An ideographic approach which provides an intensive account of a life, usually gathered through unstructured interviewing, but often also involving the analysis of personal documents such as letters, photographs, and diaries. The approach is clearly akin to the gathering and examination of autobiographies and biographies. There are many early examples of the method, but two classics are those of Wladek, whose life is displayed in some three hundred pages of William Isaac Thomas and Florian Znaniecki's The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918), and Stanley, in The Jack Roller (edited by Clifford Shaw, 1930). Both are associated with the Chicago School of sociology.
The life-history approach achieved some prominence during the 1920s and 1930s in North America, and prompted a debate over the value of ideographic versus nomothetic methods. By the late 1930s, the dominant trends had moved towards abstract theory in the work of Talcott Parsons and quantitative methodology in the work of Paul Lazarsfeld, so the life-history approach became less prominent in sociological research. From the 1960s onwards, however, there has been a revival of interest in life-histories across a range of academic disciplines, as part of the post-structuralist concern with narratives and the construction of text.
Two main approaches to life-history may be distinguished. The more traditional approach aims to provide an objective account of the life in order to throw light on social processes: it may help explore the subjective dimensions of a life, trace the historical connections between a life and a social structure, or provide access to ambiguity, flux, and social change. For this reason, the method is frequently used to explore new fields of enquiry, and to complement more statistical and generalizing studies. A more recent approach, however, deals with the interpretive procedures through which biographical work gets done, and with the analysis of life-story production. The distinction between the two approaches is prominent in Norman Denzin's Interpretive Biography (1989). See also case-history.