Copyright Sociological Research Online, 2000


Gill Hubbard (2000) 'The Usefulness of Indepth Life History Interviews for Exploring the Role of Social Structure and Human Agency in Youth Transitions'
Sociological Research Online, vol. 4, no. 4, <>

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Received: 19/10/1999      Accepted: 22/2/2000      Published: 29/2/2000


This paper discusses the usefulness of indepth life history interviews in illustrating the role of social structure and human agency in youth transitions. Drawing on sociological theory and youth transition research, the paper highlights how the role of structure and agency has been perceived by youth researchers. Whilst this literature acknowledges the interplay between structure and agency in transitional processes, the appropriateness of particular research methods for explicating structure and agency needs to be further elucidated. Using data from a study of youth transitions in rural areas of Scotland, a range of transitional experiences from two indepth life history interviews is presented here. This exploratory exercise suggests that life history interviews enable researchers to explore how far social structures provide opportunities and constraints for human agents at the same time as showing how individuals, with their own beliefs and desires, take actions despite the social structures that underlie the immediacy of their experiences.

Indepth Life History Interviews; Structure and Agency; Youth Transitions


The extent to which young people, as active and creative human agents, shape their transitional experiences and the extent to which these experiences are constrained and moulded by specific socio-historical structural locations such as, gender, social class, ethnicity, education systems, labour markets and social norms, is of central concern for youth researchers (Furlong et al 1996, Jones 1999). Whilst acknowledging the importance of young people's agency, social structures (which are themselves the creation of human activity), also impact upon the life chances and opportunities available to them (Callinicos 1987, Giddens 1984). This paper demonstrates the usefulness of life history interviews to capture aspects of both social structure and human agency in accounts of young people in transition.

Increasingly, youth researchers are requiring methods that enable them to simultaneously explore the influence of structure and agency and are developing ways in which they can investigate both. The purpose of this paper is contribute to this developmental process by reporting how appropriate indepth life history interviews are for elucidating the role of structure and agency in youth transitions. The first part of the paper is a brief introduction to some of the ways in which sociologists have analytically and empirically distinguished between structure and agency. The second part draws on an explorative study of youth transitions to examine data from two indepth life history interviews with young people. The final part of the paper reflects on the usefulness of this method for understanding the role of structure and agency in young people's transitional experiences.

Social Structure and Human Agency

In a general sense, sociologists have found it useful to distinguish analytically and empirically between human agency and social structure. They have persistently debated the extent to which structures provide opportunities and constraints for human agents which determine or circumscribe their actions and the extent to which individuals, with their own subjective beliefs, desires and free will, take actions that create and shape the social structures around them and govern their own life course.

This debate has a long history. Over one hundred years ago Karl Marx (1968) presented his understanding of the relationship between structure and agency when he wrote,

'Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.'

Marx's famous dictum is generally shared amongst sociologists, but the interpretation and conceptualisation of the relationship between agency and structure has been highly variable. A number of prominent sociologists have developed new concepts and terminology in order to explicate the relationship between structure and agency, for instance, Berger and Luckmann's 'social construction of reality' (1967), Gidden's 'structuration theory' ( 1984), Bourdieu's 'habitus' (1977) and Habermas's (1986, 1987) 'communicative action' and 'lifeworld'. Layder (1994) believes that, despite differences in definitions and understandings of the relationship between structure and agency, these sociologists share a common desire, on the one hand, to challenge the view that structures are independent of human activity (i.e. human action is not the mechanical outcome of objective structures) and, on the other hand, to contest the view that human activity is completely untouched by structural relations in society.

By tracing research about youth transitions since the 1960s, it is possible to see how youth researchers' explanations of transitional processes have advanced alongside, and been shaped by, theoretical developments about the interplay between structure and agency.

Researching Youth Transitions

From the 1960s onwards, distinct metaphors have emerged to reflect the ways in which young people make the transition from adolescence to adulthood, for example careers, trajectories and pathways. Each conveys a sense of a journey, particular to young people and one that virtually all of them, although in different ways and contexts, take. According to Evans and Furlong (1997) these metaphors reflect the dominant theoretical perspectives of their time. The use of the metaphor 'careers' in the 1970s reflects the functionalist and developmental perspectives of a time when there were three main and clearly defined transitions from school to work: extended careers where young people go on to higher education before employment, short-term careers where young people leave school and find employment involving a short period of vocational training, and career-less occupations where young people find employment with no vocational training (Ashton and Field, 1976).

