Categories Anthropology

I.8.(c) Tools of data collection:  life-history


It is the account of a life, completed or ongoing. Life history method is an approach in qualitative research which emphasises on the importance of presenting the individuals, subjective evaluation of his experiences and of giving information about his social experiences. This approach combines both written and oral evidence.

A life history is essentially telling or recounting of a string of events. The life history approach which works with personal narratives is “the unfolding history of one person’s  experiences”.


Life history approach takes into consideration the realist and the constructionist  approaches.

  1. The realist approach has been interested in historical processes such as social mobility, generations, and the experiences of social classes and professions.
  2. The constructionist approach tends to focus on the presentations of ideas, identities and narrative configurations. An individual’s life history becomes an entry point into understanding the social and economic structures which shape the individual’s life.


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.

Life history method was developed in the 1920s  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.

Daniel Bertaux and Paul Thompson focused on  bakers and fishermen life history. In the German, the life history method is  associated with the development of biographical research and biographical-narrative interviews. The narrative interview as a method for conducting open narrative interviews in empirical social research was developed in Germany around 1975. It borrowed concepts from phenomenology (Alfred Schütz), symbolic interactionism (George Herbert Mead), ethnomethodology (Harold Garfinkel), and sociology of knowledge (Karl Mannheim). The development and improvement of the method are closely connected to German sociolinguists Fritz Schütze,


  1. biographical research
  2. biographical-narrative interviews


  1. In “narrative” method, the subject is encoureged to tell “the story of his or her life”, in his or her own words.  It is common practice to begin the interview with the subject’s early childhood and to proceed chronologically to the present.
  2. 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.


  1. Gives first hand information
  2. Provides real life data
  3. Easy to access


  1. Reliability of information- due to human factor, the information gathered may not be reliable always. The problem of reliability of life history evidence can be approached in two ways. First, by checking for internal consistency and second, by checking against all other possible sources of related evidence.
  2. Validity of information- there is need to validate the information once it is gathered.
    The question of validity arises when a discussion on the truthquality of the data points to the existence of many truths. Tthere is a need for the researcher to be disciplined by data and also to be careful about the source of the data as well.
  3. Interpretation of information- depends upon the researcher, technique , methods and methodology adopted.
  4. The one doing the interview should be careful not to ask “yes or no”-questions,


  1. The information gathered offer basic evidence about social interaction and process.
  2. It offers data for studies of social change
  3. Provides documentation on roles
  4. Demonstrates the process of socialisation
  5. It acts as as a mean towards understanding variation within a society.
Strengths of life history approach
  1. Life history approach used open-ended questions with little directives from the researchers and giving lengthy explanation by the informants. Using this method of data collection helps provide depth and detail information.
  2. Collecting data related to life history does not restrict to only one informant. Informants can be from a small sample.
  3. Life history approach tells the story about the research subject. Therefore, this method can provide information regarding the informant‟s real life. This information is not available in questionnaires which usually give static and uninteresting information.
  4. The opportunity to understand the social process that takes place in the informant’s life at a certain time period.
  5. The ability to approach the social and economic space of the informant.
  6. Life history gives detail description of specific acts, events, relationships and circumstances in particular lives. When reading them, we understand social change in a better way. This is one advantage of using life history to study social change.
  7. Ability to interpret their own lives and themselves that is the past, the present and the changes they recognised. Life history is more than thick descriptions of observable changes in behavior and circumstances. A proper focus on historical change can be attained in a way that is lacking in other methods, that is moving between the changing biographical history of the informants and the social history of his life-span. A life history cannot be told without a constant reference to historical changes.
  8. Helps to make sense of changes in social character, in individual lives, and in society. Without the perspective of time it is difficult to see what many small changes amount to. We study people‟s life experience: turning points and daily rituals, relationship with other people, commonplace situations such as meals and household duties. By accumulating and organising these details, we arrive at the ideas of social structure and social change. Indeed, the more we care about details, the better our generalisations fit into the reality of people’s experience.
  9. Attempts to avoid pre-judgements.
Weaknesses of life history approach
  1. This approach which is qualitative in nature requires the researcher to collect data in relation to the life history of individual in depth and detail and usually takes a long time.
  2. There is problem in the sampling technique, that is in terms of sampling size and
  3. the method of selecting the sample. Usually, the sample size is small.
  4. Less easily generalized.
  5. Difficult to aggregate data and make systematic comparisons.
  6. Dependent upon researcher‟s personal attributes and skills.
  7. Participation in setting can always change the social situation.

Advantages of Life History

  1. Life history can systematically explore the experience of social change.
  2. Life history helps understand more about individual lives from the perspective of individuals.
  3. Life history interviews can provide information about biographical resources, aspirations, opportunities, constraints and turning points.
  4. Life history enables the researcher to make “thick description” of the context.
  5. The method can capture data pertaining to the effects of age, different periods etc.
  6. A number of methods can be used to collect data in reconstructing life histories – individual survey, calendar survey, life history interviews etc. These combinations of methods add benefits to life history like validity and reliabiiity, facilitating systematic comparison etc.
  7. Life history addresses life as a whole and locates life in historical context.

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