Oslo Summer School in Comparative Social Science Studies 2002

The Use of Biographical Narratives in Social Research

Lecturer: Professor Daniel Bertaux,
Research Director at Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris, France
Dates: 29. July - 2. August 2002

The course is about the use in social research projects of 'life stories', a term meaning here, autobiographical narratives resulting from 'narrative' interviewing by a research scholar - sociologist, social anthropologist or historian.

The collection of life stories for social research purposes began in ethnography, but has spread to social anthropology, sociology and social psychology. Life stories' most obvious specificity, the direct and often moving expression of facets of the human condition in its immense diversity and intrinsic universality, has recurrently made mainstream social scientists blind to the unique properties of the 'method' : in particular the unique access it provides to the historical character of human beings and social forms, to their temporal dimension as 'processes in the making', to the active component of human beings as co-actors of their own destiny and 'shapers' of their social environment.

The course will focus on the sociological study of action (understood as courses of situated action). This orientation will be exemplified through the presentation of research projects having made abundant if not exclusive use of case histories of individuals (´life stories`), households, and whole family lineages. The sociological orientation means that the issue of how to generalise from a limited number of cases will always be present; but it will at the same time be re-examined , as one cannot reduce it to the 'representative sample' conception proposed by the tradition of survey research.

The core ideas and concepts and techniques of the course will be conveyed to participants through their concrete application in several research projects. In their presentation emphasis will be put, furthermore, on the most difficult and least commented aspects of empirical research using case histories : how to design a research project which is both consistent and prone to generate findings (and how to present it convincingly to research funding institutions, which are presently opening to 'qualitative' research methods).

How to construct 'samples' so as to make the most of a limited number of cases. How to conduct narrative interviews so as to collect valid information not only about the diversity of value systems and 'worldviews' (representations) but also about courses of situated action, courses of interaction with other actors and agents of institutions; information also about local contexts of action and their unwritten but action-constraining rules of games. How to analyse life stories, and sets of life stories (the comparative issue). How to present findings in the most convincing way, how to adapt writing up to the various potential readerships.

Outline of lectures

Lecture 1: Introduction: a brief history and main issues of the use of life stories in social research, and its contemporary issues
Main landmarks of this history in anthropology, sociology, history (oral history), social psychology. Some points famous scholars made about the value for social research of people's autobiographical accounts: Dilthey; Thomas and Znaniecki; Claude Levi-Strauss; Sartre and de Beauvoir; Hannah Arendt; C. W. Mills; Howard Becker; Ferrarotti; British oral historians; hardcore 'positivists'; Bourdieu, Passeron; Jerome Bruner; JP Roos. In retrospect, what seems to hold and what does not in what each of them said.

Syllabus readings:

One of the following 'first-person accounts' books:

Lecture 2: The specificity of the biographical 'method'.
Some (very) common misrepresentations of life stories. Issues in reliability vs. 'subjective reconstruction' of events, facts, contexts, motives, and meanings. Some elements that life stories bring to empirical knowledge, that other methods cannot tap: singularity of persons; the 'time' dimension; courses of action through time and the contexts of actions. The problem of the subjective meaning(s) of past actions and courses of action. The issue of how to generalise from cases.

Syllabus readings:

Optional reading:

Lecture 3: Beyond cultures and structures: sociology's new focus on the study of action and the slow 'turn to biographical method' from the 1980's onwards.
Sociology's turn from structures to action and its meaning(s) in the 80's. The split between meaning-oriented scholars and action-oriented ones. Why one does not go very far without the other. Action : the methodological problem of how to observe concrete courses of 'situated' (context-dependent) action, and how to generalise about action. The issue of diversity vs. generality. Case-oriented approach vs.variable-oriented approach. How many cases do you need to be able to put forward 'general' propositions (the concept of 'saturation')? 'Counter-generalisations': to deconstruct taken-from-granted generalisations is also to generalise, albeit in a critical way.

Syllabus readings:

Lecture 4: Studying a whole sector of industry by means of life stories: the example of the French small bakeries.
Full description of a 'qualitative' research project which claimed to analyse a hitherto unresearched component of French society, without making any prior 'hypothesis'. From initial ignorance to a series of empirical discoveries and the step-by-step construction of a representation or 'model' of how the artisanal form of bakery works in France. Why a 'grounded theory' approach is greatly enhanced by reference to some general-theoretical framework.

