The Sociological Method of Autobiography

Connecting Autobiography
and Sociology

In autobiography the informant must do the significant connecting points of the life story from his or her self-understanding. It is either:

  1. The informant describing a narrative of his or her own life and therefore making a continuous, connected account of what is most significant, from which the researcher makes sociological statements
  2. Or the researcher using his or her own life in order to make sociological points encountered in the research area
However, this approach is fluid in the way it is facilitated. Unstructured interviewing is often involved to bring out what the individual makes of their own life. Another name for this can be autoethnography (as the approach does clearly connect with social anthropology).
C. Wright Mills (1950), The Sociological Imagination, is used in two interconnected ways. One is the simpler reading that private troubles - personal accounts of the activities of living - are within public issues, where they have causal and social level realities. Whilst being personally descriptive, this aspect rapidly loses central interest in order to discuss the sociology involved. The sociology at higher level is dominant. The second more sophisticated approach is in using the sociological imagination in the midst of the autobiographical material and as its overall guide. The autobiography never loses significance, and remains a main focus of meaning-making, into which the sociology is part of the process of enhancing reality that gives the meaning added depth.

  • There is the more structural and classically sociological use of C. W. Mills
    • Seeking out general social facts and quantitative analysis.
  • There is the more autobiographical use of C. W. Mills
    • This stays within the interactionist and interpretive framework
Autobiography involves:

  • Narrative:
    • The construction of trajectory content from fragmentary and chaotic events
  • The difficulty of defining intellectual boundaries
    • The pyschological, economic, historical, sociological, cultural studies, social anthropological, biological, linguistic
Therefore both bring it under the postmodern perspective. Here the sociological infuses with the meaning framework of the individual. Where one discipline starts and another ends is unclear. The body moves through time and the mind is its psychological construct/s; body with mind come within a sociological setting, understanding (through language) the made technological cocoon and cultural canopy in which we are all active.

The Role of the Sociologist

It might be nothing other than using an existing autobiography (secondary research) or generating a new one (primary research) by asking for one or doing one him or herself to give own insights.
More likely is the facilitating role consistent with the most unstructured of interviewing processes. It is an entirely non-positivist/ non-deductive process of meaning-making. The sociologist can set a framework for this reconstruction of one's life, such as asking about experience around some sociological issue (e.g. gender inequality, as with Ribbens, 1993).
This must go further as a two way process than even the unstructured interviewer who asks informants whether the process of interviewing has helped their understanding of their situation (Oakley, 1986). The unstructured interviewer becomes a facilitating stimulant of the individual's autobiography. That the interviewer is involved is part of the active process of producing autobiography, to the horror of those who still hanker for objective knowledge in sociology.
The postmodern takes the "subjective" element in the objective-subjective contrast so far that it collapses. Postmodernism rejects this binary contrast as false: objectivity is an myth of impossible pure value-free knowledge; and then when everything is subjective the concept of subjectivity loses its meaning. The binary difference dissolves. All knowledge is then understood as observer involved, and is perspective driven. The sociologist always sets up the research parameters, writes the account, constructs the research outcome, so the sociologist may as well be involved earlier to facilitate and admit it. There is never an untainted isolated informant. In the postmodern view, where narrative and construction are so thoroughgoing, there are no boundary rules in meaning making. The researcher may as well producively facilitate the all important autobiographical process. The researder may even be a co-author, an autobiography with a biographer as helper.
It follows that this approach is consistent with the feminist criticism of quantitative approaches, that this is another way of letting people bring to the surface otherwise suppressed accounts of personal and social understandings.
There are rules, however. Gerhard Riemann (2003) suggests these rules:

  • The necessity of trust between interviewer and informant
  • The informant develops a co-operative interest in the research
  • The informant's confidentiality needs protecting

These are themselves standard ethical points. He gives more rules as to what makes an unstructured interview process one that becomes autobiographical:

  • The informant needs questioning in a way to open out about the complexity of events in life
    • (Rather than enter into face saving and self-justification)
  • The informant is guided regarding relevant overall issues to which they make reference to their own events.
  • The researcher needs to play on the side of unknowing
    • So that the informant account is full and descriptive as possible.
  • As soon as able, the informant tells the life story without interruption
    • The relevance of life events deciding its narrative
  • The researcher should be positive but undirecting if the informant asks the researcher a question about the narrative and its events
  • If the researcher is clueless as to what is being said, it may be necessary to intervene for clarity
  • Many interventions can be left until later
  • The researcher understands that the account given is subject to restraints:
    • The tendency to condense
    • Avoiding details
    • The linking and sorting of details according to the current understanding of the narrative
  • There is a closing of the story that may be pre-understood or obvious
    • Only after this does the researcher ask questions
    • Questions go in this order:
      • Deriving from the story
      • Those the researcher asks for additional information
      • Argumentative debating issues where the informant can analyse
  • Afterwards a linguist might be employed for extra insight, with conversational analysis being used
The content of the narrative is likely to have several features and needs these rather than a narrow focus (according to Schütze, discussed in Riemann, 2003):

  • Family life and finding and holding down jobs
  • Events that connect, one action leading to another
  • Acquisition of skills and creative abilities
  • Forces which bear down and lead to personal disorder and crisis involving forms of suffering, involving:
    • Sudden changes in life's direction
    • The necessity of having to conform at certain points
    • Knowing of difficulties ahead at any stage
    • Handling problems
    • Getting into self-arguments
    • Speaking against others
  • Generally giving repair to suffering
In other words, the person choses all the life-path connections and relevances that lie behind and within any narrower interest that might appeal to a different interpretive researcher. It is therefore more valid. Oakley's pregnant and child rearing women (Oakley, 1986) would have told far more to her than they did had they been involved in autobiographical interviews. Much that has been overlooked in other interpretive and interactionist research should be discovered in the autobiographical approach, if it is good quality and more valid. It particularly unearths the sense of suffering of an individual that is cumulative over a life-path.
It is not just the story that is important, but how the story is conveyed in the choice of language. The researcher has to preserve its quality of expression as the representation of its experience. This nowness of autobiography is reinforced by the meaning making. As with oral history, a primary source (understood as in oral historiography), the narrative telling process is contemporary. The account is about when it is given to the researcher, not of a time before that it speaks about. This must be so because autobiography is the story telling, where past events are now weaved into a narrative. The narrative may get significantly changed in a year's time, if an event happens that reorientates the view one has taking the life as a whole. For example, an autobiography from a recent religious convert is significantly different in its shape than that given before the conversion.
So the sociological issues that are then addressed with some detailed analysis relate to the present condition of the autobiographer: the present day understanding of how she or he has arrived.

Background to the Autobiographical Method

In a general overview Gerhard Riemann (2003) notes the falling into disrepute of the Chicago School and its unorthodox approaches that have been rehabilitated. In the late 1960s in West Germany the more positivist approaches were being criticised (for example by Jürgen Habermas, 2003), paralleling the critique by Cicourel (1964) and involved movement towards American interpretive sociology. In the mid 1970s Fritz Schütze, Assistant Professor in the Department of Sociology at the University of Bielefeld, was using symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, ethnography of communication and cognitive anthropology in his changing approach to sociology. He criticised informants having to reply to systematic structured interviews in ways that were not reflective of their own lives, being straightjacketed into the questioner's approach and leaving a gap between what they had to say and what took place. People were very capable of giving accounts of their own lives, and sociology should incorporate this. Sociologists needed to learn from social anthropologists and others who had done conversation analysis. Fritz Schütze was joined by research assistants Gerhard Riemann and Christine Bruehne on his new research project using the narrative autobiographical interview to analyse small communities feeling oppressed by bureaucratic reforms from state capitals uncovering the marginalisation of local politicians. Much was uncovered about how politics actually works behind the scenes. He hoped this method of long range understanding of experiences and systematic analysis of these experiences could bring together the competitive disputes in American interpretive sociology. More lately the biographical approach has been advanced by personal experiences of coping in the context of the collapse of the former Soviet Union. This would not just be the material struggle to exist, but the mental struggle after a whole ideological and social purpose in ones upbringing had vanished. My own wife, Elena, lived through this period and has a relevant account to live, and it overshadows her own life in the United Kingdom. In taking up the biographical approach again, researchers must discuss how their methods were carried out so that they can be evaluated by other researchers.
Here lies an important sociological theme (as raised by Riemann, 2003) (which is that of structural ambivalence) in the stranger coming from an old existence and going to a new destination and liberation in strangely paradoxical near and distant spatial relationships with others around. (Simmel, 1950).

