Biography 25.4 (2002) 684-685
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This edited volume has two parts. The first part is a series of essays by Gary Knowles, an education professor at the University of Toronto, on the methods of "life history" research. The second part is a collection of thirteen brief memoirs of life history research by various authors, most of whom are health-care professionals or teacher-educators. The common thread is that they ask their patients and subjects to recount their autobiographies as part of their therapy or instruction. This is what is meant by "life history."
Life history is defined by Knowles as "a critical epistemological construct illuminating the intersection of human experience and social context" (9). This would appear to be quite similar to biography, but Knowles sees it differently. He writes that life historians are especially sensitive to the relationship between themselves and their topics, subjects, and representations. Life history "draws on individuals' experiences to make broader contextual meaning" (19-20). Again, how is this different from biography, or from a medical professional taking a case history? Is it not the duty of all researchers to place individual lives in context?
What appears to make Knowles different is that he rejects "any claims of researcher 'objectivity' in the study of human lives." He claims that the scientific method has led social scientists to produce studies that are "rigid, linear, and formulaic" (10). By contrast, life historians use an "arts-informed" approach to convey "a representation of human experience" (10). Biographers will ask, "Doesn't all good biography do these things?"
Knowles re-invents the wheel in a number of ways. He appears to be unaware that historians and biographers have been debating objectivity and subjectivity since the days of Herodotus and Thucydides. More recent studies [End Page 684] of the "objectivity question," such asThat Noble Dreamby Peter Novick andTelling the Truth about Historyby Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt, and Margaret Jacob are neglected, as are classic works about oral history methodology, like Jan Vansina's Oral Tradition as History.
It is hard to fault Knowles for not doing his homework. He is an education professor and an artist, not a professional biographer, and he has apparently not had any exposure to historical methodology. Readers of this journal will applaud him because he wants to be sensitive to context and subjectivity. And yet most readers of this journal will also be underwhelmed by insights such as "Institutional forces are powerful" and "Context is all-powerful" (23). When it comes to institutions and context, Knowles makes no effort to complicate his ideas by engaging the voluminous work of previous scholars.
The same methodological naivete is found in the essays that comprise the second part of the book. The contributors are sympathetic—they range from nurses who use life histories to learn about terminally ill patients, to educators who work with Native Americans and the learning-disabled. The case studies are compelling, but they shed sparse light on problems in biographical or historical methodology.
The book's artlessness can be excused because the authors appear to be novices. There are times, though, when a thoughtful person like Knowles really should know better. On page 119, he writes "If we accept the premise that all memory is selective, a reconstruction or perhaps a creation of mind and, therefore, a fiction, then we should assume that the remembrances selected and told earn their status as memorable and significant events for good reason." Historical memory may be selective, but that does not mean it is a fiction.
This book is instructive in a number of ways. It shows how easy it is to begin a journey across disciplines with the best of intentions, only to wander into a methodological minefield. The book also shows how debates about biographical and historical methodology, which are so important to...