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.

One of the key aims of my thesis is to elaborate a theory of personal morphogenesis i.e. the psychosocial dynamics of how individuals change. In broad terms, I am construing the subject matter as biographical. I’m interested in understanding how the particular circumstances which a specific individual inhabits at a given point in time contribute to shaping who they are over time. Or to put it a slightly different way, I want to understand how biography unfolds psychosocially i.e. how do the ‘moments’ of our life contribute to shaping our overarching life course? I want to theorise this but I also want to build tools which enable these processes to be properly studied, allowing researchers to avoid the pitfalls of over-privileging agency, culture or structure in their sociological explanations of empirical observed biographies.

This necessitates understanding the mechanisms which drive the direction taken by biographical unfolding. Here is where the notion of reflexivity comes into play, as individuals fallibly weigh up their objective circumstances against their subjective concerns and decide what to do. The methodology I’m developing involves reconstructing reflexive ‘moments’, as well as the deliberations and actions they give rise to, with the intention of addressing how cycles of personal morphogenesis (i.e. something changes in our circumstances which has, in our selves, subjective significance, we respond to it reflexively and, in the process, both ourselves and our circumstances are changed to varying degrees) knit together over time to produce the biographical trajectory we can observe retrospectively.

If we intend to conduct biographical research, it raises the obvious question: what is a biography? Our answer to this should ideally involve both theoretical and methodological considerations I.e. it should be orientated towards thinking through the practical consequences for a researcher thinking in terms of a given concept of biography.

One tendency I find deeply problematic is to conflate biography with self narrative I.e. the truth of our biography can be found in the story of how we got from where we were to where we are now. However there is something important in the most engaging of such narratives. They involve a making sense of changes in ourselves and changes in our circumstances.

Subsuming these three distinguishable though interdependent aspects of a biographical process under the concept of narrative makes it difficult to understanding the unfolding interconnections between them. Yet it’s these interconnections which account for the form and content of the narrative and it is through the analysis of them that we can explain the unfolding of someone’s biography rather than just describing it.

This is where the concepts of personal morphogenesis and personal morphostasis are useful. The former refers to those events which lead to some transformation of personal characteristics and/or elaboration of self hood. The latter refers to those events which lead to the reproduction of personal characteristics.

These are the drivers of the biographical process – they are the generative mechanisms which underlie the observable shape and direction to an individual’s life (as well as the stories they tell about themselves and their lives as they attempt to make sense of their experience retrospectively).

I’m aware that when I talk/write about this stuff, it sounds very abstract, whereas in my mind it is not – this is an approach which I have been developing through the actual practice of doing qualitative longitudinal research. The BSA conference paper Im making these notes with reference to is intended to present this overall approach in a way which makes sense to people who aren’t critical realists. Expect some more posts on this topic over the next couple of weeks.

After years of intending to read John Bowlby, I’ve finally got round to it and I’m very impressed. He formulated attachement theory as an attempt to affect a paradigm shift (in a very self-consciously Kuhnian fashion) within psychiatric research and therapeutic practice. I won’t bother outlining the theory (the Wiki link above is excellent) because my interest in it is somewhat tangential but rather crucial to what I’m trying to do in my PhD. Bowlby offered his account as a theory of psychopathology which “instead of starting with a clinical syndrome of later years and trying to trace its origins retrospectively”  drew “on observations of the behaviour of children in certain sorts of defined situation[s], including records of the feelings and thoughts they express” and traced out the consequences prospectively (pg 29). Or, in other words, it took interpersonal dynamics at a particular point in time and, through empirical research and theoretical work, elaborated an account of the ensuing intrapersonal consequences.

Its capacity to do this in an explanatorily productive way rests on an attentiveness towards an “internal psychological organisation with a number of highly specific features”, as well as how these internal structures are shaped by the relational contexts the child confronts over time (pg 32). For my own purposes, I’m taking attachement as one particularly significant category of interaction between one particular social domain. In my terminology: Bowlby’s gives an account of how psychic structures (intrapersonal) are shaped over time (diachronic) by attachement dynamics (relational) at particular points in time (synchronic). This is the basic structure of what I’m trying to map out: how different causal factors at a particular point in time lead to the elaboration or reproduction of our personhood over time.

