The Value of Life History Documents for Social Research[1]

Ernst T. Krueger
Associate Professor of Sociology, Vanderbilt University

PERSONAL documents, of which life-histories, diaries, and letters are types, are increasingly being used for social research. W. I. Thomas in The Polish Peasant and in The Unadjusted Girl has relied upon such data as source materials. Park and Miller in Old World Traits Transplanted have largely depended upon narrations of personal experiences to illustrate immigrant attitudes. But no significant study has been made of the documents themselves and the validity of their use for scientific purposes. Anna Robeson Burr has contributed a valuable work on the autobiography, as has Arthur Ponsonby on English diaries, but from the literary standpoint. Cooley, Thomas, Park, and Burgess, in various books, have scattered observations upon the sociological use of personal documents. In a recent number of the JOURNAL OF APPLIED SOCIOLOGY, Professor E. S. Bogardus has contributed a valuable article, which marks a growing interest in this aspect of the subject.[2]

While this discussion deals primarily with the self-written document rather than with life-history narratives reproduced by an observer it applies to both from the viewpoint of their use in social research and for the most part in the technique of securing such documents.

In general there are two main types of personal docu-

( 197) -ment. One is introspective and reflective, revealing the inner, private life in terms of the fundamental motives or attitudes and the social situations which call these attitudes into existence. The other is the conventional document which is highly rationalized and idealized, and deals with external and traditional behavior in terms of social approval.

These two main types of document may be further subdivided into four classes, based upon what might be called the autobiographical motive, — the Confessional, the Egotistical, the Scientific, and the Naïve types. All confessional documents are introspective but not all introspective documents are confessional. For example, the emancipated type of document, belonging to the second class, is highly introspective but not confessional. In literature, Cellini's autobiography is an example. So also are documents belonging to the egotistical class, which show a defensive assumption of superiority in the form of arrogance and extreme self-opinionation. Thus Rosseau's Confessions is very introspective but is not confessional in character. The third type of egotistical document is conventional. The scientific type is introspective but not confessional. The Naïve type is conventional. The term naïve is here used to cover those documents which arise out of a sheltered and traditional background. The Diary of a Young Girl, though artless, belongs to the confessional and not to the naïve type.

The confessional document is so named because of the mechanism which calls it into existence. When vivid socially-forbidden experiences become dammed up in the mind as objects of mental conflict, when defeat and failure in the realization of wishes face the person, when habits and sentiments are deeply disturbed, confession as a means of relief can take place. Confession is a natural outlet for mental tension. The tension may be observed in the form

( 198) of attitudes of indecision, bewilderment, resentment, disillusionment, and aversion. Confessional documents reveal both passive and aggressive attitudes in the relation of the person to the conflict, and the causes of the disorganization may be ascribed by the person to inner deficiencies or to external circumstances. The effect of the tension is, in any case, one of isolation which finds expression in the feeling of social disparagement, of insecurity, and futility in the effort to satisfy wishes.

Both introspective and conventional documents are valid sociological data. They are behavior in the same sense as any reaction (in physics, chemistry, or psychology) is behavior. The technique for comparative handling of these materials and checking upon them as behavior data is alone lacking. Introspective documents of a scientific character have long been accepted as data, but thus far the confessional document has not been widely used except in the literary field. This study suggests that the latter yields a ready application to scientific uses in the study of personality and social attitudes. It forms the central theme of this discussion.

What interests us in the confessional document is that the psychological mechanism of catharsis or release from tension which underlies it is operative in crisis or tension situations. When it occurs the effect is a pouring out of the mental jam by which the person has become disorganized. The very nature of this mechanism insures a high degree of candor, of completeness of detail, and a revelation of the fundamental motives. Tension situations isolate the person, at least in his own imagination, and enforce an effort toward social identification. This effort may take the form of self-pity, of despair, of bitterness, or of self-depreciation. With the catharsis of the pent-up emotion comes a discharge also of the person's inner reflection and brooding involved in the mental effort of the

( 199) person to organize his attitudes toward his situation. Catharsis is like loosening the thread of the knitted sleeve. Once begun it cannot stop until the whole is unraveled.

