Social Research Glossary


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Citation reference: Harvey, L., 2012-20, Social Research Glossary, Quality Research International,

This is a dynamic glossary and the author would welcome any e-mail suggestions for additions or amendments. Page updated 19 December, 2019 , © Lee Harvey 2012–2020.


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Life history

core definition

Life history usually refers to an ethnographic method in which the researcher attempts to elicit an autobiography of a single subject, generally through repeated unstructured interviews or (less usually) through obtaining written accounts from the subject of their life and the factors that effected it.

explanatory context

Life histories are also sometimes obtained using other social research techniques including archive research, participant observation, longitudinal study and experimental research. Whatever method is employed, however, it is essential that subjects is able to express the factors that are significant in their life history.


Life history in various forms was popular in the early development of sociology, especially in the USA up to the 1930s. It tended to decline  after the early 1930s because it did not lend itself to variable analysis which became increasingly emphasised in (American) sociology. Nor could life history be readily deployed to prove or disprove hypotheses.


However, in the 1960s the approach began to experience a revival that can be linked to the development of sociological subdisciplines such as the sociology of the family, education and poverty, but tended to decline in usage until a resurgence in specific subdisciplines since the 1960s. The subdisciplines that revived life history include the sociology of education, psychopathology, psychobiology, oral (social) history, and sociology of old age as well as the growing influence of phenomenological perspectives. Again, life history was seen as a valuable research technique which could provide a view of history often unrecorded by documents which placed ordinary people ‘centre stage’.


Life history material is often criticised for being idiosyncratic, non-generalizable, 'non-scientific' and unsuitable for developing causal explanations. The significance of life history data is, like any other data, dependent upon the methodological and theoretical analysis being undertaken.


The emergence at the turn of the 20th century of autobiographical reflection as a form of social research is one of the more trivial forms of life history.

analytical review

Benyon (1985 p. 164) stated :

It is clear that the life history method can fill in huge gaps in our understanding of the shifting sands of careers and professional lives. Only then will researchers arrest the tendency to treat teachers as a static, depersonalized mass and, moreover tentative links can then start to be drawn between levels, between the evolution of the education system; the curriculum; the school; and the impact of external influences on the individual teacher’s working life.

Kantsa (1985 p. 164) writes the following in a footnote:

Life history is defined as “an extensive record of a person’s life told to and recorded by another, who then edits and writes the life as though it were au- tobiography” (Langness 1965, 4–5, quoted in Geiger 1986, 336). Moreover, “Life history studies ... emphasize the experiences and requirements of the individual – how the person copes with the society rather than how society copes with the stream of individuals” (Mandelbaum 1973, 177, quoted in Geiger 1986, 336). However, while recognizing the potential utility of life histories, scholars in various disciplines also question their validity and reli- ability. Critiques tend to address two issues, namely, the representativeness of an individual life and the subjectivity of the sources (Geiger 1986). Trying to deal with the above criticisms Juliet du Boulay and Rory Williams (1984) propose that there is a form of analyzing biographical material that is capable of illuminating the individual biography or case history. This form of analysis, called logical analysis, seeks to analyze the logic of cognitive and moral rules and to draw from them practical inferences about behavior. Moreover, logical analysis should ideally be tested by prospective practical inferences, and hence re-interviewing or observation over time is a desirable feature (ibid., 251). Annabel Faraday and Kenneth Plummer (1979) refer to the scientific, practi- cal, ethical, and personal problems the conducting of life histories may raise, while Kenneth Plummer (1983) provides a useful guide for doing them.

associated issues


related areas

See also

Chicago School

Researching the Real World Section


Benyon, J., 1985, 'Institutional change and career histories in a comprehensive school' in Ball S. J. and Goodson I. F (Eds.) Teachers’ Lives and Careers, London, Falmer Press.

Du Boulay, J. and Williams, R. 1984, 'Collecting life histories' in Ellen, R.F., (Ed): Ethnographic Research: A guide to general conduct, pp. 247– 57 , London, Academic Press.

Faraday, A. and Plummer, K., 1979, 'Doing life histories', Sociological Review, 27(4), 773–798.

Geiger, 1986, REFERENCE LOST

Kansta, V., 2011, An interest in silence: tracing, defining and negotiating a research project on women’s same-sex sexuality in Greece. SQS 2011/1, pp. 23–40, available at, accessed 25 January 2013, page not available 22 December 2016.

Mandelbaum, 1973, REFERENCE LOST

Plummer, K. 1983, 'The doing of life histories', in Plummer, K., Documents of Life: An introduction to the problems of literature of a humanistic method, pp. 84–118, London, George Allen and Unwin.

copyright Lee Harvey 2012–2020


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