What is this FAQ about?

Combined with the website itself, the FAQ you are reading is an effort to put some reliable information about psychobiography on the Web, at least as the field is understood by one of its devotees (William Todd Schultz). I should emphasize: what follows constitutes my opinion only; this is not a consensus-based FAQ (though I wish it were). Still, I do know many of the psychobiographers especially active in the field today; I have studied and written on psychobiography for the last 16 years (I’m young, but getting steadily–disturbingly–older!); and so I feel qualified to provide knowledgeable orienting replies to some of the questions most frequently asked about psychobiography and its practitioners. Also, I do plan to add questions and replies as they occur to me. If you read this FAQ over, and questions occur to you, please don’t hesitate to send me an email–I may include your question in a later version.

Who is the intended audience?

Students mostly, either undergraduate or graduate. The FAQ can serve as a general introduction to psychobiography for individuals with little or no background in the field. It should provide a solid starting point for further reading. Especially technical issues relating to method, methodological debates, epistemological hurdles, the broader utility of psychobiography, and the like, are touched on only briefly, if at all. Such matters may be pursued in additional detail by looking into the references included on other pages of this website.

What is psychobiography?

First of all, it isn’t “psychobiology” (that’s what many people seem to want to call it, in my experience). It is, instead, biography informed by psychological theory and/or research. And its typical focus is an individual of obvious historical importance, such as Hitler, Picasso, Emily Dickinson, Gandhi, Leonardo da Vinci, or William James (though one can certainly do psychobiographical research on figures of no historical importance). It isn’t biography, because its aims are more psychological (e.g., what is the psychological source of Hitler’s evil?), and it isn’t psychology either, at least as psychology is usually practiced, because it concerns itself with a single person, not pooled responses culled from large numbers of anonymous undergraduate subjects. A few more words about this last point. Of course it IS psychology. Psychobiography IS a way of doing psychology. We study individual minds to learn about The Mind, and about individual people of special interest. But as odd as it sounds, since most psychologists make use of experimental methods–methods psychobiographers use only rarely–they tend to regard psychobiography as more or less outside the mainstream. That attitude seems to be changing, yet it still prevails at present.

What is not psychobiography?

Research whose unit-of-analysis is not a single person; or, if focused on a single person, research that in the process of understanding any single person does not make substantial use of psychological theory and/or findings. Thus, writing about the life of Kafka is not in itself psychobiography. Psychobiography requires the adoption of a posture informed by the science of psychology. Biography, autobiography, memoir, literary analysis–all such endeavors are less than psychobiography when they omit a psychological viewpoint.

What do psychobiographers study?

Interesting people who can help them learn things about how the mind works, or how any particular mind works. If people don’t fascinate you, if you aren’t often stricken with a need to know more about why so-and-so turned out as she did, or wrote what she wrote, or painted what she painted, or stood up for what she stood up for, then psychobiography is not for you. The best psychobiographers are persistently and pleasantly puzzled by people. Happy perplexity, then, is a prerequisite for success in the field. Funnily enough, a lot of psychologists do not really care too much about people; they are NOT the least bit bewitched by them. They focus, instead, on isolated variables–what I once called “hiccups of mind.” So again: In the larger discipline of psychology, psychobiographers, though they study people more intently than any other stripe of psychologist, are oddly outside the mainstream (this fact says more about the field of psychology than it does about psychobiography).

What are the major research approaches?

Psychobiography is case study research, so any approach to case study applies to psychobiography as well. Individuals may be understood from a variety of angles. One can 1) explore the effects of early life history on personality and achievement; 2) identify habitual modes of psychological defense used by a person; 3) sort out the preferred life story sequences or themes employed by the person when he talks about his life; 4) isolate formative events–an early experience of loss, for instance–that seem to underscore many of the person’s attitudes and concerns; 5) examine a person’s history of reinforcement, or the consequences a person’s behavior elicits from her environment; 6) reveal sets of enduring traits–extraversion or introversion–underlying patterns of behavior; or 7) point out the common “scripts” resorted to by the person as he tells us about who he is. All such approaches are met with from time to time as one begins to look into the literature. Approaches used are as diverse as the psychobiographers using them, and as with anything else, they expose philosophical or theoretical commitments and positions. A few psychobiographers even make use of quantitative methodologies (Dean Keith Simonton is a case in point) aimed at developing complex regression equations predictive of creative or scientific achievement or eminence.

What theories do psychobiographers use?

Whatever one might think about it (and reaching quick summary judgments on this score is ill-advised; it’s always good to do your homework before venturing an opinion), Freudian psychoanalysis or some variant thereof tends to be the theory of choice for most psychobiographers. The reasons are many. Freud sort of invented modern psychobiography with his book on Leonardo. His theory also, in my view, is exceptionally attuned to the subtleties and complexities of human mental life, much of which operates unconsciously, as current research in cognition and neuroscience is making more clear every day. Other popular theories include McAdams’ life story model of identity, Tomkins’ script theory, and Erikson’s theory of psychosocial development with its “Eight Ages of Man.” Alan Elms answers this same question on his website–go here for that reply.

