: Life history at the Chicago School (Raymond Lee, 2004)

In much of the writing associated with the Chicago School the term 'interview' is scarcely differentiated from the term 'life history.' The life history was a form of autobiography usually written by a research subject. Like more modern versions of the unstructured interview, it involved a degree of sustained interaction between the researcher and research participant, was relatively unstructured in form, and focused largely on subjective elements of the interviewee's life.

This last aspect reflected the importance to early writers in the Chicago tradition of the concept of 'personality' (something overshadowed by the attention later writers have paid to the work of George Herbert Mead). Influenced by the work of W.I. Thomas, personality was viewed as a collection of a more or less stable set of attitudes and motivations that existed in a dynamic relationship to those social situations individuals experienced through the life course. It was the understanding of this relationship that gave the life history its subjective, retrospective and longitudinal character.

To 'secure' the life history, as it was termed, the subject had to be selected, motivated, and instructed in what was required. In Krueger's (1925) work, for example, the life history is seen as something of a confessional exercise. Psychoanalysis was developing rapidly in the 1920s and some researchers made use of the techniques and principles in their research. Indeed, there seems to have been an assumption that the life history had a cathartic function. As a result, it might be appropriate for the researcher to seek out subjects who had strongly held views or were in situations likely to prompt forthright expression of their inner feelings.

Within this context an interview was used 'to promote rapport, to secure willingness and a desire to write, and to set the situation in which under proper conditions catharsis can take place' (Krueger, 1925: 297).

The writing of the life history itself usually began with a stimulus, often a schedule of questions, usually of a broad and general kind, setting out the kind of information sought by the researcher. Krueger, however, explicitly advised against allowing subjects to tell their own story during the interview. Instead, '... the questions and general conversation of the investigator should be directed towards securing a catharsis of the emotional fixation' (1925: 293). Once this was done it was assumed that the life history material would flow rapidly as the subject began to write. .

(Adapted from Lee, 2004, pp. 87172)

See also Myths of the Chicago School Section 3.3 and Section 4.2 for details of how the Chicago School used life history.


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