May 20, 2019

Guys Like Me: Life History Analysis and the Intersection Between Biography and History

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Michael Messner

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author photoBy Karen Sternheimer

Life history analysis is a method that seems to perfectly fit sociologist C. Wright Mills’s concept of the sociological imagination. Mills encourages us to think of the sociological imagination and a way of thinking about the intersection between biography and history; it’s a wonder sociologists don’t embrace life history analysis more, as it helps us analyze how our informants’ experiences overlay with historical events.

Sociologist Michael Messner uses this method to better understand men’s experiences in war and how they come to make sense of these experiences over the course of their lives. His book, Guys Like Me: Five Wars, Five Veterans for Peace, examines the life stories of veterans to understand how they have grappled with their experiences in war and how this is connected with constructions of masculinity.

He interviews veterans from the major American conflicts of the past century: World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the more recent wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In so doing, he weaves their life stories into an historical analysis “to illuminate the personal experience of war and its aftermath (p. 27).” Each of his informants ultimately became active in advocating for peace, which is also part of the process Messner examines.

For researchers, this method involves many hours of talking with participants about the events of their lives. Building good rapport with someone during conversation is a must—they need to feel comfortable sharing personal stories and reflections with an interviewer, and interviewers must be patient and genuinely enjoy engaging in conversation. Having an open and curious mind is a requirement too. Whatever letters come after your name, the interviewee is the true expert, not the researcher.

Interviewers should take notes and/or record the interviews, with the person’s consent, of course. This will enable the researcher to create a transcript to analyze later. Rather than just reporting on what interviewees say, sociologists using this method look for themes that emerge from their interviews as a whole.

Messner found that each of his informants, although at different life stages who served within different conflicts, grappled with “moral injuries” as much as physical or emotional scars from participating in war. Each of the men he interviewed also became peace advocates, and his analysis traces their journey to this place in their lives.

Within his recounting of each person’s biography, Messner connects their personal experiences to the history unfolding around them. Coming of age when war breaks out and a mandatory draft occurs alters one’s life course.

For instance, one of Messner’s informants, Ernie “Indio” Sanchez, a World War II veteran, was a teenager when war broke out. He had grown up in a tough neighborhood in Los Angeles, and his neighborhood friends were part of a gang, which he also joined. Through this experience, Sanchez survived by creating a tough guy persona. Relatively small in stature, he “used…intimidating street toughness to his benefit when he was sent to jail (p. 37).” Sanchez reports that once he was drafted, this bravado was of little use against the weapons of war.

Sanchez was also born and raised in a highly racialized environment, where Mexican Americans were largely excluded from the white majority in Los Angeles. But once he was drafted he was sent to North Carolina, where the racial order did not specifically exclude Mexican Americans. Likewise, the armed forces were segregated at the time, but Mexican Americans were classified as white. “Sanchez was astonished to be treated…either as some kind of welcome exotic, or honorary white person,” Messner writes (p. 42). Sanchez’s experience provides a unique insight into the realities of not just war, but the shifting landscape of racial inequality.

These examples highlight Mills’s point that our lives are about more than just personal choices, but represent the interplay between historical, political, and economic factors that shapes the context of the choices made available to us. Sanchez’s life was shaped by all of these factors, and he made decisions within these contexts.

The life history method can bring to life the connections between individuals’ lives and broader social forces. How might your life history illuminate the intersection between your experiences and larger social forces?

For more information on Michael's book, please visit his website: https://www.guyslikemebook.com/

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