Who are some of today’s leading psychobiographical researchers?

You can find out more by going to the Influential Figures link on this website. The most important psychobiographers by far are Alan Elms and William Runyan. Others of note include Irving Alexander, Nicole Barenbaum, Avril Thorne, Ed de St. Aubin, Dan Ogilvie, Dan McAdams, Ruthellen Josselson, Jefferson Singer, James Anderson, William Todd Schultz, and of course the late Henry Murray.

Where can one go to study psychobiography?

The best tack would be to contact one of the above researchers and to investigate the possibility of working with that person at his or her university. Up until the last year or so, the best school for graduate work in psychobiography was UC Davis, chiefly because both Alan Elms and Dean Simonton teach in the psychology department there. Soon Alan will be retiring, however, and he no longer sponsors incoming graduate students. Again, it is important to note that psychobiography is not quite “mainstream” psychological research (for reasons mentioned above, plus others not mentioned). If one desires a tenured job at a major research institution in the field of psychology, it’s risky to start out doing only psychobiography. It can be done, but it ain’t easy!! Best instead to begin by doing a mixture of research–some more conventionally psychological, some psychobiographical–and then to slowly become more exclusively committed to psychobiography alone. That is what Alan Elms did, in fact. He started in Social Psychology, working with Stanley Milgram at Yale on the obediance research, then over time re-channeled his efforts in a purely psychobiographical direction (and did so only AFTER receiving tenure).

Why is psychobiography controversial?

This is a hard question to give a short answer to. The main reason is because psychology favors quantitative methods, or the reduction of people to numbers of responses. Psychology also privileges the detection of laws and patterns over the detection of uniqueness. Last, psychology likes to think of itself as objective, thus treating the study of the mind as on a par with the study of, say, the tides. Psychobiography, in contrast, is usually qualitative, not interested in reducing people to numbers; it tends to focus on unique individuals; and it believes in using the mind, using subjectivity, to understand the mind and human subjectivity. What psychobiography does is what most people seem to want to do when they first imagine going into psychology; weirdly enough, that is not what the discipline of psychology values. Some also question the very idea of psychobiography because they regard it as essentially Freudian in nature, and they dislike anything Freudian. That seems excessively prejudicial, not to mention misinformed, since a lot of psychobiographers are not at all psychoanalytically-oriented. Others, because they have been exposed to examples of bad psychobiography, conclude that the field as a whole is similarly weak. Not so! Examples of excellent psychobiography abound. Indeed, this website directs you to any number of such books and articles.

What is the difference and/or relationship between narrative psychology and psychobiography?

This is a question lots of people would respond to with lots of different opinions. Again, I wish I had access to a chorus of voices. Lacking that, I’ll venture a solo (tenor voice).

Narrative psychology and psychobiography are not the same thing. Narratologists–as they sometimes call themselves–regard identity as a story that we begin to tell during adolescence, when matters of identity rise to the top of our list of priorities (well, maybe not the top, because adolescents think much about one other more “animal” aim). Anyway, to understand identity, one must unpack the narrative in which it is cloaked; identity’s story, characters, themes, imagos (internal representations of people), and ideological setting–also the sequences stories tend to adhere to (good turns bad, bad turns good). Self, then, is a novel. We author who we are. We script our lives like playwrights. You and I are invented.

The theory informing all this is Silvan Tomkins’ script theory, and more recently, Dan McAdams’ life story model of identity. Others who have done much good work in the field include Ruthellen Josselson and Jefferson Singer.

Now, most superficially, psychobiographers need not make use of narrative models when trying to come to an understanding of a person. Psychobiographies can proceed from a Freudian direction, an object-relations direction, even a behaviorist direction. They are theoretically diverse.

Also, and here’s where some may disagree with me most adamantly, psychobiographers are generally structuralists. They see self as a real thing–knowable, actual, veridical. Facts can be reliably uncovered by sifting through biographical data and the like. A lot of narrative psychologists veer towards poststructuralism, the notion that personality is text, and is therefore fundamentally ambiguous–like text–and fundamentally undecipherable. The decisive assumptive question is this: Is story all there is, or does a real structure lie behind the story? Is there only story, or something more? Or what about this: what do we do when story seems to be a smokescreen, a press release, a spin job? Should we not then look beneath it, try to find the reality amidst the lies? Or is all personality basically a lie in the sense of an invention, a script? These sorts of questions bring out basic commitments of an epistemological type. And how one replies to such questions tells a lot about one’s basic orientation in the field. I, for one, am leery of regarding self as pure story because if I do so, I am then forced to acknowledge, implicitly, that story can’t be gotten past (so to speak). I’m looking, maybe quixotically, for what’s real, not for metaphors. There is the fact of the self, and there is the theory–story–of the self, and I can’t quite seem to accept the latter as the final step in the process of knowing another person. Which story is truest? That, I guess, is my constant question.

Where can I get more information?

On this site, or at Alan Elms’ site. Or else read Elms’ book or Runyan’s book–either is an outstanding introduction to the field.