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1This collective volume presents some of the work launched in 2013 in a methodological seminar on the analysis of biographical discourse. Initially conducted at the École des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales by Veronika Kushtanina and Constance Perrin-Joly, the seminar was extended in 2016 through a conference entitled The Social Sciences and the Rise of Biographical Research: Methodological Innovations and Diversity of Approaches. The volume resulting from this work was edited by a team of nine sociologists whose work opens onto anthropology (CollectiF.B.). It brings together contributions from 20 authors across 18 chapters. Overall, the book represents a veritable plea—theoretical, empirical, and methodological—in favour of the biographical approach, long discredited in France, with four components:

  • grounding the biographical approach in international and French sociology (Part 1);
  • highlighting the diversity and value of the methodological tools, both qualitative and quantitative, that constitute the biographical approach (Part 2);
  • participating in general sociological debates, drawing mainly on the reflexive contributions specific to the biographical approach (Parts 3 and 4);
  • presenting many contemporary sociological studies carried out using this approach and explaining their ‘tricks’. [1]

2The biographical approach did not emerge in France until the 1970s, mainly thanks to the foundational work of Daniel Bertaux (who looks back in this volume on his own career as a sociologist). Today, it is particularly widespread in the French social sciences in the time of the ‘[digital] society of individuals’ and of a veritable ‘biographical era’, in which ‘discourse on the self has become an omnipresent grammar’, in the words of Isabelle Astier and Nicolas Duvoux (cited on p. 211). [2] This comprehensive approach, which ‘constitutes the actor’s subjectivity as a research object’ (p. 40), centres on actors (agency) rather than social structures (determinism). The biographical approach is inspired by methodological techniques as well as concepts forged in certain schools of thought, particularly in the United States and Germany (contribution of Elise Pape): the Chicago school, symbolic interactionism, ethnomethodology, and pragmatism. It also frequently draws on ethnology, particularly cultural ethnology. And it is precisely via international connections (Lena Inowlocki) that the biographical approach won its credibility in France, where today it is well established (Kushtanina and Perrin-Joly).

3This volume invites us to consider the biographical stance as a particular way of ‘thinking the real’, one that commits researchers to engaging with the complexity of the social and to seeking to make sense of it despite the intellectual discomfort (Jean-Paul Payet) that this can produce, given how copious, diverse, and subjective the resulting material can be. In contrast to the hyper-productivist research model that has become dominant in France in recent years, the biographical approach calls for prolonged time in the field, the use of partly inductive methods, and attentiveness to the unexpected (‘serendipity’, as recalled by Alexis Truong and Stéphanie Gaudet). The biographical perspective thus confronts a social world in perpetual construction and reconstruction, made up of mutually interpenetrating elements and pervasively characterized by multicausality. The keys to its analytical approach are disciplinary and thematic decompartmentalization, along with the articulation of individual and structural dimensions; of meso, macro, and micro scales; and of diachronic and synchronic temporalities (Claire Bidart and Sandrine Nicourd).

4This volume can be read as a textbook, a source for numerous methodological recommendations. In this demanding enterprise for understanding the social, the adoption of multiple lenses and the mixing of methods (qualitative and quantitative) are highly valued. The collection of longitudinal micro (individual) level data (as in the Biographie et Entourage survey, INED, 2001) and the use of event history analysis [3] at INED are pioneering examples of the application of the biographical perspective in official statistics. To guarantee the best possible conditions for objectivation and to limit the risk of overinterpretation, most of its proponents engage in constant reflexive work on their own research. They thus attend extremely carefully to the construction of the field (Anteby) and access to it; to the sample and the quest for theoretical representativity; and to how the investigation unfolds, in the fine tissue of interactions between researcher and interviewee, up to the sharing of the results of the investigation with the participants. The last of these, notably, may reveal (Sylvie Monchatre) a divergence of interests between researcher and interviewees, who are invited to exercise their autonomy, including at the analytical level. Many of the authors explore the collection of suppressed speech on subjects that are painful (violence: Marie Loison-Leruste), highly intimate (sexuality: Cécile Thomé and Mathieu Trachman), or even absolutely illegitimate (neonaticide: Julie Ancian). Others reflect, more or less convincingly, on the ‘excess’ of (sometimes contradictory or discordant) data collected: from religious blogs (Josselin Tricou), administrative letters and documents (Axel Pohn-Weidinger, Fabien Deshayes), or school dropouts (Antoine Querrec).

5The contributions are of unequal quality and sometimes seem slightly redundant. But with its concrete proposals and theoretical support for a wealth of methodological tools, and the results of numerous recent sociological investigations, this book is a fertile and stimulating read.


  • [1]
    Becker H. S., 1998, Tricks of the trade: How to think about your research while you’re doing it, Chicago, University of Chicago Press.
  • [2]
    Astier S., Duvoux N. (eds.), 2006, La société biographique: une injonction à vivre dignement, Paris, L’Harmattan.
  • [3]
    Courgeau D., Lelièvre É., 1997, Changing paradigm in demography, Population: An English Selection, 9, 1–10; Robette N., Thibault N., 2008, Comparing qualitative harmonic analysis and optimal matching: An exploratory study of occupational trajectories, Population, 63(4), 533–556.
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