126.96.36.199.1 Autobiography Autobiography is a particular form of life history. It differs from researcher-led life history analysis by being principally under the control of the subject and liable to have two characteristics that differ from the sociological life history. First, it focuses on the person per se, as an object of attention rather than as an actor in a wider milieu, or as an example of a process or set of practices. Second, it invariably represents the individual in a positive light.
Autobiographies are an obvious source of personal data. However, autobiographies are not usually produced for purposes of sociological research. None the less, they may be useful sources of sociological data as they allow the researcher to form a picture of a person’s whole life from birth to death, rather than focusing on one out-of-context aspect of a person’s life.
Autobiographies tend to be of three sorts. First, accounts of the lives of famous people, such as actors or pop stars. While these provide some data of sociological interest about the popular music world or Hollywood, they tend to be written to provide interesting anecdotes designed to amuse or intrigue the reader.
Second, the reflections of ‘the powerful’. These are accounts of politicians, army generals, civil service chiefs and so on. Like published diaries (discussed above), they show how important decisions are taken and provide insights into the processes of power. Often, though, they are constrained by secrecy legislation and tend to be of historical rather than contemporary interest.
Third, the life experiences of ‘ordinary people’. Often, these provide the most important source of sociological data. For example, Ellen Kuzwayo’s (1985) autobiographical account of how it feels to be a black woman in South Africa is not just an account of her own life but draws on the unrecorded history of a whole people. While not entirely ‘typical’, such accounts provide an indication of what, for example, the everyday experience of life is like in a black South African township.
Similar kinds of autobiographical material can be found in accounts by women about aspects of their lives. For example, Una Padel and Prue Stevenson’s (1988)Insiders consists of the accounts, by eleven women, of what life is really like inside women’s prisons in Britain. The accounts also deal with the women’s lives before imprisonment, putting the meaning of their time in prison into a personal context and the devastating after-effects of imprisonment.
Awa Thiam’s (1986)Black Women Speak Out contains the accounts of Black African women living in French-speaking countries of the Ivory Coast, Guinea, Mali and Senegal and the English-speaking states of Ghana and Nigeria. They are the voices of powerless women subject to institutionalised polygamy, forced marriages and the onerous burden of unpaid agricultural and domestic labour. The usually silenced women tell of their daily lives, their problems and their actual relationships to men.
Similarly, Ingela Bendt and James Downing’s (1982)We Shall Return gives voice to Palestinian women who have lived through the 1948 expulsion from Palestine following the establishment of the state of Israel and the Palestinian revolution of 1965, which turned them from refugees into revolutionaries. The women’s account documents the impact of these events on their lives.
Liz Stanley (1993, p. 45) argued that autobiography is a valid sociological form as it allows the sociologist to obtain insights from one person’s view because ‘we can recover social processes and social structure, networks, social change and so forth, for people are located in a social and cultural environment which constitutes and shapes not only what we see, but also how we see.’
However, concern has been expressed about the usefulness, validity or authenticity of ‘life data’: life histories, personal documents or narratives and autobiography. For example, David Silverman (1997, p. 248) criticised the taken-for-granted view (based in part on the development of psychoanalysis) that interviews are an appropriate method of obtaining personal information. Indeed, this is linked to a deeper concern about whether talk about oneself is an appropriate form of evidence at all. Paul Atkinson and David Silverman (1997, p. 305) argue that there persists a view, which they refer to as a ‘Romantic impulse’ to view accounts of personal experience as authentic sources of data. Atkinson (2005) suggests that life histories should not be treated as merely personal documents; rather, they have generic properties that reflect shared cultural conventions. The life history subjects do not discover the rules of narrative for themselves but follow a model suited to their aims, (although they are probably not aware of the narrative frames they are using).
Some autobiography, although not deliberately sociological can be useful in providing insights into social and political processes, particularly the workings of political institutions and powerful elites: the biographical diaries of Tony Benn (1996) and Richard Crossman (1991) are such examples. Although these are personal and, to some extent phenomenological, accounts they probably also represent a critical perspective on political processes.