Sociological Analysis of the Elderly: A Life History Approach - Paper Example

7 pages
1820 words
Carnegie Mellon University
Type of paper: 
Research paper
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The life history approach helps a researcher put into context the micro historical experiences of the interviewee into a historical framework. Looking at life history from a sociological perspective informs our understanding of the experiences of elderly people. The life history of the interviewee is highlighted from her childhood in Iran, through further studies in the United States and later working life in the United States. The sociological concept of social status and the theoretical paradigm of symbolic interactionism have been used to analyze interviewee's life history.


The type of research methodology used to collect information in this research paper is qualitative research; specifically, life history research by conducting an individual interview. Life history research method is commonly used, in health sciences and anthropological sciences, although it can be used in other disciplines. Life history as an alternative to experimental methods is used to identify and document historical patterns individuals or groups. This allows a researcher to explore individuals' micro-historical experiences within a historical framework. The researcher will, therefore, be challenged to apprehend the current behaviors and attitudes of an individual and figure out how these might have been as a result of earlier decisions made at an earlier time in history and a particular place (Goodson & Sikes, 2011).

The interview technique was descriptive as the interviewees were asked to describe and tell about their lives and what it felt like to be that precise person. Rather than a yes and no questions, the subject was given freedom to explain in details the kind of person they are by telling their life story and justify their attitudes and behaviors. The interview questions took chronological order by investigating the subject's childhood, youth and old age behaviors and attitudes. The questions took the form of narrative research, with the subject explaining in details the actions, behaviors, and attitudes (Cole & Knowles, 2001).

Profile of the Interviewee

Life History

The interviewee describes her childhood as an average one, and not fully normal because her parents divorced while she was three years of age while in Iran. She said, "So, I would say my childhood was just an average childhood nothing exceptional" (Anonymous, personal communication, October 4, 2017). She, however, counts it lucky that her parents kept a good relationship for the sake of her and her brothers. Even after her mother remarried, they had a good relationship with the stepfather.

Asked about a specific earliest memory that she will never forget, she said that it was a time when she cut herself on the forehead with a razor blade while about five years of age. Since that incident, the grandfather referred her as the girl with a scar on the forehead. She said, "if you get lost I can find you because you are the girl with the scar on your forehead, so I have no worries" (Anonymous, personal communication, October 4, 2017).

The interviewee recounts that the most important cultural celebration/tradition was the first of spring, which was a new year as per Iranian calendar. Asked why she left Iran, she said that the main reason was to pursue a degree in chemical engineering which was difficult to get while at Iran since the university slots were very few with too much competition. So, leaving the country to study abroad was easier for the interview. The biggest challenge abroad was English and trying to do very well at school. During these years, what the interviewee learned about herself is that she was quite independent. She said, "Being put in a foreign environment I can manage myself" (Anonymous, personal communication, October 4, 2017).

A crucial event that dictates how the interview lives today was the Islamic revolution that caused instabilities in Iran and thus prompted her to leave the country. The decision to leave the country was also intensified by the loss of her father and granny. She recounts, "At that time, within a very short time my nanny the Russian nanny who I loved very much died because she was very old, and within six months my father died. Then with them both dead. I knew that I wanted to leave the country"(Anonymous, personal communication, October 4, 2017). She left Iran for further studies in the United States while looking for a job opportunity that latter came by while in Houston. She was later transferred to Alberta, where she lives to date. She has lived here for over 37 years since she does not like making changes. She narrates that "OK this has happened, and I just want to stick around and live with it as opposed to going to seek some other thing, because that other thing I don't know what it's going to be"(Anonymous, personal communication, October 4, 2017).

The issue of disliking change today is as a result of a divorce that happened when she was still a child, and thus she sticks to her "to do list" to be sure of what is happening next without waiting just to let things pass. She explained, "I don't like change maybe that is also because of my childhood when my parents got divorced I like stability I don't like knowing what's going to happen tomorrow"(Anonymous, personal communication, October 4, 2017)

The interviewee is satisfied with the lifestyle, and the reason is that she has made that lifestyle and no one else has done it. Going back in time, the only thing the interviewee could change is spending time with the brother who committed suicide. She thought she knew him, but after the incident she realized, they were not that close to the brother as she thought. She is happy with her life though. She doesn't like regrets. According to her, life is fairly balanced.

