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Beyond ‘fateful moments’ and ‘turning points’: a realist approach to biographical research

Advocates of biographical research talk of it offering a “dynamic interplay of individuals and history, inner and outer worlds, self and other” which expresses an idea of “human beings as active agents in making their lives rather than being simply determined by historical and social forces” (Merrill and West 2009: 1). While biographical research has a long and multifaceted history, its recent impetus seems largely to derived from an interest in contemporary processes of social change (late / liquid / second modernity etc) and a sense that an adequate understanding of these social and cultural changes necessitates paying much greater attention to agency. What some have called the ‘biographical turn’ or the ‘subjectivist turn’ in reaction against what is perceived to be a prior neglect of agency in  social research. The accumulation of this body of scholarship and the popularity it enjoys should be understood in the context of the empirical questions being encountered within particular substantive fields of inquiry, as Rachel Thomson and Janet Holland observe in the case of youth studies:

“As a discipline, youth studies has been centrally concerned with transitions: from education to work; leaving the parental home; starting a family. But ultimately the concern is with transitions from youth to adulthood. There is debate about the usefulness of the focus on transitions, when youth transitions at least have become so fragmented, elongated, interrupted and reversible (MacDonald et al. 2001; Furlong 2006; Wyn and Woodman 2006, 2007; Roberts 2007), and calls for a more holistic approach to young people and their lives, of which the study discussed here in an exemplar (Coles 1995, 2000; MacDonald et al. 2005; Henderson et al. 2007). As the institutional shape of youth transitions becomes less familiar, there is a need to find new ways of mapping and conceptualising biographical patterns that attend both to the ways that young people describe and experience their lives, but also to the structural conditions that constrain individual responses.” (Holland and Thomson 2009)

It is this concern to ‘map and conceptualise biographical patterns’ which has led many within youth studies to turn to the notion of fateful moments presented in Giddens. Fateful moments are “those when individuals are called on to take decisions that are particularly consequential for their ambitions, or more generally for their future lives”. So the concept fits, at least superficially, within an orientation to social change which sees increasingly individualised responses as underlying deviations from shared biographical trajectories which are produced by wider structural processes. These ‘fateful moments’ can be contrasted to other aspects of everyday experience:

  • Non-routinised and non-consequential time: ‘free’ time that we ‘kill’
  • Routinised and consequential time: ‘difficult decisions may often have to be taken’ but these can be ‘handled by strategies evolved to cope with them as part of the ongoing activity in question.
  • Non-routinised and consequential: fateful moments 

Fateful moments are “times when events come together in such a way that an individual stands, as it were, at a crossroads in his existence”. these include things such as the “decision to get married”, “taking examinations, deciding to opt for a particular apprenticeship or course of study, going on strike, giving up one job in favour of another, hearing the result of a medical test, losing a large amount in a gamble, or winning a large sum in a lottery” (Giddens 1991: 112-113). When an individual stands at such ‘cross roads’ they may consult expert systems to help assess the risks attached to the different options which the individual now confronts. It is because of this “altered set of risks and possibilities” that fateful moments mean that the individual is “called on to question routinised habits of relevant kinds, even sometimes those most closely integrated with self-identity”.

The concept has seemed to possess a certain intuitive plausibility to many who have sought to analyse biography in a sociological way. On obvious reason for this is because it appears to recognise agency without denying what Holland and Thomson describe as the “structural conditions that constrain individual responses”.  The concept places “individual choice” centre-stage but it does so in a way which sees those choices, driven by wider ‘global forces’ beyond the local context, as something characterising particular segments of everyday life.

But it is precisely this sharp distinction between life as dramatic and mundane which should make us suspicious. The Giddensian subject in late modernity lives a strange double life, split between rational risk calculation and fatalistic resignation. The denial of second-order personal emergent properties leaves this subject normatively rudderless, without the concerns in virtue of which potential courses of action would actually matter to them. So we are left with an excessively rationalistic risk-calculator at fateful moments who ‘goes with the flow’ in a routinised way the rest of the time. This seems implausible at the level of folk psychology and it seems problematic at a conceptual level, leaving us with what Matthew Adams nicely describes as a “peculiarly arid picture of the processes we utilize to make sense of the world and of ourselves”.

So what happens when you try and study fateful moments?

My point is not simply to criticise the concept of ‘fateful moments’. One of the major strands running through my thesis has been an attempt to understand the value people have found in the work Giddens has done on late modernity and detraditionalization. In present circumstances this literature, as well as the work of Bauman and Beck in relation to whom similar but nonetheless distinct arguments could be made, occupies an important place in the sociological canon, not just in the literal sense that William Outhwaite elucidated in a thoughtful piece in Sociology a few years ago but also in the way these ideas have diffused throughout an increasingly fragmented field of sociological inquiry. There’s a sense in which this body of work serves as a conduit linking a range of sociological sub-disciplines – particularly in youth studies and sexuality studies which is where much of my own interests lie outside of sociological theory but I suspect in others as well. I have not demonstrated this empirically because it is, if anything, simply a matter of context for my project. I’m raising it largely to sign post the fact this is, in a very particular sort of way, an extremely sympathetic critique. One which finds great problems with the objects of its criticism but does so as part of a practical attempt to offer an alternative which can perform the functions to which many have sought to deploy the work of Giddens. But doing so requires an understanding of what happens when you put these ideas into practice.

