Biography Essay

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Biography has long been a part of the social sciences, having been introduced in different disciplines as ”case histories (psychiatry), ”life histories (anthropology), ”personal documents (sociology, psychology), and, more recently, ”life stories (linguistics, oral history), each focused on understanding individuals as the unit of analysis. Recent years have seen more interdisciplinary dialogue seeking to redefine the importance of individual lives to broader social and cultural phenomena. Anthropology, which made the recording of individual lives in an interview setting a cornerstone of ethnographic methodology, is but one of many disciplinary sources for narrative and biographical approaches in the social sciences today. But it remains a pivotal and innovative site for working through issues of representation through the modernist period and the period of postmodernist critique.

When the subject of a biography is alive, then there is clearly a process of exchange in which certain documents and confidences are offered in response to certain questions, and the accounts of the biographical subject and the writer come to construct each other. These new ”collaborative biographies mark a shift away from viewing the observer/ observed relationship as ”a scaffolding separate from content, to the view that the relationship is inseparable from content” (Freeman 1989: 432).

The intersection of history with personal experience and the individual life with the collective heritage makes biography a particularly significant locus for the analysis of historical memory. The microcosm of one person’s biography does not disqualify each unique narrative from any hope of generalization, but can be seen precisely as part of its value. Each narrative enlarges our sense of human possibilities, and enriches our understandings of what it has meant to live in a particular society and culture.

In summary, three key ”moments can be observed in the use of biography in the social sciences. First, a period when life histories were ”collected as data which would then be subjected to criteria of cultural typicality or, in other disciplines than anthropology, analyzed through schemata designed to destabilize conventional biographical assumptions while establishing diverse disciplinary imperatives. Second, a period when concerns of representing the humanity of the oppressed or the exotic took center stage, in what has retrospectively come to be seen as a kind of ”tactical humanism. Third, what could be called the narrative turn, in which the primary concern has been how lived worlds have been constructed by language and made to mask certain unspoken relations of power, often articulated as part of a Foucauldian linkage of knowledge and power.


  1. Freeman, J. (1990) Hearts of Sorrow: Vietnamese—American Lives. Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA.
  2. Bertaux, D. (1981) Biography and Society: The Life History Approach in the Social Sciences. Sage, London.

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