Beyond ‘Fateful Moments’ and ‘Turning Points’: Conceptualizing Biographical Events and Their Relationship To Social Change

Beyond ‘Fateful Moments’ and ‘Turning Points’: Conceptualizing Biographical Events and Their Relationship To Social Change

Advocates of biographical research often talk of it in terms of the “dynamic interplay of individuals and history, inner and outer worlds, self and other” underwritten by a view 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). This short paper takes as its starting point two of the factors underlying this ‘biographical turn’: a concern with processes of social change variously described as late, liquid and second modernity and a reaction against what is widely perceived to be a prior neglect of agency within social research. In fact it is rather difficult to separate the two concerns given that the belief usually attached to the former that “processes of ‘individualization’ … undermine and dissolve old constraints that bound people to certain lifestyles and to open up many areas of life to personal choice” (Howard 2007: 1) necessarily entails the latter project of recovering the individual as a unit of analysis. My suggestion is that, in so far as affirming the admissibility of the individual case reflects a concern to understand social change through the particularity of biography, this inevitably necessitates some concept of how social forces ‘out there’ impinge on personal life ‘down here’. One common strategy is to focus upon biographical events and the notion of ‘fateful moments’ offered by Giddens (1991) has proved influential to this end. In this paper I critique the notion of fateful moments in order to draw out some of the underlying theoretical and methodological issues involved in theorising biographical events in a way which is amenable to empirical investigation.

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”. These 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 favor 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 ‘crossroads’ 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 leave the individual “called on to question routinised habits of relevant kinds, even sometimes those most closely integrated with self-identity”. These ‘fateful moments’ are understood by Giddens in contrast to other tracts of our lived 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 

On this view fateful moments often entail a rupture. It invokes a sharp distinction between the dramatic and the mundane events in our lives, with little capacity to recognise anything between the two. Though he is far from explicit on this point, this distinction could be construed as suggesting that it is only at fateful moments where agency need enter into the explanation of biographical outcomes which otherwise are explained in terms of routine or dismissed as  inconsequential. So while Giddens stresses agency throughout his work on late modernity, it nonetheless only manifests itself in any meaningful sense at fateful moments.

The substance of this choice is construed largely in terms of the calculation of risk, with the subject understood by Giddens to either “reflexively control our activities, or else fatalistically resign the outcome of events to chance” painting a “peculiarly arid picture of the processes we utilize to make sense of the world and of ourselves” (Adam 2004: 393). We are seen to approach large tracts of our daily lives without reflection, accomplished through a ‘generalized trust’ which allows a ‘bracketing out’ of the existential questions which would otherwise overwhelm us. Part of what makes fateful moments fateful is the fact that they disturb these routines and force us to choose. However it is unclear why the choices which individuals make at such fateful moments would actually matter to them (Archer 2000; Sayer 2011). 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. What he calls “the extreme reflexivity of late modernity” in which individuals confront “an indefinite range of potential courses of action” is actually a compartmentalized phenomenon (Giddens 1991: 28-29). Given that much of daily life is argued to revolve around ‘bracketing out’ the questions of what to do or who to be which are posed by these ‘potential courses of action’ it’s inevitably rather overwhelming when an individual is suddenly forced to confront the radical openness of the ‘post-traditional order’. So to return to the terminology introduced at the beginning of this paper: ‘fateful moments‘ conceptualizes biographical events in terms of the individual confronting an ‘altered set of risks and possibilities’ and making choices which will prove consequential for their life as a whole. This will often entail “undertaking identity work, reviewing who they think they are, drawing on experts and others for advice, undertaking research and developing new skills” (Holland and Thomson: 455). So it is at ‘fateful moments’ that we can hope to find individuals “making their lives rather than being simply determined by historical and social forces” (Merrill and West 2009: 1). It is at such events that social forces and personal life meet in a way which is held to be explanatorily relevant for biographical researchers.

So what happens when you try and study fateful moments?

Reflecting upon their operationalization of the concept Plumridge and Thomson (2003) explain how  it “provided us with an interesting starting 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 biographical 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 difficulty emerges because 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 subsequent characterization will, necessarily, remain dependent on that offered by the research participant. This becomes particularly problematic given what Furlong and Cartmel (2007) describe as the ‘epistemological fallacy’ of late modernity. They make a compelling case that the diversification of individual experience gives rise to an individualised self-understanding of its underlying causes, with the result that young people struggle to discern the operation of social structure in their lives. Even were this not the case, it still deeply problematic to leave the identification of biographical events dependent on their subjective apprehension as such by the individuals concerned. This creates an inevitable slide into narratology, as those events which the participant subjectively recognises as ‘fateful’ become the basis unit of analysis: events are displaced by stories about events.

