188.8.131.52.1 Autobiography Autobiography is a particular form of life history. It differs from researcher-led life history analysis by being principally under the control of the subject and liable to have two characteristics that differ from the sociological life history. First, it focuses on the person per se, as an object of attention rather than as an actor in a wider milieu, or as an example of a process or set of practices. Second, it invariably represents the individual in a positive light.
Liz Stanley (1993, p. 45) argued that autobiography is a valid sociological form as it allows the sociologist to obtain insights from one person’s view because ‘we can recover social processes and social structure, networks, social change and so forth, for people are located in a social and cultural environment which constitutes and shapes not only what we see, but also how we see.’
However, concern has been expressed about the usefulness, validity or authenticity of ‘life data’: life histories, personal documents or narratives and autobiography. For example, David Silverman (1997, p. 248) criticised the taken-for-granted view (based in part on the development of psychoanalysis) that interviews are an appropriate method of obtaining personal information. Indeed, this is linked to a deeper concern about whether talk about oneself is an appropriate form of evidence at all. Paul Atkinson and David Silverman (1997, p. 305) argue that there persists a view, which they refer to as a ‘Romantic impulse’ to view accounts of personal experience as authentic sources of data. Atkinson (2005) suggests that life histories should not be treated as merely personal documents; rather, they have generic properties that reflect shared cultural conventions. The life history subjects do not discover the rules of narrative for themselves but follow a model suited to their aims, (although they are probably not aware of the narrative frames they are using).
Some autobiography, although not deliberately sociological can be useful in providing insights into social and political processes, particularly the workings of political institutions and powerful elites: the biographical diaries of Tony Benn (1996) and Richard Crossman (1991) are such examples. Although these are personal and, to some extent phenomenological, accounts they probably also represent a critical perspective on political processes.