Rachel Thomson, whom I quoted earlier, co-authored two insightful papers (with different co-authors) reflecting on attempts to operationalise the concept of ‘fateful moments’ in the analysis of a qualitative longitudinal data set. The authors reported how they soon found that the concept “provided us with an interesting start point and some useful tools that we were able to operationalize in relation to empirical data, over time his framework became unsatisfactory both for descriptive and explanatory purposes”. The actual complexity of the lived life, which manifests empirically to a much greater degree in the context of qualitative longitudinal research bursts the boundaries of the notion of ‘fateful moments’. The provisionality of these moments becomes striking, as what can seem in one round of data collection as an instance can easily seem to be anything but in subsequent rounds. Furthermore Holland and Thomson note how “this theoretical approach to understanding the significance of life events obscures relationships, investments and the wider power structures that might constrain choice in practice” creating a tendency for researchers working within the model to take “professions of agency at face value” (Holland and Thomson 2009: 459-464).

The problem in both cases is the actualist bias inherent in the concept. It deals with level of events rather than the underlying mechanisms productive of them. Furthermore, the identification of an event is made to depend on the subject’s apprehension of it as such. These moments are inferred retrospectively as a subject sifts back through past experience to find those which were ‘fateful’. This poses immediate challenges for any inquiry which seeks to avoid taking professions of agency and self-narratives of transition at face value. If the identification of ‘fateful moments’ is dependent on their subjective apprehension as such then their characterisation by the research will, necessarily, remain similarly dependent on the participant’s own characterisation. This becomes particularly problematic given what Andy Furlong and Fred Cartmel describe as the “epistemological fallacy of late modernity”: the tendency for the diversification of individual experience to give rise to an individualised self-understanding of its underlying causes. Certainly, it is possible for those using the concept of ‘fateful moments’ to circumvent this tendency but they do so in spite of rather than because of the concept. Given this underlying tendency for individuals to construe their biographies in terms of individual factors (e.g. construing occupational success as a function of individual proficiency or unemployment as a function of individual lack) it becomes imperative that a sociology which proceeds at the level of the individual be adept at recognising the reality of the structural and cultural powers which shape individual lives.

The point is not we should ignore such data, far from it, only that we must avoid engaging with it from within the actualist explanatory register that concepts like ‘fateful moments’ (and homologous notions such as ‘turning points’) leave us stuck within. We will face problems if the identification of objectively consequential ‘turning points’ is made to depend on the subject’s own subjective apprehension of them as such. We need another approach and this is where Archer’s recent work proves invaluable.

The ‘three stage model‘ as alternative to ‘fateful moments’

Underlying Archer’s work on reflexivity is a schematic understanding of human action, hinging upon the role that reflexivity plays as an interface between structure and agency:

  1. Structural and cultural properties objectively shape the situations that agents confront involuntarily, and inter alia possess generative powers of constraint and enablement in relation to 
  2. Subjects’ own constellation of concerns, as subjectively defined in relation to three orders of natural reality: nature, practice and the social 
  3. Courses of action are produced through the reflexive deliberations of subjects who subjectively determine their practical projects in relation to their objective circumstances (Archer 2007, 17)

It is this emergent power of reflexivity which helps avoid the parallel moves made by the ‘subjectivist turn’ and the objectivist sociology it sees itself as reacting against. The underlying impulse  to recognise agency which animates biographical approaches is satisfied but in a way which avoids the voluntarism which will tend to characterise approaches of this sort. It is the properties and powers of the social which render this voluntarism untenable, as structural and cultural properties causally impinge upon the lives of agents regardless of how this causality is described or if it is recognised. But it is the properties and powers of the subject which ensure that the capacity of individuals to formulate and pursue projects, albeit not in conditions of their own choosing, isn’t reduced to being an epiphenomenon of structural and cultural forces.

This allows us to step back from the actualism inherent to ‘fateful moments’ and ‘turning points’ while still retaining a focus on the role played by  human action in shaping biographical unfolding. It also allows us to take subjectivity seriously while avoiding the empiricist temptation to simply ‘give voice’ to the narrative of a participant. The realist approach to biography thus involves both understanding and explanation. From this perspective ‘fateful moments’ are particularly consequential instances of a much more pervasive phenomenon, much of which may be beyond the purview of a given research project.

So what does this mean in practice? 

Part of the difficulty with debates about individualisation and late modernity is a lack of clarity about the properties and powers of the individual whose existential experience is purportedly being reshaped. To this end, Derek Layder’s (1997) notion of psychobiography has proved useful in thinking through exactly what a biography is in an ontological sense. He offers this concept in an attempt to avoid conflationism in understanding individual transitions over the life course. Through recognizing the ‘linked series of evolutionary transitions’ which unfold at ‘various significant junctures in the lives of individuals’, the concept aims to tie together ‘both the subjective and objective facts of an individuals experience’ (Layder 1997: 47).

