The Technique of Securing Life History Documents[1]

Ernst T. Krueger
Associate Professor of Sociology, Vanderbilt University

THE LIFE-HISTORY, in distinction from the diary and letter, requires a technique not only for securing documents already written but for getting persons to write them. While this discussion will be confined to written documents rather than those compiled by an observer, the technique for securing them will be fundamentally alike for both. It will apply also, for the most part, to partial accounts or particular experiences as well as to complete life stories.

Life-histories can be secured without a questionnaire. Having lived chronologically it is easy to write in time order. Taken as a consistent policy, however, the questionnaire has distinct values. It is vastly stimulating, if properly written. (Its use tends to secure a more vivid and interesting account. It assists the person, moreover, to organize his story into a more connected and a more complete account.) The questionnaire permits focusing upon specific problems and aspects of personality and social attitudes. It indicates to the writer what information is desired. It eliminates the problems of taboo and irrelevancy. If questions can be asked, they can be answered.

Objections to the use of questionnaires are chiefly on two grounds; persons do not, for one reason or another,

( 291) answer them, and they beg the answers desired. The first objection disappears when it is assumed that the questionnaire is not to be broadcasted but to be used in selected instances where there is some personal contact. The processes of behavior are matters not discoverable by enumeration and statistical comparison. Hence the method of the case-study calls for fewer cases but more elaborate and thorough data. The best case-studies are "hand-picked."

The question of begging the answers is met by the character of the questionnaire itself, and the assumption that in all scientific research it is necessary to know the facts we want before collection of materials is begun. If weighting the results occurs at all it is more likely to occur on the negative side of incomplete data, which difficulty the questionnaire desires most to obviate.

The length of the questionnaire involves the problem of emphasis or of load. It will be long if the stress is upon the total life account or upon the exact details of situations rather than upon attitudes. It will be much less long if the emphasis is upon tension situations, crises, attitudes, and vivid memories. The shorter questionnaire is designed for the confessional document. The disorganized person writing is often impatient with detailed questions which do not directly aid him in describing the situations connected with his mental problems.

The cathartic character of the confessional document requires a questionnaire which is suggestive rather than detailed. It is the stimulus to the response which is conditioned not by prolonged questioning but by a skilfully given and vivid initial stimulation. There seems to be some limit within which the person under conflict can continue to write. The confessional life-history or personal experience is limited by the desire for relief from tension. Catharsis is impatient of fulfilment. The release is usu-

( 293) -ally very rapid and followed by the lassitude usually attendant upon strong emotional reaction. Few persons can prolong catharsis longer than a day or two. Confession at its best is hot and eruptive. It breaks out with the force of molten lava after a period of inner convulsions which may be thought of as a process of mounting tensions which finally breaks over into a final discharge.

Questionnaires become more efficient stimuli by the use of the multiple-sentence paragraph. The multiple-sentence paragraph, consists of a series of questions dealing with the same general point, each question asking the same question in different form and bringing out varying aspects of the main question. The discovery of this device permitted me to gain a more thorough arousement of the person's imagination and memory. The instruction given the subject is to read the whole questionnaire first, and then to take paragraph by paragraph, writing out all that each paragraph calls for before proceeding to the next.

The questionnaire also presents a problem in inner structure. It may be based upon the chronological year, or it may be divided into age-group periods such as infancy, childhood, adolescence, and adult life. Both methods have traditional backgrounds by which persons have become accustomed to think in such divisions. A third form is that of subject-matter—such as vocation, affection, sex, fears, etc., — for separate and specific elaboration. The chronological method is aided by customary memory processes; the subject-matter method is limited because experiences are not composed of separate threads but are interwoven strands which cannot be separated without violence to the data. In the collection of personal experiences involving particular attitudes, such as racial and vocational attitudes, the latter method probably leads to the most vivid results. Attitudes are, however, for the most part, to be understood fully only in relationship to the total life.

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It has already been indicated that the questionnaire for the confessional document should be stimulating and suggestive rather than detailed and laborious. The effect should be made to secure a narrative document rather than an expository one. For most persons the questionnaire should be literary rather than technical. The person trained in sociological and psychological formulas would probably respond, if at all, to the recognition accorded a detailed, accurate, painstaking piece of self-analysis rather than to the stimulus calculated to give him a relief from tension.

The object of the questionnaire is to tap the personal experience at a point of disorganization and mental conflict. To do this will frequently require the re-wording of the questionnaire to fit particular persons, when enough is known of the person to make a probable thrust at the source of the tension.

What has been said regarding the written questionnaire is in principle true of the personal interview. When attitudes are hot and based on strong aversions or sentiment as in race relations or in moral problems, the questions and general conversation of the investigator should be directed toward securing a catharsis of the emotional fixation. This having been secured it is the task of the investigator to attempt the early reproduction of the story in as nearly the exact words as when poured out. An inevitable bias enters such reproduction which is eliminated in the written document.

For the written life-history it is generally necessary to have a preliminary personal interview with the subject to gain rapport and to permit instructions. Sometimes this can be done by mail but with less chance of success. The purpose of instructions is to eliminate all problems of procedure. The spontaneous flow of the narrative is all-im-

( 294) -portant and any indecision as to what to do tends to destroy this spontaneity. It is desirable, hence, to give instructions both in the questionnaire and in the preliminary interview.

To "write when alone" and "confidentially" is emphasized to prevent modification of the narrative by the presence of other persons or by acquainting others of the purpose to write. The rôle of the audience is sociologically well known. In documents of personal experience it should be reduced to a minimum. "Writing on both sides of the paper" tends to prolong the probable length of time a person in mental catharsis will write without fatigue and lassitude. The total amount written will appear less than it actually is. Copying leads to revision and the writer is told that it does, and is asked not to copy the document but to read what has been written and to make necessary pen corrections.