Syllabus readings:

Lecture 5: Studying precariousness and poverty in Europe through a comparative research design (two lectures).
The limits of survey research in studying poverty and how people cope with it. The SOSTRIS project. The BETWIXT research project : basic hypotheses and research design. Some hotly debated issues : the variety of Welfare regimes in Europe and the 'poverty trap' issue; the time-related aspects of poverty; the relevance of local neighbourhood vs. nation-wide Welfare schemes for the poor and the precarious.

Syllabus readings:

Lecture 6: Studying precariousness and poverty in Europe (second part). Findings from the BETWIXT research project.
Main findings from case histories. Issues that only life stories could bring to the fore : human energies, their forms and contents ; biographical vs. situational determinants of courses of action ; 'helping people to help themselves' and welfare institutions : the view from below. Households as actors in their own right. A theoretical product: the 'daisy' model of household activities in coping with precariousness and the various risks of exclusion.

Syllabus readings:

Lecture 7: Households as actors of reproduction and transformation: Bourdieu's 'middle class' theory of family capitals and its built-in limits when applied to working classes.
Bourdieu's family 'capitals' as objective resources. The lack of theoretical status for some other types of resources, in particular subjective resources. Reasons for this deficiency, and ways to deal with it without 'falling' into psychology. A case in point : exploring Soviet society with case histories of families over three generations.

Syllabus readings:

Lecture 8: Some issues in social mobility research that case histories of families allow to observe, analyse and understand better than survey research.
Social status cannot be 'passed on' as such from one generation to the next... Social 'reproduction' necessarily goes through a number of uncertain steps through which 'family capitals' but also other resources for status attainment are offered to be passed on to the next generation, with mixed results in the reception/appropriation of them ; this is the issue of 'family transmissions', and of the transmissibility of various kinds of resources. The example of family business.

Syllabus readings:

Lecture 9: The potential meaning(s) of single cases for social knowledge.
Generalising from a sample of one? Some successful examples from anthropology and even sociology. The paradox : it works only if one knows already many other cases, and heir context… Singularity, typicality, generality, universality. What 'exemplification' means. 'Generally speaking' : the issue of presenting research results. Writing up a case studies' research report as art.

Syllabus readings:

Optional reading:

Lecture 10: Advances in sociological research using life stories.
Links with other kinds of methods, including statistical ones, to consolidate potential generalisations. The part/whole model of society vs. the 'society of individuals' model. Issues of macro/meso/micro levels, issues of scale. The extension of life stories into case histories of families.

Suggested readings:

Basic readings

The lecturer
After quantitative studies of social mobility data collected by the INSEE in France, Daniel Bertaux began developing in the 1970's a framework for conceptualising the links between observed social mobility flows and a dynamic conception of classes and class structure (Destins personnels et structure de classe , Presses Universitaires de France 1977). This has been the starting point of a long effort to develop the idea that not only goods, but also people themselves (that is : their bodies and their minds) may be seen, at least to some extent, as the results of processes of (re)production. Seen in this light, phenomena of precariousness, poverty and exclusion appear as severe dysfunctions of the processes (re)producing people themselves.

In parallel Daniel Bertaux has rediscovered the usefulness life stories - collected as accounts of practices - to study a given social milieu and get at its inner workings. His methodological work on the method of life stories and his empirical studies of artisanal bakery in France are well-known in sociological circles worldwide.

During the 1980's he began collecting sets of case histories of families, considering that such cases are more rich, sociologically and historically speaking, than individual life stories. Together with Catherine Delcroix he did the first sociological research in France about the reasons why, after the breakdowns of couples, half of the fathers lose contact with their child(ren).

After 1991 and for several years he organized the collection of case histories of families in Russia in order to document what ordinary Russians had been through during seventy years of State 'socialism'.

Since the mid-1990's his main interest is on studying across Europe phenomena of precariousness and 'précarisation', of the structural and collective processes underlying them, and of the courses of action individuals and households initiate and hold to try and cope with the threat of exclusion. Among his recent publications are Pathways to Social Class. A Quatitative Approach to Social Mobility (with Paul Thompson, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1997) and Les récits de vie. Paris,Nathan (1997).