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The “narrative turn”

One of the things I have been puzzling over during the last month has been the apparent need for those involved in the use of biographical methods to defend their methodology in a way I have not observed with other authors. A couple of examples are pages 7-8 of Denzin and Lincoln’s “Handbook of Qualitative Research” with sections on Resistance to Qualitative Studies and Qualitative versus Quantitative Research and Chapter 10 in Merrill and West (2009) Is Biographical Research Valid and Ethical.

Both Merrill and West and Chamberlayne (2000) give a clear account of the historic development of the use of biography in sociological methodology over the past century or so. There is clear evidence of the use of narrative in the form of documents from the earliest days of sociological methods. Biographical methods first started to become significant during the inter-war period with the development of the Chicago School of Sociology and the publication of Thomas and Znaniecki’s “The Polish Peasant” and Shaw’s “The Jack the Roller”. People’s stories continue to be important in many texts published in the 1950s and early 1960’s, including Willmott and Young’s work on life in the East End of London and the subsequent move to suburbia, Townsend’s study of the family life of old people, Hoggart’s “The Uses of Literacy” and Jackson and Marsden’s semi- autobiographical account of education and the working classes. By the time I became an undergraduate in 1969, these texts tended to be considered light reading and the emphasis was on a more theoretical and scientific approach, perhaps in order to ensure the academic respectability of disciplines which were beginning to become popular with students, especially in the so-called ‘new universities’. The texts I was aware of as a student was work by Marx, Weber, Durkheim and Comte.

The late 70s and early 80s saw a new emergence of story telling with two distinct roots. One was the growth of the oral history movement. From my recollections, this had two elements. One seemed to relate to the growth in race awareness, especially following the racial disturbances in a number of major cities in the early 1980’s and the felt need to capture the stories of black people to provide younger black people with their own history distinct from that of the white population. The other, related element, was an attempt to develop connections between young and old with school students recording the stories of their elders. In time, the therapeutic benefits of story telling amongst older people were to become apparent. The other root was the burgeoning women’s movement and the development of a feminist sociology which aimed to give voice and substance to the women as well as men.

By the 1990’s, not only was story telling becoming a recognised and accepted part of the sociological cannon, but it was beginning to be challenged. Atkinson, writing in 1997, suggested that personal stories and narratives were being privileged inappropriately, and critiqued other writers, namely Arthur Frank, Elliot Mishler and Arthur Kleinman for their approaches to the use of personal narratives. These authors, together with Arthur Bochner, have challenged Atkinson’s views, leading to what Thomas, writing in 2010, refers to as an ongoing debate.

Thomas usefully summarises Atkinson’s argument and that of his critics, before expressing her own standpoint which recognises both the objective and subjective nature of sociological research, especially in a field such as her own which focuses on cancer patients. She usefully distinguishes the objective medical account from the patient experience and suggests that both have an authenticity and validity. As usefully, Thomas’s article is followed by responses by Atkinson, Bochner and Frank. Perhaps the most important message for me is the recognition that each of the authors is an acknowledged expert and each has a distinct position on the use of personal narrative in sociological research. It is not that one is right and the others wrong, but that all have a contribution to make in our better understanding of how people live in society. In this context, the advice of Merrill and West to experiment with different approaches and methodologies and to find one which fits makes perfectly good sense. It is not a case of trying to emulate a particular practitioner or adopt a specific methodology, but of identifying an approach which makes methodological and actual sense in a given context.

Atkinson, P. (1997). Narrative turn or blind alley? Qualitative Health Research, 7(3), 325-344.
Chamberlayne, P., Bornat, J., & Wengraf, T. (Eds.). (2000). The turn to biographical methods in social science. London: Routledge.
Denzin, N. K., & Lincoln, Y. S. (Eds.). (2000). Handbook of Qualitative Research (Second ed.). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Hoggart, R. (1957). The Uses of Literacy. London: Chatto & Windus.
Jackson, B., & Marsden, D. (1986). Education and the working class: Taylor & Francis.
Merrill, B., & West, L. (2009). Using Biographical Methods in Social Research. London: Sage.
Thomas, C. (2010). Negotiating the contested terrain of narrative methods in illness contexts. Sociology of Health & Illness, 32(4), 647-660.
Townsend, P. (1957). The family life of old people: An inquiry in East London: Routledge.
Willmott, P., & Young, M. (1960). Family and Class in a London Suburb. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.
Young, M., & Willmott, P. (1986). Family and kinship in East London. London: Taylor and Francis.

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