Research Method: Life Histories

28th May 2021

Funded Project:
Methods for Change

This ‘how to’ guide outlines the Life Histories research method used by Divya Sharma from the University of Sussex. The artwork was created in collaboration with India Joseph, Moon and Moth Studio.

Social scientists from the Methods for Change project came together to discuss the research methods they use and how methods create change in society. Drawing from the expertise in the Aspect network, they collaborated on a series of ‘how to’ guides which are step-by-step instructions and top-tips for adopting these methods in a range of sectors. Visual and multisensory pieces, including comics, illustrations, posters, booklets, short films and animations were then developed in collaboration with creatives to capture the key value of these research methods with a view to being able to convey them to a variety of audiences.

It is hoped that these resources will be useful for people in higher education, commercial, public sector, third sector and community organisations who are interested in experimenting with, and expanding professional skills in, the adoption of social science research methods.

Research Method: Life Histories

Life Histories involve talking to people to understand the changes in their lives and how these changes link with broader social and political processes. They aim to get a sense of how participants understand or evaluate these changes in relation to what is happening in the present. Life Histories are used to understand people’s subjective experiences of change and how the past is interpreted to intervene in and make decisions about the present.

In doing so, this method offers a means to understand how the present has been shaped historically, both through participants’ histories and collective memory. Life Histories often involve spending several months in a place, engaging in observation and informal conversations. Spending time with participants allows the researcher to situate individual life histories in a place and to form relationships with a community. Building a rapport over time enables the researcher to foster a more embedded and sensitive approach to researching. Life Histories are not used to unearth a comprehensive or accurate picture of an individual’s life but are rather there to highlight related webs of themes and events that are important to an individual from the vantage point of the present. Because of their subjective nature, each Life History will only ever present a partial picture of something, but a multiplicity of partial pictures can give a better sense of the processes of change in any given context.

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You can find all the research outputs from the Methods for Change series here

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