Psychobiographical Research

Understanding is the rediscovery of the I in the Thou.

Dilthey, 1996, p. 192


This chapter is concerned with introducing psychobiographical research as a theoretical approach and research method. Firstly, it provides a brief outline of the definition of psychobiography. Secondly, it gives on overview of psychobiographical research as a theoretical approach and research method. Thirdly, the chapter illuminates psychobiographies in the realm of creativity, artists and writers. Fifthly, psychobiographical research is demarcated with regard to related concepts. Sixthly, psychobiographical research is reviewed critically and valued with regard to its contribution. Finally, the chapter explores why a psychobiography is written on Paulo Coelho. The chapter ends with a chapter summary.

Defining Psychobiography

The Nigerian writer and novelist, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, is an internationally highly recognised West African author who is inspired by stories that she defines as “jewels in the crown of diasporan literature” (Adichie, 2009). In her talk on life and culture, she speaks about the idea that “our lives and our cultures are composed of many overlapping stories” (Adichie, 2009). She points out that hearing a single story about another person or country, can “risk a critical misunderstanding” (Adichie, 2009) in so far that it might lead to stereotypic perceptions of the self and/ or the other. She highlights: “the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story” (Adichie, 2009).

Many texts exist on the world-known author Paulo Coelho; however, they mostly seem to recreate one single story: Paulo Coelho is one of the world’s best sold

© Springer International Publishing AG 2017

C.-H. Mayer, The Life and Creative Works of Paulo Coelho,

DOI 10.1007/978-3-319-59638-9_2

authors (Morais, 2009). He developed his idea of becoming a writer during his teenage years, was thrice sent to an asylum by his parents, turned to drugs, was tortured by Brazil’s ruling militia, turned to satanism and changed his life at the age of 36, walking the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain, starting his career as a writer while becoming a magician and an active member of an old Catholic order, as well as internet fanatic (Arias, 2001; Jeffries, 2013; Morais, 2009; Wilson, 2010).

The psychobiographic story told in this study is different. It explores Paulo Coelho’s life from a positive psychology perspective, from a perspective focusing on holistic wellness and faith to create a new life story of the writer. The study is different to previous work on the writer by providing new insights based on selected psychological theories (see Sect 1.8).

Psychobiographies have become a vibrant area of research (Kovary, 2011). In psychology they have gained international interest during the past decades (Alexander, 1990; Fouche, 2015; Van Niekerk, 2007). The study of the individual is one of the most fascinating, intriguing and illuminating subjects in psychology (Schachter, 2004). Psychobiography is defined as “the study of historically significant and extraordinary individuals over their entire life spans with the aim to uncover and reconstruct their lives psychologically” (Fouche & van Niekerk, 2010, p. 2).

Schultz (2005c) emphasises that the aim of psychobiographical research is to gain - as far as possible - a holistic view of an individual’s life. The central questions of psychobiographies - such as “Which mask is most real”, “Who exactly is the person analysed”, “Can this person really be known?” and “How does the material analysed support the ‘knowing’ of the person?” - are challenging questions in psychobiography (Schultz, 2005e, p. 113).

Psychobiographies describe, explain and interpret data gained about the life of a selected individual (McAdams, 2006a). They refer to the above questions and other questions posed. Psychobiographies use selected psychological theories to “transform a life into a coherent and illuminating story” (McAdams, 2006a, p. 503). These “stories” derive from the narratives of self and others about the individual person. The narratives contribute to the construction of the internalised, intra-psychological, and externalised, inter-psychological, identity of an individual person within his/her life’s contexts (Mayer, 2005). According to McAdams (2005), these life stories and narratives need to be understood in a constructivist and interpretive way to gain insights into individual patterns and processes.

There are various perspectives on psychobiographies and theoretical approaches: Runyan (1984) relates psychobiography to the use of systematic psychology in biography. Fouche (1999) emphasises that a psychobiographical researcher engages with psychological theory systemically and self-consciously to improve the understanding of an individual’s life. Stroud (2004) adds that psychobiography relates particularly to lived lives to provide explanations for certain aspects that cannot be explored through the use of common sense of psychological principles. Kramp’s (2012) portrait of Anton Boison uses a psychobiographic approach that is positive and aims at reconstructing the focus on this life from a psychiatric diagnosis towards a more inclusive investigation. It provides a new view on the person. Psychobiographies can give alternative explanations, can provide various interpretations of lives, life incidents or outstanding aspects. These alternative explanations might be founded in the researcher’s own self, the theories used, the relationship of a researcher with a subject of research, the resemblances or the differences a researcher seems to see in the subject researched or the way he or she feels about the subject (Runyan, 2005b, p. 96).

According to Roberts (2002), life experiences need to be understood in the context of their cultural, contextual and structural settings to provide insightful information on an individual’s past, present, and future. They are also concerned with the exploration of his or her social networks and relationships. To understand the individual’s life in-depth, the individual is contextualised within his or her sociocultural, economic and historical life period. This contextualisation then facilitates the analysis, interpretation and discussion of the person’s psychobiography within the theoretical and methodological paradigm used.

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