The difficulty here lies not with the event as such but rather with the peculiarly ‘flat’ way in which it tends to be characterized. The critical realist distinction between the real, the actual and the empirical can help illustrate how this is so (Bhaskar 1978). On such a view, we must distinguish between the experience of an event (empirical), the event itself (actual) and the underlying mechanisms which brought it about (real). The problem with ‘fateful moments’ is not the notion of a biographical event but rather the way in which the concept collapses the actual into the empirical. When we operationalize the concept we tend to lose the distinction between the event itself and how the individual recognized, interpreted and responded to that event. This engenders a tendency to take ‘affirmations of agency at face value’ because the theoretical tools we’re using can’t sustain the ontological distinction between what actually happened and the story we are being told about what happened. Furthermore, as we struggle to keep a grip on the event, we find ourselves losing any purchase on the causal mechanisms which brought that event into being. The way ‘fateful moments’ is setup on a conceptual level leaves us perpetually sliding away from the underlying causes when we’re trying to put the concept into practice. One solution would be to give up on the causal explanation of biographies and instead content ourselves with remaining at the level of the empirical, focusing solely on giving voice to the narrative of participant. Another would be to become preoccupied with the real mechanisms underlying observable trajectories but this will lead us to the sort of deterministic sociology which the ‘biographical turn’ was an (over)reaction to. Instead we should seek to develop an ontologically stratified model of the biographical event and the recent work of Margaret Archer offers us the theoretical and methodological resources to do precisely this.


Adams, M. (2004). Whatever will be, will be: Trust, fate and the reflexive self.Culture & Psychology, 10(4), 387-408.

Archer, M. S. (2000). Being human: The problem of agency. Cambridge University Press.

Bhaskar, R. (2008). A realist theory of science. Taylor & Francis US.

Furlong, A., & Cartmel, F. (2007). Young people and social change. McGraw-Hill International.

Giddens, A. (1991). Modernity and self-identity: Self and society in the late modern age. Stanford University Press.

Holland, J., & Thomson, R. (2009). Gaining perspective on choice and fate: revisiting critical  moments. European societies, 11(3), 451-469.

Howard, C. (Ed.). (2007). Contested Individualization: Debates about contemporary personhood. Palgrave Macmillan.

Merrill, B., & West, L. (2009). Using biographical methods in social research. Sage.

Plumridge, L., & Thomson, R. (2003). Longitudinal qualitative studies and the reflexive self. International Journal of Social Research Methodology, 6(3), 213-222.

Sayer, A. (2011). Why things matter to people: Social science, values and ethical life. Cambridge University Press.

Outhwaite, W. (2009). Canon formation in late 20th-century British sociology.Sociology, 43(6), 1029-1045.

5 thoughts on “Beyond ‘Fateful Moments’ and ‘Turning Points’: Conceptualizing Biographical Events and Their Relationship To Social Change

  1. Let’s use as an example Master athletes, most of whom talked about a key turning point/fateful moment in their lives, one which didnt always mean a rupture but in some cases enabled them to continue running well past their 40s – all of them mentioned the Marathon Boom. It seemed to good to be true: these men and women identifying a real historical process (a real set of events) which brought about a transformation in their lives (taking up running or running beyond their 40s) (a real event). I checked the running lore and the timing of marathons and, sure enough, there was such a thing as a marathon boom and it appeared to transform some lives significantly. There were of course other factors at play – or rather this Marathon Boom interacted with class and gender (initially) to alter the athletic/running field and make it more porous. I am tempted to treat the Marathon Boom as a fateful moment because it has opened the space for agency – ie running becomes part of the realm of possibilities for more people. But it’s certainly not enough as most people do not run.

  2. oh i’ve got no problem with ‘fateful moments’ in that sense – this was a draft of a paper, i got feedback on it and it left me wondering if was massively overstating my argument here. all i’m saying really is that we need to be careful with how we conceptualise ‘fateful moments’ because certain ways of looking at it in the abstract will tend to occlude the really important questions rather than highlight and help direct the process of answering them.

  3. but yeah this is a really interesting example thanks and so far away from the longitudinal data about students that i’m working with.

  4. I have recently come across the concept of fateful moments when trying to identify the theoretical framework for my PhD and I admit on face value I love it, it really seems to capture the experience of my participants (the study is about their use of a form of assisted reproduction). I too am taking a critical realist position in my thesis so your argument in this blog post and one other was equally aggravating and interesting and certainly (I think) very correct. I suppose my question is though can we as interpreters of the data identify a certain moment as being the ‘fateful’ one on reflection on the data gathered in the singular interview?

  5. Hi Kylie, I love the concept to. I really do – for exactly the same reasons as you. I just think it’s important to be VERY careful about using it. It’s what we’re trying to get at, rather than a device we can use in research, if you see what I mean. I also worry it can obscure the mundane, habitual and routine – these all make a contribution to the direction of our life and we can sometimes find out more about a person by investigating these than by looking for fateful moments.

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