Life histories: a research method to capture people’s experiences of health systems in post-conflict countries

By Sarah Ssali, Sally Theobald and Kate Hawkins*

This blog post is part of a series on people-centred research methods for health systems development published in conjunction with a Twitter chat on the same topic. Please see below for links to other blog posts in this series.

The ReBUILD Consortium is conducting health systems research in post-conflict contexts. This brings with it several challenges, including: lack of data, recall and memory lapses, ensuring confidentiality and the changing contexts of conflict and displacement. Often people have experienced multiple traumatic events which many may want to forget, although these memories could be of importance to the reconstruction process. Both conflict and post-conflict rebuilding are political processes. So, attempts to rebuild a health system will be influenced by power relations, which in turn are shaped by historical, regional and social inequalities, and there is need to ensure that the experiences and realities of affected populations feed into the rebuilding process: life histories bring particular opportunities here.

What are life histories?
Life history interviewing is a qualitative method of data collection where people are asked to document their life over a period of time. It is a personal account of their life, in their own words and using their own personal time lines. Accordingly, they tend to be selective, contingent upon remembered events that are amenable to being told, be they fact or fiction.

Our study involved 47 heads of poor households (aged 45 years and above) in Gulu District, northern Uganda. Of these, 26 were women and 21 were men. Each life history was conducted by a pair of researchers, one interviewing and the other recording both manually and electronically. The heads of households were asked to narrate the story of their life as far back as they could remember, from whichever year, as long as it was before the war. They were asked to mark significant life events on a timeline covering the three key phases: before the war, during the war and after the war. The aim was to document changes in their households’ ability to cope with household health care costs over the three time periods. For each phase, they identified their major life event, why they considered it significant, and what memories they attached to it. For illnesses, they named the illness, the treatment sought, where treatment was sought from, how much was paid and the treatment outcome. As they narrated their life story, the researcher in charge of recording drew the timeline, matching the events with the years (if the respondent could remember it) and the outcomes.

The choice of determining what was a significant life event and why, health, health events, treatment sought, cost, what was paid and what was foregone to pay the cost of health care was left to the respondent to define and articulate. This was considered more empowering than choosing for them. Having told us their life experiences, they went on to give us their expectations of what good health care meant and recommendations for reconstruction. That way, we ceded some of our power as researchers, to participants to tell their own story other than just reproducing knowledge as part of the post war research industry. In addition to the lifelines drawn, the results of these life history in-depth interviews were transcribed, translated from Acholi into English, and analyzed thematically using Atlas ti software.

Examples of extracts from life histories
“…just only two things stick out for me: the sodomy I endured and how we left home going to the camp. We were chased from our homes in a very bad way, we only survived by God’s grace, it was not a good experience at all. Also there was a time we were abducted by the government army and they tied us with ropes and they were pouring on us red peppers [red chilli powder] just direct on our faces. We just escaped death narrowly”. (70 year old man).

“… we were on the run. … Sometimes they seriously fought and killed people. Here in my home, I was captured three times [by the rebels]. That was the year when the Kony war was severe; it was in the middle years. It was very bad. I cannot recall the year very well. … If you slept in the house, they could come and knock the door…if you opened, they ordered you to take them where people are, you see. There they would go and kill people in that home. I stayed badly here. We really faced problems here. The year?…I was captured three times…They captured my boy and went with him. They went with him. We started sleeping in the mission for the three years. Then it ended we are now here.” (72 year old woman)

Like any other method there are challenges and advantages to this method. It’s a lengthy process and given the traumatic nature of the events experienced including death, abduction, torture and rape of women, men, girls and boys, developing rapport and trusting relationships is critical. Conversations need to be carefully and sensitively carried out.

The transcripts created a lot of data which takes time to record and analyse. The ability of one person to textualise the life of another for unknown readers is a challenge the researcher has to be cognizant of as they translate the life story into research reports or participate in research engagement activities, deciding which aspects to highlight and which to omit. Furthermore, decisions have to be made on re-representing the private/intimate details on people’s lives. This can create ethical dilemmas. Ensuring the confidentiality of vulnerable groups discussing their experiences of conflict, including for example male rape, within a homophobic context is critical.

But for all the challenges outlined above we found life histories to be useful. They helped us explore and identify the dominant narratives of people’s lives within particular events and situations. These narratives were contextualised – they described how a particular event came to be significant, and how opinions and decisions change over time.

Life histories are good at enabling people to recollect the past and document change, especially where some events could have been missed out through other methods requiring simple recall of facts. People may not remember the actual details but remember the significant events.

Furthermore it is participatory and gives the respondent more voice than other deductive methods. We found that it empowers the respondent, giving them a more prominent role to decide what is significant, why it is significant and to locate themselves within the experience. As part of this it helps people to evaluate their lives, clarifying what life would have been and why it was so. At the same time it provides a history beyond the personal, the analysis helps to show that lives are not free floating but occur in a social context, hence are socially constructed.

What life histories taught us about health
The method demonstrated to us that choices about health are determined by forces beyond the health sector, such as gender relations, livelihoods, conflict, etc. Consequently, strategies to rebuild post-conflict health systems cannot be reduced to health interventions, but also need to encompass a focus on people’s livelihoods and social relationships. While the post conflict effort emphasised building/renovating health facilities, our life history participants spoke more of income generation strategies because with money, they could navigate the new post conflict health context which is characterised by poorly functioning public facilities and expensive but well facilitated private facilities. The life histories highlighted the importance of mental health as a key component of post conflict health reconstruction. They made prominent how men and women had experienced sexual and gender based violence. There is need to ensure services respond to the realities of all groups: and both women and men’s health needs should be provided for. We need to address people’s physical and psychological needs, and subsequently end the cycle of violence. Life histories also challenged common assumptions about war and disease, showing opportunities that existed in the war, such as ease of delivery of health services due to encampment.

We would be very interested to link up with other health systems researchers who are using a life history approach in other contexts and to think further what this method – and others that are people-centred – can contribute to the body of knowledge that we have.

* Sarah Ssali is a Senior Lecturer at the School of women and Gender Studies, Makerere University and Co-Pincipal Investigator on ReBUILD. She is also part of Research in Gender and Ethics: Building Stronger Health Systems (RinGs).

Sally Theobald works at Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine and has wide ranging experience of designing and implementing gender sensitive qualitative research projects on HIV, TB, SRH and health systems in Africa and Asia.

Kate Hawkins is Director of Pamoja Communications. She likes writing about health, gender and sexuality.


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