From life histories to social history: Narrating social change through multiple biographies

Iva Pesa*

*Corresponding author for this work

    Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapterAcademicpeer-review


    Relying on more than 300 interviews conducted in Mwinilunga District, north-west Zambia, this chapter asks to what extent life histories can contribute to the writing of social history. How do individual stories fit into, challenge, or alter dominant theories of social change? Can or should historians devise alternative categories to more closely reflect the ambiguities and specificities of individual lived experiences? This chapter examines the ‘modernist narrative’ of labour migration in Southern Africa and juxtaposes this to life histories of migrant labourers from the area of Mwinilunga. It proposes a focus on consumption and self-realisation to understand individual motivations and aspirations. By revealing individuality, complexity, and contradiction, life history accounts provide a richer basis from which to write about social change. Foregrounding individual trajectories, motivations, and aspirations challenges more structural narratives of migration. Through a detailed empirical case study, this chapter seeks to contribute to historiographical debates on biography, life history, and social change.
    Original languageEnglish
    Title of host publicationThe individual in African history
    Subtitle of host publicationThe importance of biography in African historical studies
    EditorsKlaas van Walraven
    Place of PublicationLeiden, Boston
    Number of pages23
    ISBN (Electronic)978-90-04-40782-4
    ISBN (Print)978-90-04-40781-7
    Publication statusPublished - 2-Apr-2020

    Publication series

    NameAfrican Dynamics


    • Oral History
    • Social change
    • Zambia

    Cite this