The resurgence of structuralist theory, in particular Marxism and the sudden explosion of feminist theoretical development in the 1960s and 1970s impacted on the research focus of youth transitions so that social class (Willis, 1977) and gender (Griffin, 1985; Sharpe, 1994) became central concepts. The metaphor 'trajectory' and the concept 'opportunity structure' (Roberts, 1995) emphasised how the transition from school to work was largely determined by structural forces such as, a young person's social class and gender. With the onset of recession and high levels of unemployment other metaphors emerged to describe the less clear-cut and more complex transition to adulthood, for example terms such as 'routes' and 'pathways'.

The 1990s saw a move away from exploring structural factors towards investigating the role that young people themselves play during transitional processes. Giddens (1991), for instance, highlights human agency by referring to young people as 'navigating' and 'negotiating' their way to adulthood. This trend has emerged at a time when the whole concept of 'social structure' has come under a sustained attack. Post-modernists, such as Lyotard (1984) and Baudrillard (1988), argue that 'grand narratives' and concepts such as social class and gender are no longer tenable. They assert that it is impossible to totalise human experience because reality is inherently fragmented, heterogeneous and plural.

However, there seems to be an emerging consensus amongst youth researchers informed by theories of late modernity, such as 'social structuration' (Giddens, 1984) and 'risk society' (Beck, 1992), that it is necessary to work simultaneously within the frameworks of social structure and human agency. Rather than counter-posing these two perspectives, many youth researchers are attempting to develop theoretical understanding which integrates structural influences and the role of the individual (Evans and Furlong, 1997; Jones, 1999). It is a perspective which acknowledges that society does have a structure that establishes it as a reality which is different from the individual, but at the same time, is not separate from the active agency of its members (Walsh 1998). In this sense, human action is simultaneously and inseparably determined and determinant. Roberts (1997), suggests that young people's experiences thirty years ago were largely 'structured' for them but now, because transitions are more complicated and longer, there has been a 'destructuring' of young people's situations. According to Roberts (1997), theory is 'racing ahead of evidence' and what is needed is more research exploring the degrees to which young people have become navigators of their own destinies.

Methodological Developments in Youth Transition Research

In the process of continuing to re-think the connection between structure and agency, many youth researchers are looking for ways in which they can explore the dynamic and reciprocal relationships between individual experiences and social structures. Two methodological developments have emerged in order to facilitate an understanding of these relationships. First, youth researchers have adopted a 'mixed methods' approach in their investigations and use the findings from each distinct but complementary part of their study to further knowledge and understanding about the interplay between structure and agency. Jones (1999) adopted this approach to explore the migration behaviours of young people in the Scottish Borders. Using evidence from the Scottish Young People's Survey (SYPS 1989/91) and the New Earnings Survey (1996), she reports on the structural reasons for young people's migration behaviours and using a cohort of young people from the SYPS, she conducts interviews to give an in-depth account of why people leave. That is, Jones (1999) used quantitative methods to investigate the role of structural influences and found from the survey that the majority of young people migrated from rural areas because of the inadequacies of the local economy. In turn, she used qualitative methods to explore why not all young people left, given the limited opportunity structures. She believes that the interview data show how young people have opportunities for action but they are continually subject to external constraint (Jones & Jamieson 1997, Jones 1999). Implicit in her methodological approach is the assumption that quantitative methods are most appropriate for exploring structural influences on young people's lives and qualitative methods are more befitting for understanding the role of individual agency within the context of these structural influences.

A second methodological approach to exploring the relationship between structure and agency is where researchers analyse their empirical findings whilst drawing on existing sociological theory. That is, researchers insert externally derived conceptual schemes into the reading of the data. Willis (1977) adopted this approach when he applied existing theories about the influence of social class on young men's lives. He used qualitative observation and interview techniques to explore young working class men's experiences at work and made sense of their actions in terms of the social structures and institutions in which the activity was implicated. In doing so, Willis shows how researchers can draw on existing theoretical ideas about structural influences such as social class, whilst exploring the subjective experiences, meanings, intentions, motives, attitudes and beliefs of human agents.

