Life story interviews

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"More than just a narration of events"

Introduction

Atkinson (1998) defines a sociological life story as "the story a person chooses to tell about the life he has lived, told as completely and honestly as possible, what is remembered of it, and what the teller wants others to know of it, usually as a result of a guided interview by another" (p.8, italics omitted).

The life story technique puts greater emphasis on eliciting personal narratives, that is, asking the interviewees to tell their life stories in their own words and recounting events in their preferred order without asking them too many direct and predetermined questions.

This enables the interviewees to arrange their experiences and relate them to other life events.

However, the life story is often more than just a narration of events. It can be argued that this respondent-led process facilitates organisation, clarification and sometimes justification of the life experiences. It should also be noted that not all stories are neatly organised, and that can also be an interesting feature for investigation.

The life story technique specifically permits the detailed study of complex relationships of experiences across time and should cover the life story right up until the present day, whereas the oral history interview covers an aspect of someone's life and the timeline of the story can end before the date of the interview.

This method can be used to investigate specific social, cultural and historical issues through the individual's life story and it explores the link between individual lives and wider public events.

These interviews are also useful for studying a single aspect of a person's life in the context of a more complicated life story.

It can also be interesting to compare family stories and identify intergenerational patterns of behaviour, opinions and attitudes that have been passed down through the family.

A typical life story is recorded or written down and may cover some of the following topics:

  • family and early life, including memories about family background, the neighbourhood and community, everyday life at home, youth and leisure
  • work, looking at a person's work history, a typical working day, influences from work, and perhaps the social life connected to the workplace
  • later family life, exploring issues such as marriage, housing, children, friendships, and discussing later life experiences such as retirement, becoming a grandparent and social life

This is not an exhaustive list and the interviewers should adapt their questions according to the specific experiences of the interviewees. This technique requires the interviewers to be flexible in their questioning and to follow up interesting and important leads as they arise.

Example

Study Number: 4938
Study Title: Families, Social Mobility and Ageing, an Intergenerational Approach, 1900-1988
Principal Investigator(s): Thompson, P., Newby, H.
Date of Fieldwork: 1985-1988

Abstract: The field work for this study was conducted jointly for two projects, Families and Social Mobility, and Life Stories and Ageing. The former sought to combine two normally separate fields of study, family life and social mobility. It examined connections between these themes through in-depth life story interviews. The objective of the research was to produce a sample-based investigation of ordinary families and normal processes of intergenerational influences with which to compare them. The study explored geographical and social mobility and the role of the family in intergenerational terms from the perspective of gender and migration. Participants were asked extensive questions relating to their own, and their family's, education, politics, family tree, marriage and relationships, housing, parents' work, and leisure.

For the Life Stories and Ageing project the researchers conducted approximately 100 interviews with people in mid-life and then attempted to interview older or younger generations in the same family, totalling 170 interviews across the generations.

Citation: Thompson, P. and Newby, H., Families, Social Mobility and Ageing, an Intergenerational Approach, 1900-1988 [computer file]. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], July 2005. SN: 4938, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-4938-1




Interview schedule
Interview extract one

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