Asked about any advice she could give to the younger generation, she said that, "One advice I give to young people that they should take advantage of their youth because it goes very fast" (Anonymous, personal communication, October 4, 2017)

The Role of Social Context

A social context refers to the social environment or the immediate social and physical setting in which something happens, or people live. There are several social context factors that are essential to understanding the life events and life history. They include ageism, social status/class, culture, discrimination education ethnicity, family politics social structure, gender roles minority, self-efficacy, successful aging trajectories, and prejudice socialization roles, among others (Wertsh&Tulviste, 1990).

The social context factors of social class and ethnicity/race in a multiethnic population were found to have influenced the experience of healthy directions and physical activity of the working class (McNeill, Stoddard, Bennett, Wolin, & Sorensen, 2012). A study was carried out to examine the relationship between physical activities during leisure time and the social context factors for individual participants who are employed in small business. The sample size was 850 participants observed for over a period of 18 months. Bivariate analysis showed that age, social ties, workplace social capital, as well as language acculturation were significantly related with leisure time physical exercise. On the other hand, multivariate analysis showed that those who were younger with a high language acculturation also had significantly higher physical activities during leisure time. There was also a significant decline in leisure time physical exercise for individuals at higher workplace social capital (McNeill, Stoddard, Bennett, Wolin, & Sorensen, 2012).Thus, it is evident that some key social context factors can shape the experiences of an event or a series of events in an individual's life. Going back to the interviewee in the previous section, there are instances she gave reasons of why she disliked change because of a key social contextual factor (social class) and being brought up by a divorced parents(Anonymous, personal communication, October 4, 2017).

Theoretical Analysis

Symbolic interactionism is a micro level of analysis that directs sociologists to focus on the symbols and face to face interactions as well as the details of day to day life in order to understand the meaning in the symbols and the interaction with one another. This theory originated by Max Weber's claim that people act in accordance to how they interpret on what their world means to them. Thus, according to this theory, people will assign meanings to symbols and will usually act in accordance to their subjective interpretation of such. Verbal communication has words as symbols and this is an evidence of subjective interpretation. These words have a specific meaning as per the "sender" and for effective communication, they should have same meaning to the "receiver". Thus, a conversation is basically where symbols interact between individuals who are constantly interpreting their surrounding world (Charon, 2010).Without a meaning, then no human being would act towards anything. There has to be an interpretation in order for an individual to act, and there must be a common meaning of the world in order for two or more people to communicate or act socially. For instance in an American marriage and exchange of vows, a ring is put in the middle finger by spouse as a sign of unending love between them and they interpret it as so. However. This is not the case in African traditional wedding and such a symbol cannot be interpreted similarly (Charon, 2010).

Going back to the interview, the elderly recalls the major events that marked his life and the most memorable was the first spring which was a new year for them. They interpreted socially that to mean a very important part of their life. They would set up a table with symbolic things that had a meaning to their society hence a call for celebration (Anonymous, personal communication, October 4, 2017).


The interviewee was brought up by divorced parents from the age of five. She grew up in a large family and moved to the United States to pursue a degree in Chemical Engineering since study opportunities in Iran were limited. After her completing her studies, she returned to Iran but did not stay for long because of the Islamic revolution that was looming in the country. She returned to the United States to further and looking for employment opportunities. The social contextual factors of social class and ethnicity have contributed to later life experiences. The theoretical paradigm of symbolic interactionism has been used to analyze interviewee's life history and showed that most of her actions were based on the symbolic interpretation of the world around her.


Charon, Joel M. (2010). Symbolic interactionism: An introduction, interpretation, an integration: Pearson College Division.

Cole, Ardra L, & Knowles, J Gary. (2001). Lives in context: The art of life history research: Rowman Altamira.

Goodson, Ivor F, & Sikes, Patricia J. (2001). Life history research in educational settings: Learning from lives: Open University Press.

McNeill, Lorna H, Stoddard, Anne, Bennett, Gary G, Wolin, Kathleen Y, & Sorensen, Glorian G. (2012). Influence of individual and social contextual factors on changes in leisure-time physical activity in working-class populations: results of the Healthy Directions-Small Businesses Study. Cancer Causes & Control, 23(9), 1475-1487.

Wertsh, James V, & Tulviste, Peter. (1990). Apprenticeship in thinking: Cognitive development in social context. Science, 249(4969), 684-686.

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