Biography 25.4 (2002) 682-684
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It wasn't so long ago that a course in life history was a new idea. Happily hired by the University of Sussex to help teach such a one in 1998, I struggled to find a text book that could encompass and unify its several strands: Oral History, Working with Life History Documents, Reminiscence, Autobiography, and Multimedia Life Histories. Ken Plummer's Documents of Life was lovely but old and out of print, as was Daniel Bertaux's pioneering Biography and Society. Julia Swindells's edited collectionThe Uses of Autobiography was interesting but not really a text book. Laura Marcus's Auto/Biographical Discourses was both too academic and too literary, dazzling though it was. The many handbooks on qualitative research such as those by Norman K. Denzin and Y. S. Lincoln, or indeed Denzin's Interpretive Biography were too sociological and too practical in focus.
It is a sign of the establishment of life history as a field that a text book that would suit such interdisciplinary undergraduate courses has now arrived in the form of Brian Roberts's Biographical Research. With an impressive, though admittedly rather too unwavering efficiency, it tours through what he defines as "a broad and developing area of study—the collection and interpretation of 'personal' or 'human' documents,'" also described as "the study of individuals." After amplifying this definition, Roberts provides a framing chapter appropriately foregrounding "the uses of biographical research." These uses, he says, are to learn how people make meaning from and in their [End Page 682] lives, and the process of biographical research is itself often a good example of how this happens. This quest to understand everyday understanding is mapped through the histories of various disciplines, from sociology's love-hate attitude, to anthropology's much more consistent interest in individual stories, to literature's natural affinity with the narrative elements this has involved. A more concrete example of uses is given with the case study of education, including biographical studies of schooling experience, teachers' careers and lives, the acquisition of pedagogical knowledge, and adult learning.
The book is subsequently organized as an interweaving of discussions of genre, discipline, and theme. Chapter 3 treats "The life history" and debates over qualitative research. Chapter 4, on "Autobiography and biography," shifts towards more literary references, with a good introduction to genre as a term of analysis, and a case study of ways in which Charles Dickens's life has been written. Chapter 5, "Auto/biography and sociology," traces the rise of interest in the discipline from a mainly British perspective, covering feminist influence, the relationship between written and oral texts, time perspectives, and the auto/biographical role of the researcher. Chapter 6 summarizes the field of oral history, while Chapter 7 lays out "the narrative analysis of lives," with some useful ideas on how scientists have come to terms with this methodologically. Chapter 8 on "memory and autobiography" shows Roberts's sociological background, as he ignores psychoanalysis but foregrounds cognitive psychology. Chapter 9 on ethnography concludes the review, once again telling a tale of the emergence of "auto" from "bio." Distinctions between "life history," "life span," "life plan," "life review," and "life time," both as terms and as approaches, are typical of Roberts's descriptive rather than analytical approach, as is his glossary and snapshot summaries of key texts in the field provided in boxes set apart from the main script throughout.
In this array of examples of previous academic studies you do not get methodological tips spelled out, nor detailed case histories. What you do get is a very clear sense of the academic questions that have recurred. These concern representativity—both in relation to reliability and validity; the relation of individuals to social context, especially in the fragmenting contemporary world; the assessment of individual agency; whether and how narrative is essential to identity; the relationship between individual and collective time and memory; and, perhaps most prominently, the peculiar...