Autobiographies in social research

An autobiography is an account of the life of an individual, written by that individual, sometimes with the assistance of a professional biographer.

One of the most popular UK autobiographies of 2020 was Harry and Meghan’s ‘Finding Freedom’, and it is supposed to ‘dispel rumors about their relationship from both sides of the pond’.

The Amazon critics, however, disagree. The comments ranked at 2 and 3 (accessed 18 August 2020)  in order of usefulness both give the book 1 star out of five and comment thus:

Dela – 1.0 out of 5 stars Pure fantasy

“… the reader can only assume a good proportion of [this book is] made up… the reader is left with a very poor impression of the couple. As someone else said – this is very much an ‘own goal’.”

600 people found this helpful

hellsbells123 – 1.0 out of 5 stars Dross of the highest order – all time low for Harry

“Dreadful book full of ridiculous unnecessary detail from a couple who profess to want privacy. This is a book masquerading as a love story but full of bile, hatred and bitterness. “

578 people found this helpful

Source

The strengths and limitations of autobiographies as a source of data

Whether they have a readership of millions or tens, autobiographies are selective in the information they provide about the life of the author.

They thus tell you what the author wants you to know about themselves and their life history.  

However, you have no way of knowing whether the events outlined in an autobiography are actually and I wouldn’t even trust an autobiography to give me an accurate view of the authors’ own interpretation of what the most significant events in their life history were.

The author may exaggerate certain events, either because they mis-remember them, or because they want their book to sell, thus they are selecting what they think their audience will want to read.

In some cases, events may even be fabricated altogether.

As a rule, I’d say that the more famous someone is, then the less valid its contents are.  An exception to this would be less famous ‘positive thinking’ lifestyle gurus, whose income maybe depends more on their book sales than really famous people, who could possibly afford to be honest in the biographies!

Either way, there are so many reasons why an autobiography might lack validity, I wouldn’t trust the content of any of them – think about it, how honest would you be in your autobiography, if you knew anyone could read it?

Using autobiography sales data may be more useful…

IMO the value of autobiographies lies in telling us what people want to hear, not necessarily in getting to the truth of people’s personal lives.

If want to know what people want to hear, look a the sales volumes – there are really no surprises…..

Top selling autobiographies of all time (source)

Relevance to A-level Sociology?

Twitter data is a source of secondary qualitative data (public rather than private data) and so is relevant to the research methods part of the course.

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