In sociology, the origins of the use of (auto)biographies, private documents and collective stories as a source of information can be traced back in the work of Thomas and Znaniecki: The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918-20) is an attempt to study social changes introduced by the experience of migration (at an individual and a social level), based on ‘narratives’ such as letters, diaries, life-histories.
In the narrative method, personal documents and accounts are considered as the privileged locus for accessing individual experience, and to determine elements that — generalisable or not — are attributable to the social context.
However, there are different ways of conceiving the relationship between subjective experience and social organisation (of both practices and sense), related to different ways of understanding the “social”, as well as the “subjectivity”.
Personally, in analysing ‘stories’ from a sociological perspective, I find it helpful to refer to the concept of ‘social experience’ (Dubet 1994). Social actors construct (interpret, give a sense to) their experience in a kind of conversation with their ‘close circles’ (in Simmel’s terms), as well as with their broader social environment. This is how they give form to their personal accounts, and to cultural ‘objects’ such as narratives (see also Le ragioni del soggetto, Milano, FrancoAngeli). By studying personal accounts, we have access to the ‘labor’ (travail) of the actor as an interpreter; in cultural objects, instead, we aim at finding shared categories.
When analysing stories of migration, thus, we are interested in finding the shared ‘categories’ transmitted in narratives. As an exercise, I propose to compare two songs of migration, in order to (i) identify the main structural elements of the narratives (story, plot, themes) and the related social categories; (ii) stress the importance of comparison and systematicity in qualitative analysis.
The first one is the Italian song "Mamma mia dammi cento lire", of the beginning of the last century; the other one is "Thousands Are Sailing" by The Pogues.