However Bowlby’s account is too specific for my sociological purposes (though this isn’t intended as a criticism of him). Within the domain of human relationships, his picture of why attachement happens – i.e. what is it about some people, in the context of a relationship, that engenders attachement behaviour – is overly narrow. It remains entirely relational rather than considering, for example, how structural factors might impart characteristics which engender attachement behaviour in some e.g. stable income –> security & reliability. It also seems to lack a broader theory of what relationships are, as well as how they lead to the emergence of goods/evils, virtues/vices or whatever term you like to denote the fact that relationships have emergent characteristics which are (a) irreducible to the individuals involved (b) are good, bad or anything in between relative to the subjective concerns and projects of each party to the relationship.

So, in short, I think Bowlby is for entirely understandable reasons offering an account of a particular class of interpersonal/relational modality which, given the way humans are constituted, is developmentally hugely significant and also very important to our emotional lives as adults. My intention in the PhD is to map out classes of modalities through which (synchronic) causal factors in different social domains – as well as conjunctions of factors within/between those domains – give rise to the (diachronic) transformation or reproduction of personhood.

In slightly more pleasant terms: it’s a theory of how we become who we are and an explanatory methodology for unpicking how different sorts of casual influences shape this process over time. Theoretically I want to develop an account of how human personhood is shaped which incorporates the psychological and the social without unduly privileging either. Methodologically I want to develop an approach which can be applied to any qualitative research which is concerned with biography/life course through identifying particular cycles of personal transformation or reproduction:

T1 – Causal factors within or between social domains that relate to our personhood

T2  to T3 – Leading to the transformation or reproduction of psychic structures

T4 –  An elaborated or reproduced set of psychic structures

Who we are over time is shaped by an endless array of such cycles which are empirically superimposed. Which is why biographical research can be so messy. My approach – developed through a 2 year longitudinal case study of 19 participants with 5 in-depth interviews – helps alleviate this. Given a particular interest, whether defined at the start of the research or testing out different interests iteratively as one proceeds, data analysis can precede by identifying the above cycles and unpacking the T2-T3 dynamics. Speaking from personal experience, this is starting to prove a VERY powerful way of making sense of longitudinal qualitative data, though I’m less confident about how useful people would find it with non-longitudinal data.

My intention is to use my data to iteratively developed a taxonomy of classes of modalities that obtain at T2-T3. Or in slightly less weird language: in what sorts of ways do personal characteristics, relationships, ideas, social structures – or some combination thereof – have an impact on who we are over time.

This is all a bit rough. I’ve also just tried to explain in 500 words what I spent 15000 words explaining in the PhD itself. Does this make sense to anyone? I’m presenting this for the first time in April and I really do need to learn to summarise it to people who aren’t my supervisors and/or haven’t read my thesis and/or aren’t critical realists. I quite successfully explained this to a room full of critical realists in Oslo last October but am a bit worried I won’t be able to manage it without the shared intellectual background. Hmm.

Here’s the core 4 questions / aims as I just tweeted them:

  1. In what SORTS of ways can personal characteristics, relationships, ideas and social structures (or combination thereof) shape who we are.
  2. How do these kinds of causal relationships add up to shaping the life of any particular individual, understood as a specific biography
  3. How can we do social research in a way which recognises ALL these different sorts of relationships + doesn’t over/under privilege any?
  4. In practical terms of research design & data analysis, how do you put this approach into practice? What are difficulties+benefits of it?


When i talk about ‘social domains’ I mean:

  1. Personal – our personal characteristics & capacities, some generically human, others shaped by our own personal histories (including the genetic)
  2. Relational – the relational networks within which we’re embedded, their characteristics as networks, as well as the characteristics of the relationships which comprise them (and the emergent goods/evils found within them)
  3. Ideational – basically the ideas both actually and potentially accessible to us at a given point in time given our social position, as well as the logical relations that obtain between them
  4. Structural – the allotment of material resources and cultural capital we enjoy at a particular point in terms, our positions within organisations and bureaucracies, the emergent consequences of political&economic processes which we are subject to given that we, like everyone else, have a particular social placement

The quotes above are from Bowlby’s “A Secure Base”