Critical Questions

What role do individuals play in shaping broad historical processes? Do individual actions influence events, or do events provide the parameters for individual lives? Does your answer to this question change if you consider the biographies of prominent people compared to ordinary people?

What are the strengths and limitations of presenting large-scale historical processes (such as racism, women’s rights, state formation and governance, global capital circulation, or multi-national diplomatic negotiations) through the lens of individual lives?

What features differentiate biography, autobiography, life history and memoir? What kinds of stories is each genre best at telling? What perspectives can each genre tend to obscure?

How did aspects of individual identity—particularly race, class, gender, and generation—shape an individual’s experience? What differences emerge in the telling of famous people’s life stories compared to “ordinary people”? How did the stories of “ordinary people” come to light?

What’s at stake in claiming a national history?