Being a kind of shape-changer by nature, or at least a hybrid (a cocktail party mixer par excellance), psychobiography crosses a number of disciplinary boundaries (always more or less arbitrary anyway). But before moving on to points of intersection like psychohistory, personology, personality, and others, I want to begin where I began, with the first question asked of me at my oral examination for the PhD. That is:

 What is the difference between biography and psychobiography?

Naturally, I recall nothing of what I said. Doubtlessly I mumbled out something vaguely intelligible (perhaps “doubtlessly” is too strong an adverb). Now I am tempted, first off, to say that there is no difference, but this is because biography has shifted over the last several years in a psychobiographical direction. More and more biographies seem sadly jejune unless they bring in some sort of psychological analysis of their subject. Readers seem to want as much. They read biography for the juicy psychological tidbits tossed off along the way. Still, biographers are not typically psychobiographers; they have no or little psychological training; they tend to come from a literary background; they often are not well-versed in either theory or psychological research on personality processes. When psychology does find its way into a conventional biography, it usually assumes the form of a kind of tabloid-Freud, a common-sensical application of presupposed sets of motives dating back to childhood trauma. The theory is invisible, its choice rarely explicitly justified.

Reeling still from the blows of deconstruction (according to which all reading is a misreading, all interpretations vexingly equal), biography more than psychobiography doubts even its very subject: the self. A lot of biography, and theory of autobiography, preoccupies itself with the ineffability of identity. Self is text, biographers imply, and text is endlessly shifting, so self is endlessly shifting: un-pin-downable.

This may in fact represent a true difference between the two fields. Psychobiographers are structuralists. They take it as fact that there is a personality to be found and that its currents can be elucidated via a careful examination of life-history evidence viewed through the sharpening lens of theory. Biographers are poststructuralists, more inclined to problematize the self, more devoted to trumpeting its inscrutability.

Also (and this is the more conventional reply), unlike most biographers, most psychobiographers make what Alan Elms calls “substantial use of psychological theory and research.” Psychobiographers do psychobiography as a way of doing psychology; in biography, that aim is decidely secondary, if it ever gets pursued at all.

Finally, the task of the biographer is to tell a story of an entire life, a life that is, in most cases, finished, a thing at rest. Psychobiographers focus instead on specific events or episodes; their aims, then, are much more modest, more focused. The biographer’s subject might be Elvis–the man in his entirety; the psychobiographer’s subject might be: Why did Elvis record seven very different versions of “Am I Lonesome Tonight?” (an essay by Alan Elms).

 Psychohistory, psychobiography’s close cousin, aims to apply psychological theory to historical events. It has been called the “science of historical motivation” (deMause). It is also, deMause writes, problem-centered rather than period-centered. But when psychohistorians train their eye on a single historical figure–say Hitler–then psychohistory becomes psychobiography. In fact, except when psychohistorians look at the psychological motives of a group of historical actors, they seem to be doing, essentially, psychobiography. The difference may reduce to this: psychohistory via psychobiography is a way of doing history, of understanding history through the actions of personalities; psychobiography is a way of doing personality research.

 Personology is a term invented by Henry Murray, one of the most prodigiously gifted psychologists who ever lived. It has recently been hijacked–rashly, one might add, and at grave disservice–by a group of people pretending “personology” means the psychodiagnostic study of faces (of all things). This is, of course, deplorable. If any such pseudo-personologists find their way to this site, I recommend to them the following: Make up your own terms! Leave perfectly good terms alone! Respect history!

What did Murray mean by personology? First of all, it is a “complex, lifelong, neverending process.” It is “the branch of psychology which principally concerns itself with the study of human lives and the factors that influence their course, which investigates individual differences and types of personality.” It is, moreover, “the science of people, taken as gross units,” encompassing psychoanalysis (Freud), analytical psychology (Jung), and individual psychology (Adler). Personologists occupy themselves with the single case, in all its maddening, endlessly proliferating complexity. Personologists assume that “the history of the organism is the organism,” and that “personality is a temporal whole, and to understand a part of it one must have a sense, though vague, of the totality” (Murray). For personologists, “personalities constitute the subject matter of psychology.”

Murray wrote with a kind of blistering and occasionally daunting density. He seemed to realize, instinctively, that the best psychologists are part artist. His prose is avid, exuberant, florid, and impossibly precise. To get a direct dose, find this book. It is must reading for all serious psychobiographers.

So there you have it. For a fuller treatment of psychobiography specifically, a recent piece of mine, “Psychology and Life Writing,” from the just published Encyclopedia of Life Writing (Fitzroy-Dearborn), might be worth checking out. You can get the full text here.

 And what is personality exactly? I leave that to Murray, at his most expansive:

A personality at any designated moment of its history (in middle life, for example) is the then-existing brain-located imperceptible and problematical hierarchical constitution of an individual’s entire complex stock of interrelated substance-dependent and structure-dependent psychological properties.