Life History Interviews

If you are interested in uncovering the complex interaction between legal systems and individual life courses, you might want to consider conducting life history interviews.

The life history interview is one of several types of interviews directed at documenting an individual’s account of their life, or an aspect of their life that has developed over the life course.

Researchers do not typically regard life history interviews as objective sources of information. Rather, emphasis is placed on uncovering interviewees’ own perceptions, reflections, and interpretations. Life histories are thus valued for their ability to provide insight into how individuals interpret, understand and define the world around them.

Life history interviews are used in various disciplines and for different purposes. In legal research, they can provide in-depth understanding of the ways in which legal systems shape people’s lives, allowing for complexities to emerge. They can be particularly valuable for offering insight into groups of people whose experiences tend to receive less attention in official and academic discourses (Chamberlayne, Bornat & Wengraf 2000). Thus, an individual’s life history can provide an entry point into understanding legal systems more fully.

When conducting life history interviews, it is important to consider that they require a long-term and in-depth engagement with participants. This can pose challenges for both researchers and interviewees. It is also important to ask whether the wealth of data gathered will be beneficial for the research question at hand.

Life history data is not representative of the population and therefore interviewees are not randomly or systematically chosen. The researcher’s sampling approach will be influenced by their overarching research question and their research focus more generally. As an alternative sampling strategy, Bertaux (1981) argues for seeking ‘saturation of knowledge’. Saturation of knowledge is reached when the researcher recognizes patterns in the interviewees’ experiences.


  • Bertaux, D. (1981). From the life-history approach to the transformation of sociological practice. Biography and society: The life history approach in the social sciences, 29-45.

    Bertaux offers a critique of the social scientific requirement of seeking representativeness and offers an alternative approach to sampling.

  • Chamberlayne, P., Bornat, J., & Wengraf, T. (2000). The turn to biographical methods in social science: Comparative issues and examples. Psychology Press.

    The authors show how biographical research methods such as life history interviews can help shed light on historical processes of transformation.

  • Engel, D. M., & Munger, F. W. (2003). Rights of inclusion: Law and identity in the life stories of Americans with disabilities. University of Chicago Press.

    On the basis of life history interviews, Engel & Munger study the significance of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).