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Life History: A Tool for a Humanistic Approach to Social Sciences 

Devesh Vijay
Flat 5, D14-A/2
Model Town III
Delhi 110009


Social Sciences in recent years have gone through significant theoretical fermentation. While some of the new research inspired by Structuralism and Post-Modernism may have just produced exaggerated claims or plain rhetoric yet, two very significant departures seem to be gradually making a mark on the methodology of Social Scientists. These centre on a fresh concern with the creative nature of `human agency' and its interaction with structures in society including those of cultural `meanings'. (1)

The discipline of history has always been receptive to cross currents in neighbouring fields of enquiry. Yet, its special concern with the unique and the particular, in time and space, has ensured its steadfastness and granted a rhythm of its own. In this paper, I wish to draw attention to some possibilities of writing History which penetrates deeper into the peculiarities of the human-subject and his social and cultural milieu without getting entangled in neologisms. In short, this has been termed as the Humanistic Approach to History and Social Sciences. (2)

By `Humanistic Approach' I am referring not just to the oft quoted study of past mentalities but, an approach which pays systematic attention to human creativity and subjectivity as also the intimate experiences of peoples' everyday life in different societies at different times. It is true that these fascinating dimensions of human experience are not entirely absent in existing literature and academic discussions. In fact, not only historical novels and films but also anthropologists and some historians have paid attention to these themes. The lay reader has, of course, been ever interested in precisely these kinds of studies. Yet, it is ironical that they were generally dismissed as less serious by professional historians for a long time or confined to more casual writings or to subsidiary chapters at the end of their more `academic' works concerned with more with `hard' facts of political and economic life.

Beginning with the Annales and, subsequently, the various genres of `New Histories' in different countries, historians have altered the picture substantially and the history of mentalities, localities, everyday life etc. is already tending to become an orthodoxy in some quarters. However, shorn of some excesses, the approach as a whole has been positive and stimulating. (3)

Yet, and this is the point of my departure, there are important areas of ambiguity on which the spokesmen of the humanistic approach have still to reflect and develop their methodology and presuppositions. Most pressing amongst these are 1) the nature of tools and strategies for the reconstruction of everyday life as well as people's thought processes in the past and 2) a theoretical debate about the analytical distinction and interaction between political institutions and economic change on the one hand and the realm of consciousness, mentalities and everyday life on the other. In other words, a systematic analysis of the interaction between the public and the private and `structure' and `agency' in history.

As far as method and tools are concerned, there are a whole series which can be used by social scientists to understand culture and consciousness. One such set which has been specially used by Anthropologists and Sociologists is that of Personal Documents-including letters, diaries, travelogues, notes, graffiti and photographs along with recorded interviews, questionnaires etc. However, for historians, except in very recent times, such a battery of sources are by and large impossible to obtain. Yet, a cultural reconstruction of the past is not entirely ruled out. It can be argued that for the humanistic perspective on past what we minimally need are not new sources as much as a fresh approach to the use of familiar sources like paintings, folklore, official and private records etc. And though the cultural evidence that may thus be gathered may be qualitatively different from the expectations of the Positivists yet, the project cannot be dismissed as futile for that reason. (5)

One important source for the Humanistic reconstruction of the past may be the study of biographical and autobiographical accounts or even an interpretive understanding of events and incidents from individuals' lives in the past. While biographies may be defined as systematic accounts of the whole or a substantial part of an individual's life, Life Histories focus more on situating a life within its social and cultural milieu and con sidering the sharp turnings and choices that an individual makes in specific circumstances and what these choices reveal about his and his fellow beings' beliefs and attitudes in general.

The most famous use of such techniques of `Thick Description' has been made by Clifford Geertz in his anthropological and historical studies (6). Though these have been subjected to very important criticisms. (7) Yet, it is arguable that a similar treatment of peculiar incidents, corroborated from different sources in Indian History like: Akbar's reported visit to Salim Chisti to pray for a son or the interpretive understanding of court conflicts generated by Razia's accession to the throne of Delhi in 1236 or, an interpretive reading of the autobiographies of Babur or Jahangir etc. may also afford insights into the rituals, customs and mentality patterns of our past.

