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Life Histories


Explanations > Identity > Life Histories

Description | Discussion | See also



Individuals may be better understood when viewed through time. A life history is a locus that connects seemingly separate events in a coherent whole. It is a thread of time that connects and creates a sense of one-ness, explaining the present and future in relation to the past.

A biography is a description from one viewpoint of a life history but can never completely describe all events. It can, however, act to communicate a coherent perception, even though there may be much misunderstanding and illusion.

Autobiographies are also flawed in that whilst they may or may not be honest, it is a singular viewpoint from 'inside the machine' that can never be objective. They do, however, give particular meaning to the individual as they stitch together events and find personal meaning.


Bourdieu (1987) notes that a life history is less a reflection of life itself and more a technique for reconstructing experience, a mechanism for producing the experience of self as unity and totality (and that many institutions facilitate this). He also agrees with Elias that whilst the 'unified self' is not a complete illusion, it neither is natural nor essentially human. Modern societies include many individualizing methods. He describes a person's name thus:

"The proper name is the visible affirmation of the identity of the bearer across time and space, the basis of the unity of one's successive manifestations, and of the socially accepted possibilities of integrating these manifestations in official records, curriculum vitae, cursus honorum, police record, obituary, or biography which constitute life as a finite sum through the verdict given given in a temporary or final reckoning." (Bourdieu, 1987)

The life-history 'illusion' is that a proper name refers to a cluster of features or properties that which defines the permanent essence of a 'self' that exists before the history. Bourdieu claims that no such basis exists and that legal, governmental and aesthetic personalities are not related, thus making it difficult to identify a single 'person'. In the legal sense, many attributes of the person are conferred rather than are intrinsic.

See also

Bourdieu, P. (1987). The biographical illusion. Working Papers and Proceedings of the Centre for Psychosocial Studies (Univ. of Chicago) 14, 1-7

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