Introduction to Social Analysis
Semester 2 Week 2
Sociology and biography
Contrast to last week
• Cultural turn in sociology
• Shift from trying to understand the social
system to trying to understand how people
make sense to their world.
• Top down v. bottom up
What can we learn from the stories
What are the possibilities and limitations of using
biographies, auto-biographies and life histories
to create authentic stories and understand what
society is and how it works?
Behind this question is the bigger question about
the relationship between society and the
Clifford R. Shaw The Jack-Roller A Delinquent Boy's Own Story
What do we learn?
How do we learn it?
• Context of Chicago
• Empirical sociology programme
• Influence of W.I. Thomas
• Part of academic and professional
• Presents story for its utility – social
What do we learn from the book?
How do we learn it?
• “the boy’s own story” – something about Stanely,
something about his family and social circle, and
something about Chicago
• Context and commentary from official record and
• We can read study as a historical document
telling us about a former society and its values.
• Doesn’t tell as about – the Jazz Age, Prohibition,
or the Great Depression.
Biography and auto-biography are
necessary but insufficient tools to
understand social life
• People’s accounts of their lives, activities, values and
behaviour is absolute core of what sociologist work with.
• It is insufficient in itself. Need tools of interpretation.
• What should you pay attention to when doing a
sociological reading of a life history?
• Who is telling the story and how it is told
• What is the context of the story
• Bottom up as opposed to top down perspectives Sociological Imagination (C. Wright Mills) the link
between private concerns and public issues
How are life histories constructed?
• Questioning memory in terms of accuracy
and selective bias
• Narrative coherence
• What is the role of authorship in
• “Authorship, like identity, is something to
be contested and established.”
• Prue Chamberlayne, Joanna Bornat, and
Tom Wengraf. (eds) 2000 The turn to
biographical methods in social science:
comparative issues and examples New
York : Routledge, . Introduction and
Chapter by Rustin.
• Describes people as “historically formed
actors whose biographies are necessary
to render fully intelligible their historical
action in context”
• “the embeddedness of the biographical
account in social macro-structures
• “the study of a single case involves
mobilising tacit or explicit knowledge about
Gardner Katy 2002 Age, narrative and
migration Oxford Berg 301.45109421 GAR
• East End and Bangladesh
• Narrative styles
• Cross society and culture comparisons –
“the global is local”.
Bengali women in London
• “The informants, it seems, have actively
participated in how they are represented. Such
appearances are, however, misleading… ... [The
authors] chose what words to include, what to
edit out, and how to frame the women’s words.
• .. The book is my narrative as much as theirs.
This does not invalidate it; it just makes it one
kind of truth amongst others.”
• (Gardner 2002: 28-9)
• Narrative genres very widely and are
closely related to existing cultural forms as
well as the diverse construction of
identity.” (Gardener 2002:31)
• Essential but limited understanding of
what can we understand society from
the perspective of only one person
• Biographical accounts need:
• We can also generalise from biographical
data to all the different kinds of data
Sociologists collect and use.
• A response to a question in a questionaire
also depends on: Comparison,
Interpretation, Context by the composer
of the question, the respondent and the