Autobiography and Sociology in Education

Autobiography has a role in education. This is when researchers are understood from an education point of view as facilitating teachers releasing learners own experiences. Experience is the starting point for learning; we draw on our own experience and encounters and learn from these. This can be done in the supportative small group. Barbara Harrison and Nod Miller (2006) see teaching teams as useful in facilitating by moving around groups of people producing individual work.
The group itself is given a sociological concept to focus upon when structuring the autobiography. The group is a support: people are now in conversation with each other, and the conversation brings out the autobiographical outcome. It sharpens the focus, and it leads to an individual reconsidering what is important in their lives. Again this is interactive and postmodern. It also engages with sensitivities allowing more to be revealed, or reinforces personal boundaries and concealment.
If these are sociology students, then they are engaged in the methodology drawing on their own autobiographies. In terms of producing essays on their lives, the titles may emerge from the process of discussion and vary between individuals, whilst the focus remains around the sociological concept that students will be seeking to elucidate. This really is the sociological imagination at work in its fullest sense. The assessment of such student work will be in the connections between the life and the conceptual. It may be that the conceptual framework has to be broad, given that individuals will connect with different sociological insights. Assessment is based on the connections made between the private trouble and each public issue.


The use in education is, of course, consistent with the method. This is that the autobiography is made as open and wide ranging as the informant wants. It is from this that the sociology is analysed: the connections can be those of an informed respondent and/ or that of the researcher. Private troubles as understood through contemporary spectacles links to public issues.


Including extra reading

Brewer, John D. (2004) 'Imagining The Sociological Imagination: the Biographical Context of a Sociological Classic', The British Journal of Sociology, 55:3, September, 317-333.

Cicourel, Aaron V. (1964), Method and Measurement in Sociology, New York: Free Press of Glencoe.

Habermas, J. (2003), The Future of Human Nature, Cambridge: Polity Press.

Harrison, B., Miller, N. and Powell, H. (2000), A Manual for Tutors Regarding the Use of Autobiography as a Mode of Assessment, London: University of East London.

Harrison, B., Miller, N., Powell, H. (2000) 'Assessing Autobiography' in Harrison, E. and Mears, R. (eds.), Assessment Strategies in Sociology: a Resource Handbook, Bath: Bath Spa University College, 59-82.

Harrison, B. and Miller, N. (2001), 'Capturing Experience and Sorting It Out: Using Autobiographical Approaches as Learning Strategies in Social Science', in Harrison, E., Mears, R. (eds.) Assessing Sociologist in Higher Education, Aldershot: Ashgate.

Harrison, B., Miller, N. (2006), Assessing Autobiography; 4 April 2006; [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed: Sunday April 09 2006, 15:07]

Layder, D. (2004), Social and Personal Identity: Understanding YourSelf, London: Sage.

Mills, C. W. (1959), The Sociological Imagination, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Morgan, D. (1998), 'Sociological Imaginings and Imagining Sociology: Bodies, Auto/Biographies and Other Mysteries', Sociology, 32:4, November, 647-663.

Oakley, A. (1986), From Here to Maternity, new introduction, Harmondsworth: Penguin; originally Oakley, A. (1979), Becoming a Mother, Oxford: Martin Robertson.

Ribbens, J. (1993), 'Facts of Fictions? Aspects of the Use of Autobiographical Writing in Undergraduate Study', Sociology, February, 27:1, 81-92.

Riemann, G. (2003),  'A Joint Project Against the Backdrop of a Research Tradition: An Introduction to Doing Biographical Research, Volume 4, No. 3, Art. 18 - September 2003; Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research, [Online Journal], Available World Wide Web, URL:, in Doing Biographical Research (2003), Riemann, G. (ed.), Thematic Issue of FQS, Forum Qualitative Social Research, 4:3, September; [Online], Available World Wide Web, URL: [Accessed: Sunday April 09 2006, 15:46]

Gerhard Riemann (2003) reflects on two students Christa Noack and Heike Kahlerthülya, under Professor Hoffmann-Riem, interviewing (through the medium of German) a Turkish woman Hülya of thirty one who migrated into Germany, for her life story and its insights into Turkish and German societies and being a migrant (one of 48 autobiographical interviews with mainly Turkish migrant women).

Simmel, G. (1950), Wolff, K. (trans.), The Sociology of Georg Simmel, New York: Free Press, Macmillan, in Coser, L. A., Rosenberg, B. (1976), Sociological Theory, 4th edition, London: Collier Macmillan, 535-540.

Stanley, L. (1992), The Auto/Biographical I, Manchester: Manchester University Press.


Adrian Worsfold

Pluralist - Liberal and Thoughtful


Last updated on April 20, 2006