Instead of asking the subject to make a retrospective judgement about the ‘fatefulness’ of particular event, this approach to interviewing involves the dialogical exploration of the ‘issues’ confronted by the subject given their present circumstances – those matters which recurrently occupy their internal conversations. This naturally encompassed both subjective concerns and objective circumstance because it is only in virtue of the latter that the former matters to subjects. In doing so it aims to identify biographically significant movements through the three stages of Archer’s model and explain how the “evolutionary transitions” invoked by Layder unfold and are, in turn, linked together in the emergent psychobiography of the research participant.

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6 replies

  1. Mark.


    A few years ago I consulted the “Handbook of the Life Course”, edited by Mortimer and Shanahan (2006). There I happily found several chapters that exhorted researchers to focus more on agency. Less to my liking was the fact that these chapters still seemed to be largely within the conceptual framework of “transitions” and “turning points”. My sense was that much of the life course research in the US is still framed by various formal models, such as event history models, even if no mathematics rears its head.

    I also looked at more the more subjectivist approach that valorizes the “life-course narrative” in which “life stories” unfold in a recorded dialogue between subject and researcher, with interpretation by the researcher (as in “Making a Life in Yorkville” by Gerald Mandel). While this approach seems less tied to the “transitions and turning points” framework I found in the Handbook, structural factors seem to do not much more than provide a stage for the action and a background for the narrative.

    I imagine that, as you point out, this is because both approaches remain at the level of the actual, though both yearn for the real.

    I also wonder if, in your opinion, there is any potential gain in doing biography in reverse time as in Alexander Masters’ “Stuart: A Life Backwards”. I am prompted to ask this question by observations from others that the narrative structure of language “imposes” a sense of causality.

  2. V nice comment to receive thanks! When I rewrite the thesis as a monograph I want to go into a lot more detail with this literature than I have – I’ve largely focused on Giddens & looked at the uses people have made of him.

    Don’t understand the ‘reverse time’ idea though.

  3. I mean that, instead of telling ‘the story’ from beginning to ‘end’, telling it in reverse order. For example, I just wrote this bit of text. What was the proximate cause? Rinse and repeat. By ’cause’, of course, I mean to include ‘reasons’.

  4. oh, yep, i think explanation MUST work that way for biography – less sure about stylistic merits, depends on context i guess.

  5. Sorry, I don’t get this. If you ask people to tell their story in reverse order they will still have to make connections between the different segments of their stories. Mark, I’m reading this months late as I’m currently writing a paper on sedentary behaviour and later life. I’d like to read Archer’s stuff on internal conversation but I’m not within distance of a library this week to get her stuff. So I’m relying on your blogposts to enlighten me! I hope you don’t mind. My starting point is that I think Foucault and Rose still have a lot to contribute to an understanding of the discourses which shape the conditions in which agency can be understood. How this is then linked to (interacts with?) social actors’ own decisions I agree is an issue that needs to be explored more actively. In relation to sedentary behaviour, we know because of the science that people are sedentary and that this is a behaviour which pervades the whole of everyday life. This leads to at least two questions:

    1. do people recognise themselves as sedentary and as having this as a behaviour?
    2. how they did get to be sedentary?

    The overarching concern is – how do we make people change this ‘behaviour’? My own ‘secret’ question is – should we? in what circumstances? how? etc…

    I don’t think we can understand the ‘problem’ of sedentary behaviour outside of the discursive tendency to medicalise what people do (with its ‘ideological’ encounter with neoliberalism). Similarly we cannot understand people’s reluctance to interventions outside of it either. However there might be circumstances which lead to people deciding to address their ‘behaviour’ as real and worthy of attention. or not. Or they might offer a counter argument (I am not sedentary, I am active or I am sedentary but so what? that’s how I like it, etc…).

    One other thought – turning points are of course post rationalisations which compress what might have been fairly long processes – for instance, people who undergo cardiac rehab need to have a diagnosis first, then treatment, the rehab and only then might they become receptive to the need or urge to embed physical activity into their lives. But going from rehab to the adoption of physical activity is itself fraught with pitfalls. Nevertheless if it does happen, the illness is still a turning point but several months and an internal conversation might have taken place/passed.

  6. I completely agree re: Foucault and Rose. I take them to be talking about ‘reflexive technologies’ or ‘cultural resources’ – ideational constructs, often embedded in institutional forms, which inflect personal reflexivity and social reflexivity in certain directions, making some things more likely and other things less etc.

    Do you know Andrew Sayer’s recent work? It would raise the really interesting question of the ‘lay normativity’ of sedentary lifestyle – getting beyond the discursive construction of the social problem (though not abandoning it) and trying to look at the evaluative orientations which work to engender and entrench objectively sedentary behaviour.

    This does sound like one of those issues where studying reflexivity is essential. I don’t see how these questions could ever be addressed properly unless you can recognise the independent causal powers of the ‘sedentary’ individual and the cultural construction of the social problem.

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