The request to read the questions as a whole and then paragraph by paragraph is in line with my theory óf the questionnaire, that its use in the confessional document is to stir up the imagination and attitudes preparatory to emotional discharge. Thus the person is asked not to answer the questions as such but to narrate the concrete experiences and memories which the questions arouse. The emphasis upon concrete situations is to guard against a slight tendency of confessional documents to state attitudes and feelings without describing the actual situations in which they arise.

The questionnaire should not be read to the subject. Withholding it arouses curiosity. It will then be read in private when the imagination can be aroused without the modifying presence of the investigator. The writer should be given the option of disguising names and places. Where important, the latter can be described.

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The relationship between investigator and subject is all important. Rapport is necessary if the result is to be valuable or secured at all. The chances for rapport can be augmented by previous information concerning the subject. To secure it will depend upon a great many factors such as personal appearance of the investigator, the time, place, and other conditions of the interview, and the ability of the investigator to touch the interests of the subject as a means of getting common ground. The length and character of the interview must be gauged to prevent fatigue, loss of interest, or commonplaceness.

Rapport requires that the prestige of the investigator be set up and maintained. I have found it advisable for the investigator to acquaint the subject with his own connections and the object of his research. It is in general a fallacy to infer that persons will not write or talk intimately if they are aware of the identity of the investigator or of the purpose of the research. Persons who are in difficulty, who have personal experiences that cannot be told and are dammed up for one reason or another, prefer to talk with someone trained for dealing with such problems both from the standpoint of being understood and receiving help and contributing a benefit. The comparative stranger with prestige and a disinterested object can as a rule secure better results than the investigator whose relationship with the subject is an intimate one.

In line with revealing the identity of the investigator and the object of the research is the matter of giving the subject a rationalized motive for narrating his experiences. To share in the research problem, to make a scientific contribution, to assist in the ultimate solution of social problems are examples of such motives. To include a person in the research is, furthermore, to confer prestige upon him and thus gain a readier and certainly a fuller account.

( 296) These rationalized motives may be thought of as a vehicle by which catharsis can take place.

It is human nature to feel that my experience had been unique. The investigator can rely upon this factor to assist him in securing compliance with the request to write and to remove inhibitions against telling. The vanity motive probably underlies all personal documents to some degree. Every person desires to play an important rôle. So much is this true that the personal experience is inevitably idealized when related. The confessional narrative alone seems to be based in an acknowledgement of defeat and failure and tends to secure a minimum of rationalization.

If a written document is desired it is unwise to permit the subject to tell his story, even in part, during the personal interview. To do so is to invite premature catharsis. Once catharsis has taken place it is exceedingly difficult to secure as vivid and as complete a document as might have been the case if checked until the proper time. It loses its explosive quality.

In stressing confidential attitudes it seems best not to press the matter of frankness, much as the latter is desirable. Bidding too strongly for it generally makes it impossible. If the person is in conflict, the questionnaire can be relied upon to start the catharsis and to secure a maximum of free response. When a life-history is written the most astonished person is the writer of it. Reread at a later date the writer is generally amazed at his own frankness. It is the nature of the confession to secure such candor.

Freedom and completeness in the data can be secured, finally, only upon the basis of impersonal and disinterested attitudes on the part of the investigator. Sympathetic insight is effective when it is in the demeanor rather than in stating it to the subject. I get my best results and main-

( 297) -tain rapport when I show a certain reticence. Prying at the person during the interview is to inject suspicion and distrust into the situation. We must trust the mechanism of catharsis and the questionnaire as its stimulus to secure the data. The purpose of the interview is to promote rapport, to secure a willingness and a desire to write, and to set a situation in which, under proper conditions, catharsis can take place.

An offer to interpret and discuss the document when it is finished seems to assist in securing consent to write it. Most persons express an eagerness for such analysis, but very few persons request it later. My supposition regarding this phenomenon is that the very act of writing the story, of organizing past memories, has an organizing effect upon the disturbed person, so that need for analysis largely disappears. Psychiatrists and psychoanalysts in securing successful reorganizations of personality owe their success in part to this aspect of mental catharsis.

When the complete document is brought in, it is opportune to secure permission to use it, in whole or in part, "if it should prove valuable," assuring the writer again of strict disguise. The human nature factors of uniqueness of experience and the desire to play an important rôle have a bearing on the feeling of pride which generally can be counted upon to gain consent for use. To secure permission at a later date may prove difficult. In the hours of catharsis and immediately afterward there is no let or hindrance to candor; later on apprehensions over frankness tend to arise. Persons frequently return to beg for the document which they feel they ought not to have written.

Not only can the investigator develop skill in handling persons whom he selects to write life-history documents, but that very skill seems to lend to the ability to detect

( 298) persons who have mental problems, and who, therefore, make the best subjects. No one has yet analyzed the symptoms in the subject that are involved in this detection. That needs to be done. The danger is that in developing an art the investigator may come to consider himself possessed of a magical and mysterious attribute which accomplishes the act. What is needed both for research and treatment is a symptomology by which persons in mental conflict can more readily be detected and the disorganization located. A step in that direction is secured when a technique for securing documents begins to arise and when classification and analysis of life-histories (for scientific purposes) become possible.


ΕDITOR'S NOTE:: This is the second article in a series of two by Dr. Krueger. The first appeared in the preceding issue of the JOURNAL and was entitled: "The Value of Life History Documents for Social Research."

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