In-Depth Life History Interviews

Life histories, life stories, oral history, interpretative biography, are some of the terms used to describe an ethnographic method of research that is rooted within a distinguished tradition dating back to the Chicago school of sociology of the inter-war years. This methodological approach was championed by Herbert Blumer, who was given the task of evaluating the celebrated publication in 1918 of Thomas and Znaniecki's (Thomas & Znaniecki 1958)'The Polish Peasant in Europe and America' (Plummer 1990). More recently, the life history method has been practised in a range of disciplines, including clinical psychology (de Gaulejac 1997), economics (Watson 1993), education (Fenstermacher 1997) gerontology (Sokolovsky 1996), and geography (Miles & Crush 1993). Cortazzi's (1993) review of contrasting approaches to narrative research in anthropology, linguistics, literary studies, psychology, sociology and sociolinguistics, and Luken and Vaughan's (1999) meta-analysis of the use of life history in American sociological research, show the diverse ways in which data has been collected, analysed, and presented whilst using this method. Bearing in mind the 'remarkable variation' (Luken & Vaughan 1999) in the types of conceptual frameworks used by researchers conducting life histories, a summary of the key characteristics of this methodological approach adopted in this study is presented below.

A life history is, essentially, a telling or recounting of a string of events. The life history method is 'the unfolding history of one person's... experiences' and using this approach, the researcher becomes an 'historian of social life' (Denzin 1978). The method rests on the collection and analysis of stories that speak to turning point moments in people's lives (Denzin 1989) and focuses on the respondent's interpretation of a sequence of chronological events, significant to the narrator. These experiences and events are not understood as some timeless phenomenon, but are deeply located in time and space. Reflecting on the past, provides an opportunity to relate events to social contexts and weave personal experiences with the wider social fabric. An individual's life history thus becomes an 'entry point' into understanding the social and economic structures which shape that life (Watson 1993) and is a means of analysing 'patterns of sociostructural relations' (Bertaux 1981). Goodson (1997) calls this type of approach 'stories of action within theories of context- contextualizing stories if you like' and Connell (1991) refers to it as 'theorised life history'. Life histories may focus on individual experiences, but that focus does not preclude an examination of social structure.

As personal narratives, life histories show respondents' interpretations of events and enables researchers to examine how they make sense of their social world (Angell 1945). A central place is given to the people who made and experienced their personal biography. That is, 'the voices, feelings and meanings of persons are heard' (Denzin 1982). Through these subjective accounts of past experiences, researchers have the capacity to explore respondents' perceptions of their sense of agency and their understandings of structural influences on their personal experiences. Of course, there is the likelihood that the respondent will neglect the structural context of their lives or interpret such contextual forces from a biased point of view. As Denzin (1989) says, 'many times a person will act as if he or she made his or her own history when, in fact, he or she was forced to make the history he or she lived.' Yet, there is the equal possibility that respondents will be able to explicate structural influences on their experiences.

The Study

The project from which this paper is drawn is entitled 'Young people in rural Scotland: pathways to inclusion and exclusion' (Pavis et al 2000). Sixty young people in two rural areas of Scotland were interviewed to explore subjective accounts of transitional experiences. The life history interview became an occasion for storytelling where the respondent was encouraged to recount a set of life experiences. Through open-ended techniques of questioning, within minimal direction from the interviewer, the respondent was encouraged to reflect on past experiences within the following life domains: housing, employment, family, leisure and education.

This paper draws specifically on just two randomly selected life history interviews in one of the rural locations, Duns in the Scottish Borders. The reason why two stories were selected from the same rural community was so that two young people's unique transitional experiences, sharing the same local context, could be compared. In this paper, the concept of community is used to refer to a particular bounded geographical space with its own set of social relationships. It is assumed that there is a local culture that is maintained through the face-to-face interactions and day-to-day activities of inhabitants, turning the physical space into a 'place'. The intensity of the day-to-day interactions generate a core set of values and common assumptions (Cohen 1985, Featherstone 1995, Timms 1978, Willmott & Thomas 1984). Thus, the aim of selecting two life histories from the same rural community was to explore human action embedded within a specific local socio-historical context.

