Life History Research

Life-history allows the researcher to explore a person’s micro-historical (individual) experiences within a macro-historical (history of the time) framework. Life-history information challenges the researcher to understand an individual’s current attitudes and behaviors and how they may have been influenced by initial decisions made at another time and in another place.
Susanne Friese
Product specialist, trainer and author of the book "Qualitative Data Analysis with ATLAS.ti"
  1. What is Life History Research?
  2. Native American leaders as original subjects

What is Life History Research?

Life-history is a method of qualitative research, frequently, but not exclusively, used in anthropology and in the health sciences today. It provides an alternative to empirical methods for identifying and documenting health patterns of individuals and groups.

In a basic linear approach, they encompass the study of the experiences of a single individual embracing stories of the life and exploring the learned significance of those individual experiences. However, in most cases one will be creating an aggregate of narratives each bearing on the others.

Native American leaders as original subjects

The subjects were asked to describe their lives as such, what it was like to be that particular person. The purpose of the interview was to capture a living picture of a disappearing people and way of life.

Later the method was also used to interview criminals and prostitutes in Chicago. The subjects were asked to tell about their lives. In addition, the interviewers looked at social and police records, and the society in general in which the subject lived.

This resulted in a report in which one could read about Chicago at that particular time; how the subject viewed his own life (i.e. ‘how it was like to be this particular person’); and how society looked upon the subject (i.e. what this meant as a consequence for that particular person, e.g. ‘social work,’ incarceration etc.)

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History Research
Figure 1: History Research

As quantitative methods gained popularity in sociology, life history method fell in disrepute as a research method. It was revived in the 1970s, mainly through the efforts of Daniel Bertaux and Paul Thompson who started doing life history research in such professions as bakers or fishermen. The revival of the life history method spread rapidly through Europe, with major research initiatives in Germany, Italy, Finland.

One of the main approaches of the interviewer is avoiding “yes or no”-questions, but rather to get the subject to tell “the story of his or her life,” in his or her own words. This is also called the “narrative” research method. It is common practice to follow a chronological path in the interviews, i.e. to begin with the subject’s early childhood and to proceed chronologically to the present. Another approach is to ask participants to write down their own life stories. This can be done either with individuals, through public competitions, or by collecting already written-up life stories that were written spontaneously. Some countries already maintain large archives of life stories which can be used by researchers.

Special analysis software tools like ATLAS.ti help the researcher to catalog, penetrate, and analyze data collected (or accessed in archives) in a meaningful and structured fashion. It permits not only convenient data management but also lets the researcher interlink events and phenomena on a very detailed level, not only in individual cases but also across a multitude of individual life stories. Also, it is not limited to the written word but allows for full integration of all sorts of documents that further illustrate the subjects lives (e.g. photos, audio and video recordings). In migration studies, ATLAS.ti’s capability to integrate geo-data also permits visualizing migratory patterns, both of the individual and of groups of people. Methodological approaches like life-history benefit extensively from the special capabilities of a comprehensive data analysis tool like ATLAS.ti.

Dedicated research software like ATLAS.ti help the researcher to catalog, penetrate and analyze the data generated in a given research project.