Case Studies

Case Studies

Reflections on using life history
Kate Bird
Overseas Development Institute

What is the life history
research method?

Life histories are generated from qualitative research, interviewing individuals
about their lives
Not one approach, but several

Structured, semi-structured, unstructured
Can have different aims and be underpinned by different epistemological
approaches and theoretical standpoints

Biographical research
Life histories
Family histories
Oral testimonies

Focus on narrative, story-telling and language
Focus on perceptions of/ interpretations of truth and reality
Focus on social relations
Focus on empirical exploration of the narrator‟s life (and the connected lives of
household members)

Interviews can produce

Facts (may be generalisable – same pattern revealed by many cases, may be useful
as part of a Q2 exercise)
Validation of theory
Narrative (respondent‟s unique viewpoint)

Why use life history methods
in your work?
• Provides insights into long-term change (social,
economic, political)
• Analysis of panel data provides an alternative – but
few national panels exist, and they rarely help
explain decisions and processes
• Places people at the heart of research
• (Development-related research requires work to
contextualise these individual accounts with an
exploration of wider economic, social and political
• Allows for the exploration of complexity and interrelationships (between people and phenomena)
• Allows counter-intuitive findings to emerge
• Generates powerful case studies – useful in policy

• Experienced qualitative researchers can
quickly & successfully add life history
methods to their „toolbox‟
• Powerful method
– particularly when used in combination with other
– Generates fascinating (and often unexpected)
– Allows for the...

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