In order to position young people's accounts of their transitional experiences within this local context, secondary information about the local labour market, housing market and education system was gathered. That is, information about some of the social structures was investigated using secondary data. This type of information is what Furlong et al (1996) refer to as the 'opportunity contexts' for young people's transitional experiences. The young people in Duns were facing a contracting labour market in the Scottish Borders region (Simpson, 1999). Recent factory closures are likely to have a major impact on female employment opportunities since they hit the textile industry which is a major employer of female labour. The region notably has a reputation for low wages, evidenced by the New Earnings Survey (1996) in 1996 showing 68% of full-time employees with average weekly earnings of less than £300. The opportunity for young people to find affordable rented accommodation was restricted. Berwickshire Housing Association which had recently taken over the council housing stock from the Borders Council, was a major source of rented housing in Duns. They had twenty-four 18-25 year olds on their waiting list in 1998 and between 1997 and the beginning of 1998, had found homes for eight young people in this age range. The ability to reside at home whilst attending university was also restricted for young people in Duns, since the nearest university was in Edinburgh which was approximately seventy miles away. The Borders region also suffers from out-migration of young people with estimates of over two-thirds leaving (Jones and Jamieson, 1997).

Two Life Histories

In this section some of the data emerging from the two female life history interviews is presented. The aim of this section is to illustrate the extent to which the young women's experiences emerge from particular structural relations and the role of agency within this social process.

The indepth life history interviews gave Hazel and Wendy (pseudonyms are used to preserve anonymity) an opportunity to tell their stories about their experiences during three main transitions. These are: moving from full-time schooling to employment, training or further education, moving from residence with parents to living away from them and moving from the family of origin to the family of destination (Coles, 1995). At the time of interview, Hazel was twenty-three years old and a full-time student on a higher national diploma course at a college in a nearby city and Wendy was twenty-two years of age, married and looking full-time after her small child. They both grew up in the same small rural town, Duns in the Scottish Borders, and whilst Hazel had moved away to study, Wendy still lived there.

School to Work, Training or Further Education Transition

Previous research shows that a young person's social class background impacts on their chances of entering higher education. Young people from middle class backgrounds are more likely to enter higher education than their working class counterparts (Scottish Young People's Survey (SPYS) 1989/91, Surridge & Raffe, 1995). Hazel was more likely than Wendy to enter higher education. Hazel's mother was a physiotherapist and her father was a self-employed agricultural engineer. Furthermore, she had obtained good academic qualifications at school, achieving four highers (equivalent to A levels in England and Wales). Wendy, on the other hand, struggled academically at school and was tested for dyslexia but never diagnosed. Her father was in a manual occupation and her mother worked as a care assistant in an old people's nursing home. Hazel did indeed eventually go to college to study full-time whereas Wendy did not.

Unlike Hazel, Wendy did not have the opportunity to decide whether or not to go to university because she did not possess the required academic qualifications. This may not be surprising because her parents were both in manual type employment and she had 'failed' in the school setting. Previous research suggests that Wendy's transition from school to work, training or further education is fairly typical of working class young people who have not achieved a high standard of academic qualifications at school (Furlong & Cartmel, 1997). Wendy left school, went to a local college for a year and passed some of her modules, got a temporary Christmas job in a factory, went on a Youth Training Scheme at a local shop, worked in a local food processing factory and then resigned from her job just before the birth of her child. All her employment experiences were temporary, low-paid and with no opportunity for career advancement.

Compared to Wendy, Hazel had done well academically at school and had gained a place on a degree course at a nearby university. However, despite gaining a place at university, Hazel decided not to attend. During the interview, Hazel explains why she did not want to go to university. One reason she gave was that her parents had separated in the summer.

'They split up in the July and I was supposed to leave in September and, eh, it was just a really bad time, I mean, they were.. she was tearing my Dad to shreds...then one morning out of the blue I came down the stairs with a hangover and my Mum was like "Aye, me an' your Dad are splittin' up, by the way, I tried to kill myself last night". Well, the worst of it was I had to go away..I had to go away on holiday booked... I had to leave my little sister behind to deal with it, which was a bit.. a bit strange, but there.. there wasn't very much that I could do about it. I mean they did it.'