The study of personality and social problems is at heart a study of attitudes. Human behavior to be understood must be studied from the standpoint of the person's attitudes toward himself, or his conception of himself in his rôle in the social groups into which his life is cast or into which wish-fulfilment drives him. Professor E. W. Burgess has in unpublished manuscript formulated the concept, personal behavior pattern, to describe the fixation of traits in the interactions of infancy and childhood. The self is a product of inner reflection seeking adjustments toward all that goes on in the interplay of persons and in the struggle with environmental situations. Behavior at any point is conditioned and motivated by the self in its attempt to reorganize itself in the succession of changes incident to all human existence and which introduce in the person elements of disorganization. When situations are of the nature of a crisis, when adjustments to situations are difficult, tension arises. In severe tensions the blocking may be complete. It is not too much to suggest, as the result of this research, that the confessional document, whether in the form of the life-history, the diary, or the letter, as types, offers a highly satisfactory and thus far, an almost undiscovered form of data by which personality and social attitudes may become, at least in part, explicable.

Personal documents, and especially confessional documents, are of value in social research in that they reveal the tension or personality-making situations which enforce life-organization. Thomas has referred to these as "turning points." It is in these situations that the fundamental attitudes of the person arise by which his behavior is motivated. A classification of tension-situations taken from

( 200) actual documents has given the following tentative list: health, mental ability, economic, vocation, affection, sex, personal attractiveness, religious belief, death, cultural heritage, status, and family. This list is not complete and will require further analysis to secure terms which are more completely mutually exclusive. Space forbids a definition of each term. It is clear however that such a classification is a valuable and necessary step in the scientific description of personality and social attitudes.

Tension situations produce attitudes or behavior tendencies. When a given tension is prolonged, perhaps to a life-time, the resulting attitudes become fixed into dispositional traits or reaction patterns. The following classification is submitted as quite tentative and incomplete but has the merit of arising from the comparative use of actual materials. Six reaction patterns have been secured: assumed superiority, rationalization, struggle, rebellion, withdrawal, and submission. Here, as in the above classification of situations, space forbids definition and further description.

The study of tension situations and attitudes reveals the sequences of situation and attitude, or what might be called mechanisms of personality. In the confessional document the sequence begins with (a) the situation which interferes with the satisfaction of wishes, (b) shows a resulting mental conflict which takes the form of restlessness, fear, or dread. and is followed by (c) a feeling of isolation as self-consciousness arises in the form of inferiority and is attended by contrasts with other persons, and ends in (d) a dominant attitude which defines behavior. This a, b, c, d, sequence is to be thought of as an automatic one. Expressed mechanically, it may be regarded as the mechanism of the suppressed wish.

Personal documents are rich in descriptions of groups and persons which influence behavior. It is only recently

( 201) that science has come to study descriptively the relation of person to group. Now that it has begun that task it finds that the group plays a preponderant rôle in the control of behavior and in the shaping of personality. Cooley has with great force suggested that it is in the intimate and face to face relationships which are found in what he calls primary groups that human nature is developed.

It becomes important from the standpoint of the study of personality to understand what goes on in these intimate groups and what attitudes arise in certain situations in which intimacy plays a decisive part. The nature of primary groups is to resist intrusion from without and satisfactory descriptions of these must come chiefly from within the group. That is, personal experience is largely beyond the observer's reach. Personal documents, especially those which arise in response to inner tensions demanding release, permit the reader to enter into the innermost thoughts of the person, and in the intimate descriptions of his relationships find the genesis of his personality and the problems of life organization which confront him. Insofar as new situations introduce elements of secondary relationships, personal documents reveal the struggle of persons to reorganize themselves and to find substitutive expression for that which finds spontaneous expression in primary groups.

Personal documents of the life-history type, but including the diary and letter types when these cover long periods, give a connected account of a life. The result is a total picture of the personality on the one hand and a detailed description on the other hand of the series of situations and attitudes which make up the life story. The connected life account permits an appreciation of the personality from the standpoint of the conditioning inner attitudes and the fixation of these attitudes into reaction patterns.


  1. EDITOR'S NOTE: The following is the first of two articles dealing with documents of personal experience. the second will be on the technique of securing life-histories. These articles represent what appears to be a thorough approach to the subject; the author has spent some four years in, research with original documents collected by himself.
  2. 1 May-June, 1924, pp. 294-303.

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