Studying Leaders and Elites: The Personal Biography Approach

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49 Scopus citations


The last two decades have seen a revival in work that takes the role of individual leaders and elites seriously. This article surveys new research that explores how biographical factors influence their behavior. We call this literature the personal biography approach to political leadership. Our survey first lays out four mechanisms through which biographical characteristics might affect leader behavior. We then discuss the main findings, grouping them according to socializing experiences (e.g., education, military service, and prior occupation) and ascriptive traits (e.g., gender, race, and ethnicity). We also consider the methodological problems, especially endogeneity and selection effects, that pose challenges to this style of research. We conclude with an assessment of gaps in the literature and provide suggestions for future work in the biographical vein.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)133-151
Number of pages19
JournalAnnual Review of Political Science
StatePublished - May 11 2020


  • Leaders
  • biography
  • education
  • elites
  • ethnicity
  • gender
  • military
  • occupation
  • race

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Sociology and Political Science


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