Previous research on the effects of divorce on children (Joseph Rowntree Foundation, 1998) shows that many may suffer from short-term distress. Around the time of separation children are likely to experience unhappiness and low self-esteem. Hazel believes that her parents' separation influenced her decision not to attend university. She says that their separation affected her in two ways. First, she lost self-confidence and second, she became 'clingy' and more 'dependent' on her boyfriend who supported her emotionally at the time of her parent's separation and whom she did not wish to leave. This culminated in her decision to decline her place at university. A further reason why Hazel may have found it difficult to leave her rural community was the emotional engagement she experienced with the people and the place. These kinds of psychological attachments tie young people to their rural communities and can act as a barrier to leaving. Consequently, moving away from a rural community does not only involve a physical departure, but also involves psychological or emotional detachment. Even when Hazel did eventually decide to attend higher education, she made sure that she was sufficiently close to home.

'Well, em Edinburgh because nearly all my friends are here which is good, and its something that I need, to have people around me. Also, its close to home, I can go home any time I want and it was close to..close to my fiancé, cause I was engaged to him when I moved away.'

As a result of her initial decision to stay, her transition process altered to fit the new situation. She was no longer on a traditionally middle class route - school, higher education, work - but was following a different path. Upon deciding not to go to university she continued to live first, with her mother and then her father. She did, however, manage to establish financial independence by getting a job at a knitwear factory in a nearby town and then in a laboratory as a technician.

Earlier findings on the experiences of young people's employment opportunities indicates that many of them find themselves in low-paid, dead-end jobs (Furlong & Cartmel 1997), and that their employment experiences are shaped by opportunity structures such as the local labour market (Furlong et al 1996). Hazel describes her job at the knitwear factory in a nearby town as 'boredom, total boredom' and where she was constantly shouted at to meet targets. Her take home pay was about £100 a week. She enjoyed working in her new job in the laboratory because her colleagues were sociable and friendly and they all 'pulled together'. However, she knew that she did not want to work there for the rest of her life because she was only getting paid £120 a week and there was no chance of promotion. She explains why she eventually decided to leave her job in the laboratory and enter higher education,

'Well, I didn't mind working in the lab, it was fine but I wasn't going anywhere and the pay's not very good.. I was sort of strugglin' 'y get by on that. There was no way I could've been independent on it. I had to live with my parents. So, there wasn't really any opportunity to move any further and I thought "Well I've always wanted to do it.. I've always wanted to go to college.. I've got a brain in my head.. I'm wasting it here, em, if I don't do it now, I never will" so I had nothing to lose and I strangely, even though I was in another serious relationship, (laughter) I managed to move this time.'

Housing and Family Transition

Existing research evidence on young people's housing transitions shows that many of them find themselves returning to the parental home after sporadic attempts to set up an independent household. One of the main reasons for this is because young people do not possess the financial means to maintain an independent home (Jones 1995). It is clear from Hazel's story that her ability and desire to form an independent household was partly contingent upon her employment situation. Hazel moved out of her parent's home and moved into a flat with her boyfriend when she found employment. When she and her boyfriend separated, Hazel moved back to her mother's house because she was financially unable to maintain the flat on her own. Hazel explains,

'my boyfriend and I had split up the next again January and I moved.. I stayed in the house on my own for a few months.. I moved back to my Mum's in about May because I couldn't afford to stay in Berwick so I lived at my Mum's and worked at Berwick still.'

Previous research suggests that many teenagers form serious sexual relationships (Sharpe 1994, Currie et al 1997) and that this is part of the socialisation process leading to the formation of their own family and leaving the parental home. Wendy for example, describes how she met her future husband when she was just seventeen,

'Em, we met, we were out in the pub one night and my friend fancied his mate and I shouted over "She fancies your mate."...We just got to know each other as friends and then we started to go out wi' each other after that. Went out 'y the pub.'

Wendy's story indicates that the pub was a place where young people in Duns met and socialised. The pub thus acted as a social setting for young people interested in forming personal relationships. Wendy says that she and her future husband, 'just got on quick, just like that...and it just developed into other things.' After two and a half years together and with a child, they decided to get married.

