Conceptualising biographical events

One of the arguments I’ve tried to make with my PhD is that any approach which seeks to use the individual life course as a unit of analysis needs to be extremely careful about how biographical events are conceptualised. This issue can seem strikingly unproblematic when considered in the context of our lives – stuff happens to us,  we make decisions and the choices we make often come to define us. This sense of plausibility which is rooted in first person experience can perhaps be invoked to explain why concepts like ‘turning points’ and ‘fateful moments’ circulate as readily as they do within research fields. It seems obvious that there are turning points in our lives, events which led us in one direction or the other, or nodal points where events conspired to force us to take consequential decisions.

However the problem with the self-interpretation of our biographies is our tendency to rely on a perceptual criterion i.e. we are natural empiricists about our own lives. We experience events under our own descriptions, mediated through our own dispositions and as people to whom their potential implications matter. We tend to interpret events in our own lives in a ‘flat’ way, focusing on what has happened rather than why and how it has occurred (in the precise way that it did). Conversely, we tend to over-estimate our own autonomy in responding to events, focusing on what we did rather  than why and how we responded the way we did and what enabled or constrained us in doing this. This is all because we tend to rely on our perceptions of events rather than discursive reflection upon the underlying causes of those events.

That we do so in everyday life is unproblematic. But it does mean that approaches to social research which want to understanding the unfolding of individual biographies need to be very careful about how events are understood to operate and how qualitative data is conditioned by the subject being embedded within the event itself. From a realist perspective, the level of events (the actual) must be distinguished from the experience of those events (the empirical) or the real mechanisms underlying them (the real). In our everyday lives we will tend towards empiricism about events, construing them in terms of our own experience of them. This is far from universally true though, as we often ‘step back’ and theorise about why and how something happened in the way that it did e.g. “why did she act like that? was there something she wasn’t telling me?” or “this has turned out so much better than I thought, how did it happen? why was I so convinced it was going to go badly?”.

But any adequate treatment of events within social research needs to encompass the real, the actual and the empirical. The properties and powers of individuals cannot be dropped out or replaced with generalisations about action tendencies because they too are part of the event:

There is more to the world, then, than patterns of events. It has ontological depth: events arise from the workings of mechanisms which derive from the structures of objects, and they take place within geo-historical contexts. This contrasts with approaches which treat the world as if it were no more than patterns of events, to be registered by recording punctiform data regarding ‘variables’ and looking for regularities among them.

We noted earlier that the same mechanism can produce different outcomes according to context, or more precisely, according to spatio-temporal relations with other objects, having their own causal powers and liabilities, which may trigger, block or modify its action. Given the variety and changeability of the contexts of social life, this absence of regular associations between ’causes’ and ’effects’ should be expected. The causes and conditions of any particular social change tend to spread out geographically and back in time from the point at which it happened.  (Sayer 2000: 15-16)

The notion of an event which impinges upon an individual cannot be comprehensively understood in a way which abstracts from the particularity of the individual concerned. To be clear: I’m not for a moment suggesting this as a critique of non-biographical social research – that would be an absurd claim because the vast majority of ‘biographical events’ are of no concern for the vast majority of social researchers. My suggestion is rather that if the substantive area of inquiry invokes the individual as a unit of analysis then it’s essential to theorise biographical events in a way which understands the causal contribution of an individual’s properties and powers to that event. So in other words: all research that deals with individuals must in some sense, even tacitly, deal with individual biography. If the history of a specific individual drops out then so too will the role their own causal powers and liabilities play in triggering, blocking or modifying the action of other causal mechanisms at work within the event. My claim is that human beings must be understood as spatio-temporally situatedobjects contributing to the event. Not all of the causal contribution arising from their specificity (normally subsumed under generalisations about human causal powers) need be considered but we need to be aware of its independent role to determine what aspects of this contribution should be pursued:

A good explanation will seek to focus selectively on the most relevant causal factors and there are at least two important criteria of relevance: first, the aspect of the event that we are seeking to explain, and secondly, which powers make the most significant contribution to this aspect of the event. In practice, we do not seek to explain all aspects of an event, even as simple an event as selling something in a shop. Instead, there are specific things we want to know – why did the salesperson not try to sell a more expensive television to the customer, for example, or why did she speak to him in a particular accent and what effect did this have on the outcome? Whichever aspect we focus on there will be causal factors we can decide to ignore because they have little explanatory significance for it, though we cannot necessarily prejudge which factors these will be.

Of course, this leaves open a whole range of further methodological considerations. In particular, how can we tell which were the most significant causal factors for any given outcome? This is not a question to which we can give a general answer on ontological grounds; the answer will always depend on the nature of the processes at work and how they interact with each other.

Explaining individual events, then, is challenging in the social sciences, and always involves some subjective decisions about how far to follow the causal chains and which ones to prioritise. But this does not mean that we can never do it: there may be occasions when one or a few causal factors predominate so strongly that we can reasonably treat them as the primary cause(s). Perhaps the salesperson decided not try and sell a more expensive television because she knew the customer and knew he could not really afford one. Perhaps she decided not to do it because of a recent conversation in which someone she respected criticised the practice. In such cases we may not be able to give quite definite answers to the causal question; but it is always a contingent empirical question whether this will be the case. (Elder-Vass 2010: 178)

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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