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Auto/biography

Since my last post I have been reading quite a lot around biographical methods (Harrison & Lyon, 1993; Merrill and West, 2009; Miller, 2007; Stanley, 1993; West, et al, 2007). This is beginning to earth some of my earlier reading of learning biography and digging into the TLRP Learning Lives materials and more recent reading of a number of studies of the experience of diagnosis of families with children on the autistic spectrum. These studies have relied heavily on life history approaches of varying kinds, some of which allow the researcher and their personal story and perspectives to be part of or to focus the research study.

My reading of Patton (2002) helped me to realise that my own story is relevant to my research; my reading of these texts is showing me that not only is my story relevant but it is an integral part of the research I want to undertake.

In reading Miller (2007), I was interested to see reference made to the first sociological text I ever read, though I did not recognise it as such at the time. Richard Hoggart’s “The Uses of Literacy” was recommended to me by one of my sixth form teachers at about the time I decided not to continue directly from school into HE, but to take some time out. Also there was Brian Jackson and Dennis Marsden’s “Education and the Working Class” which I stumbled across as an undergraduate and began to understand something of the role education had played in my extended family – my grandfather was a skilled craftsman (a tailor), my father went to the grammar school but had to leave early to help support the family financially and then gained his degree through ‘night school’ and became (eventually) a headteacher but always considered himself working class, and my brother and I both grew up with the expectation that we would go to university. One of my father’s brothers followed a similar route and another brother passed various Civil Service exams to gain a senior post, but his other brother led a varied but interesting life as a butcher, betting shop manager, delivery driver while his sister remained at home until late middle-life to look after her father and whichever siblings still occupied the family home, earning some income from casual work and cleaning jobs.

Growing up in the 1960s and working in social and community work during the 70s and 80s, I was inevitably aware of, and influenced by, feminism and later by the disability movement and race awareness. What I had not realised was the influence of those movements, particularly feminism, on developments in sociology, though I was well aware of the affect on public policy. The reading I have been doing raises both the positive and the problematic of including oneself in a research study.

The issues, identified by Stanley (1993), are those of:

  • Self/other – it is impossible for me to tell my story without also telling the stories of some others who may or may not have consented to their story being shared;
  • Public/private – most textual material, even if written ostensibly as personal reflections and accounts as in a diary, also assumes an audience, whether that audience is external or an aspect of myself (“self who writes”, “self who was” and “self who is”. This assumption of an audience takes away distinctions between different forms of life writing;
  • Immediacy/memory – although there is an assumption that some forms of life writing such as diaries are equivalent to reportage, in reality writers apply filters which select what is written about and offer their own interpretations of events and actions. Although there is a tendency to differentiate between written accounts which are true because they were written at the time of the event and those which are less likely to be as factual because they are written from memory, all life accounts raise the issue of what is ‘true’ in an absolute sense, but also serve to contextualise and situate what is written about.

My reading of Patton (2002) helped me to realise that my own story is relevant to my research; my reading of these texts is showing me that not only is my story relevant but it is an integral part of the research I want to undertake.

When I started these blogs and was looking for a name for the site, I recognised that I was going on a journey. The more I read and the more I think, the more I am aware of the twists and turns of that journey and the unexpected encounters on route. The goal is still there, but quite often the journey feels as though it may hold far more meaning than achieving the goal!

Harrison, B., & Lyon, E. S. (1993). A note on ethical issues in the use of autobiography in sociological research. Sociology, 27(1), 101-109.
Merrill, B., & West, L. (2009). Using Biographical Methods in Social Research. London: Sage.
Miller, N. (2007). Developing an auto/biographical imagination. In L. West, P. Alheit, A. S. Andersen & B. Merrill (Eds.), Using Biographical and Life History Approaches in the Study of Adult and Lifelong Learning: European Perspectives (pp. 167-186). Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.
Patton, M. Q. (2002). Qualitative research and evaluation methods (Third ed.): Sage Publications.
Stanley, L. (1993). On auto/biography in sociology. Sociology, 27(1), 41-52.
West, L., Alheit, P., Andersen, A. S., & Merrill, B. (Eds.). (2007). Using Biographical and Life History Approaches in the Study of Adult and Lifelong Learning: European Perspectives. Frankfurt am Main: Peter Lang.

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