When Wendy tells her story of finding out that she was pregnant and bringing up a child we can see how her transition from school to work, training or further education and her housing and family transition are all inter-related. Wendy was working at the local factory where her boyfriend also worked when she found out that she was pregnant. She recognised that having a child at this stage in her life was difficult because she was not in a strong financial situation. She says,

'my Mum was quite annoyed to start wi'. Just sayin' "What you gonna do? I mean you can't stop workin' cause you need the money", but I worked right up to when I was seven months and I got all the stuff that I needed for the baby.'

Wendy's new family commitments at this point in her life took precedence over fulfilling her career aspirations. She wanted to go back to college and at some stage train to become a professional nurse but she put her career plans on hold until her child was at school, something not unusual for women with small children (Crompton 1997, p.74-80). Wendy explains,

'I would love to get into the nursing profession eventually, get myself a decent, in a hospital, like, in the local hospital if possible. Cause I dinny really want 'y move away to do it, just for the bairn's school and stuff...I'm tryin' 'y think about getting him grown up a wee bit first and get him'y school. Like the primary school, and they I'll think about doin' that.'

After having their child, Wendy and her boyfriend decided to live together and then got married. It appears as though the baby was a catalyst for Wendy making several changes in her transitions. First, she makes her family transition by making a family of her own. Second, she makes her housing transition by leaving her parents' home and creating a new home with her husband and third, she puts the pursuit of her nursing career on hold in order to look after their child.

When young people set up their own families and households it seems likely that relationships with parents will change. This is partly because the transitional process involves disengaging from the family of origin and engaging with members of the family of destination. This process may also involve re-negotiating relationships with friends. Wendy for example, now confided in her husband rather than her sister since being married. When asked who she talked to Wendy replies,

'usually ma husband now. Cause I don't get to see my sister as much. It's the only person I really trust. I don't trust my friends that much now.'

Furthermore, her story also shows how some young people, despite making a housing and family transition, may still depend on parents. Wendy's husband brought home £150 a week from working the 2.30pm till 11pm shift at a local food processing factory and she received £30 a week in benefits but when money was tight she was the recipient of financial support from her parents.

'Like I have to borrow money off 'y people like to get shopping for me. Cause we havny enough money, cause you've got council tax.'

Like Wendy, Hazel entered into serious sexual relationships as a teenager. Since the age of sixteen, Hazel has had three serious consecutive relationships and actually set up a household with her first boyfriend when she was eighteen years old and got engaged to her second boyfriend. She believes that one of reasons this occurred was because her parents allowed her to sleep with her boyfriend when she was sixteen years old. She explains,

'well I ended up gettin' into a really serious relationship at the age of sixteen... I do think that it makes it easier to have a serious relationship if you're able to stay the night with somebody every night, any night you want.'

Social Norms in a Community

Another aspect of the local community that may be defined as a structure is social norms. Timms (1978) suggests that a locality constitutes, 'an active contextual structure comprising of attitudes, values and forms of behaviour'. Previous research shows that the prevailing social norms in a community can act as a constraint on young people's behaviour (Jones, 1999). Wendy's story shows that her neighbours directly influenced her leisure activities. She stated during the interview that her neighbours disapproved of her way of life and believes that one of her neighbours complained to the police about the number of friends that visited her flat.

'I don't know, I think it's maybe the neighbour fi' downstairs. We've got that many friends and it's terrible how you can't have your friends in the house, I think it's pure jealousness if you ask me.'

One consequence of the police coming to her flat was her husband's arrest for being in possession of cannabis. Wendy was frustrated by the infringement on her privacy and wished that people would, 'mind their own business and get on wi' their own lives...I mean we're only young once,' and that 'everybody at that age' has 'experienced the scene'. Her husband's arrest only compounded their financial difficulties because he had to pay a £500 fine.

Hazel also felt constrained by how other people in the community might react. She believed that people in her town limited young girls' opportunities to have more than one boyfriend and this almost forced them into having serious relationships. She says,

'It's like you're pressurised... to have a relationship wi' someone because you can't play the field, like not even if you're like, it's completely innocent.. not even if you're goin' out like at the weekend and kissin' a couple 'y guys and goin' away home. You can't do that here cause you're.. automatically you're a whore...You're pressurised into a serious relationship.'

Hazel implies that young people have to grow up fast in her rural town and compares this to living in the city. She reflects on the days when she was a teenager.