The problem of reliability of life-history evidence (8) can be approached quite pragmatically, as with other kinds of re search, in two ways. Firstly, by checking for internal consistency and secondly, by checking against all other possible sources of related evidence. Here it may be recollected that a Life- History is that research project which does not begin or end with the recording of an individual's life but covers all possible sources of related evidence through several methodologies, thus aspiring towards a `triangulation' of `meaning', context and evidence. (9)

Due to the constraint of space, it is not possible for me to offer a detailed illustration of the application and promise of any particular life history as a tool of historical research here. But, it may be noted that the availability of a series of biographical accounts, police and court records, and even di aries, letters, photographs, folklore etc. in the modern period of Indian history specially, in the context of different kinds of anti-imperialist struggles and reform attempts, offer a rich mine of source material for developing a humanistic approach to this period of our history. (10)

Such life histories shall, however, focus not only on the `great' leaders of our freedom struggle or the famous thinkers and reformers but also the forgotten people of the lower strata and their convictions and ideals too. (11) Secondly, the new contribution of such accounts will be apparent only if they make a radical departure from conventional biographical studies which have largely focussed on the public life of leaders instead of focussing on the way such individuals moved between the public and private realms, between traditional ties and new loyalties and their dilemmas, tensions and shifts between these various sensibilities and convictions. (12) Thirdly, such life accounts shall focus not only on political attitudes and ideologies in the narrow sense but also explore the lived experience of this criti cal period in its entirety-including a survey of long term changes in intimate relations, daily routine and private life and even changing socialising patterns and aesthetic preferences at different levels in society. (13) Lastly, life histories can also shed new light on conventional concerns with political and economic life under colonial rule and its contradictions as reflected in individuals' personal experiences.

To conclude, we may state that though the project of under standing the lived experience of the past through life histories is not free of ambiguities yet the same really applies to all knowledge at one level. On the other hand, the inadequacy of the positivist model which avoids both the unobservable and the unique and focusses rather on `hard' and tested facts and laws of society, is increasingly being acknowledged. The issues of meaning, symbols, agency and the subjects' own voice are gradually coming centre stage in the discourses of social scientists. In this new intellectual environment, Life History may, specially for the historian, prove to be those tiny prisms which refract light to reveal its various shades. For the complexity of human culture is still opaque, like light which illumines but remains unillumined. And it is in the `prisms' of individual lives again, that the shreds of its elements will occasionally reveal themselves.





1) Anthony Giddens, Central Problems in Social Theory, 1979; Peter Winch, The idea of a Social Science, Routledge and Kagan Paul, 1968; Clifford and Marcus, Writing Culture: The Politics and Poetry of Ethnography, 1986; Hoare and Nowell Smith (ed) The Prison Notes of Antonio Gramsci.

 2) Kenneth Plummer, Documents of Life: An Introduction to the Problems and Literature of a Humanistic Method, 1983; G.W. Allport, Personality and Social Encounter, the University of Chicago Press.

 3) Ranjit Guha, Elementry Aspects of Peasant Insurgency, 1983.

 4) E.P. Thompson, The Poverty of Theory, 1978.

 5) ibid. `Folklore, Anthropology and Social History', Indian Historical Review, 1977; Keith Thomas, `History and Anthropology', Past and Present, 1963.

 6)Clifford Geertz, Interpretation of Cultures, 1973 and The Social History of an Indonesian Town, 1958.

 7)Bob Scholte, `The Charmed Circle of Geertz's Hermeneutics', Critique of Anthropology, Vol.6, No:1 ; Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon, Selected Works, Vol I.

 8) Nathan Watchel, `Between Memory and History', History and Anthropology, 1987.

 9) L.Gagnon, Life Histories and Social Sciences', D.Betreax ed. Biography and Society, 1981.

 10) Erik Erikson, Life History and the Historical Moment, 1968; Runyan, Psychobiographies and Life Histories, 1982; and Gandhi's Truth; D.G.Mandelbaum, `The Study of Life History: Gandhi', Current Anthropology, vol.14.

 11) James Freeman, Untouchable: An Indian Life History, 1978; K.S. Singh, Dust Storm and Hanging Mist: A Studyof Birsa Munda and his Movement in Chhota Nagpur, 1874-1911, 1966 etc.

 12) Gautam Bhadra, `Four Rebels of 1857', in Subaltern Studies,

Vol.4 etc.

 13) Sumit Sarkar, `Ramakrishna' in Occasional Papers, NMML, New Delhi; Prakash Tandon, The Punjabi Century etc.


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