'It was great when I was that age because all my friends were there, we were all getting drunk all the time and I'm sure we had a terrible reputation but we didn't really give a shit at the time. Yeah, I really enjoyed it then, when I was younger. But you can't get away with fallin' about drunk in the streets when you're twenty-three years old. (Laughter)It's not the city.'

Hazel was very critical of her mother's behaviour and spoke about it in relation to what herself and other people might think. This was because Hazel did not expect her mother to be behaving like she did at her age and was conscious of what other people in her community might think. At a local dance, Hazel saw her mother kissing young men on the dance floor. She says,

'I saw my Mum kissing my friend's ex-boyfriend and my ex-boyfriend, both of them on the same night, on the dance floor...these were people who were my age, not her age.' I mean like people were laughin' at her "You silly old slapper, what are you playin' at...she's an embarrassment but now that I'm livin' up here, it doesn't bother me so much. But it's no' very pleasant for me, like, when I was like twenty-one, twenty-two years old, to go down for a drink in the pub and there's ma Mum absolutely mortal, like makin' a complete idiot of herself in the pub. It's like, "No I think that should be me that's doin' that, not you".


Recently, life history in and of itself, has come under scrutiny. Life history has become the 'topic' of investigation as well as a 'resource' for interpretation and is encapsulated by the new metaphor 'narrative' (Plummer 1990). The creation of the story is the object of narrative inquiry. At the extreme, post-modernists have argued that life histories are 'dreamt up' by the researcher and have no grounding in the real lives of respondents because reality does not exist beyond the text (Geertz 1988). Gone is any sense of social structure and human agency and in its place is the narrative structure. In contrast, other researchers maintain that while the life history interview is not simply a reconstruction or direct reflection of personal experience, it is grounded in the subjective and negotiated understandings of an empirical reality. That respondents may not draw on the theoretical sources available to the researcher when describing their experiences, does not necessarily mean that their versions presented in the life history interview are any less accurate. It may simply mean they are different versions to those reached by the researcher. Life history is a reflexive process created by, and within, the relationship between the respondent and the researcher (Rubinstein 1995, Stearns 1998). It is an approach suggesting that 'story telling is a ceaseless, empirically grounded, emergent process of shifting truth; never fixed once and for all', and whilst a life history is not 'the life' it is certainly a 'sign of' it (Plummer 1990). Through 'the act of interpretation' (Blumer 1979) a researcher's creative and critical intelligence is brought to bear on the life history. The researcher engages in a 'constant struggle with the empirical world' (Plummer 1990). The respondent's account of past experiences and the researcher's theoretical framework are interwoven to create the final story. In this respect, the final account of a respondent's story is not strictly their story, but an interpretation of their life history by the researcher. Using this type of empirical approach, the researcher is not a 'neutral observer' (Langness 1965) passively receiving and representing a respondent's life history. Instead, they bring their own theoretical understandings and interpretations to bear on the research. Analysing and presenting life history data involves allowing the voice of the respondent to be heard, whilst at the same time, giving vent to researchers' own interpretations of these data (Luken & Vaughan 1999). A researcher may make references to social theory for example, through the use of theoretical constructs, such as gender and social class. Links may be drawn between an individual's personal experiences and the societal structures that function as a context to that person's life. A presentation of life histories may include descriptions of people's personal experiences and subjective understandings, but also researchers' theoretical explanations of the social processes illuminated by these personal accounts.

Life histories explicate personal strategies as also contextual strategies (Watson 1993). Through reflections upon past events and experiences, respondents' accounts are social as well as personal. In this study, comparing life histories presented an opportunity to illustrate subjective experiences of individual agents facing the same local opportunity structures. For example, both young women's decisions about their post-compulsory education were embedded within a pre-existing education system imposing qualification restrictions on access to higher education. In Britain today, it is highly unusual for school leavers to access university without specific academic qualifications. Hazel was in a position to go to university, whereas Wendy did not have the required academic qualifications to access university even if she had wanted to. The young women's personal experiences show that young people actively construct their own personal destinies and are not simply passive victims of institutional processes and social systems. Although Hazel had the required academic qualifications to enter university upon leaving school, she made the personal decision not to attend. However, at a later date, she did decide to enter higher education.

A life history is capable of showing how the respondent makes sense of, and shapes, the wider social context. The study for instance, highlights some of the gendered aspects of living in Duns and reveals aspects of how young women's femininity is constructed during the transition from childhood to adulthood. One woman for example, believed that a woman's sexuality was restrained through the social norms prevalent in the rural town. At the same time, her story exemplifies how women in the community may reject imposed constraints on their sexual activity. Life histories thereby have the capacity to show people making decisions and choices within specific socio-historical circumstances, and provides an opportunity for researchers to locate personal experiences within the wider social context, in this case, the context of gender relationships and sexual norms found within a rural community. Denzin (1989) referred to this approach as 'temporal mapping', whereby each unique and personal experience is placed within the context of 'sociostructural relationships'.

Life histories have the potential to reveal how people interpret and understand social structures and encourages an exploration of how social structures are perceived by individuals at key turning point moments in their lives. When exploring the inter-relationships between the three main transitions in the lives of these two young women, these data showed how events in one transitional process provided opportunities and constraints in another. For example, one woman believed that her employment circumstances had a direct bearing on her housing situation. She believed that the opportunity for maintaining an independent household was contingent upon remaining in employment and sharing household expenses with a partner. Yet, her ability to find an adequate income to maintain an independent household was restricted by the lack of employment opportunities available to young people in the local area. These material constraints, as far as she was concerned, heavily influenced the decisions she made with regard to living arrangements.

However, people are not always conscious of structural effects underlying the immediacy of their personal experiences or they do not reiterate these influences. In the study for instance, none of the young women used the concepts of social class and gender to explain their personal experiences. Yet, the researcher used these abstract theoretical constructs to explicate how the young women's actions were intertwined with the wider social structure. Moreover, a researcher is able to use previous research findings about structural influences on young people's transitional experiences to reach an understanding of a person's life history. In this study for instance, newspaper articles (Simpson 1999), and previous research findings (Furlong & Cartmel 1997, Jones 1999, New Earnings Survey 1996) were used to embed the young women's employment experiences within the context of the local labour market and general employment patterns of young people in Britain today. Thus, even if respondents are not always conscious of structural effects, their stories can be analysed to show the influence of structure on young people's actions and transitional experiences. In this sense, different expressions of theorising may be shown through life histories where respondents' explanations for why events happened in their lives may be different from how the researcher interpreted these experiences. Both are empirically grounded although they represent different versions of a person's life.

Life history permits an understanding of the links between the psychological and the socio-historical dimension (de Gaulejac 1997). This conjunction provides an opportunity to explore how people make sense of their personal destinies as a combination of psychological and social experiences. It is an approach that defines people as psycho-social historical beings. For example, it is possible to perceive Hazel's higher education decisions as a combination of psychological and social processes. Like many young people in Britain today, Hazel aspired to improve her academic qualifications through entering higher education. The desire to access post-compulsory education is in part, a consequence of structural adjustments in the labour market that have culminated in declining employment opportunities for young people (Furlong and Cartmel 1997). Hazel however, believed that her lack of confidence and low self-esteem prevented her from leaving her rural community to attend university. Her psychological state was in part, she believed, a consequence of her parent's divorce, again something that many young people today encounter as a consequence of liberal divorce laws and greater social acceptance of divorce.

Using a general theory of agency and structure as a framework for understanding people's experiences, several sociologists have adopted an empirically grounded life history approach (Berger 1995). The presuppositional categories of structure and agency afford opportunities to connect personal experiences with the larger socio-historical context. Although structures are abstract concepts, and therefore not directly observable, much can be learnt from respondents' subjective accounts of their experiences. Life history is one approach offering the potential to facilitate an exploration of the interplay between structure and agency that is grounded in the worlds of respondents' personal experiences and subjective understandings. Yet, any researcher using a general theory of agency and structure as a framework for exploring people's experiences, needs to acknowledge that their 'version' of a person's life history is premised on an interpretation of these experiences where a level of abstraction, and theorising, is required.


The study from which this paper was drawn was funded by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. Dr Odette Parry from the Research Unit in Health and Behavioural Change (RUHBC) provided advice and guidance. The RUHBC is funded by the Chief Scientist Office of the Scottish Executive Health Department (SEHD) and the Health Education Board for Scotland (HEBS). However, the opinions expressed in this paper are those of the author, not of SEHD or HEBS.


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