- Using Biographical Methods in Social Research
Selecting a qualitative methodology for a research project is not for the faint of heart. Graduate students and seasoned researchers alike often scour the library stacks and on-line journal indexes in an attempt to locate just the right methodology for their inquiry. Part of the decision-making often lies in how well the authors provide a clear, detailed, and engaging description of the process. Do they locate the methodology in an historical context that helps readers understand how it is similar and different to related approaches? Are the epistemological and theoretical underpinnings discussed as a way of providing a clear map of the research process? Can a new researcher follow the detailed instructions of how to conduct the research from beginning to end? In other words, how well do the authors tell a coherent story about the method that provides a strong theoretical and practical foundation from which to work?
The first half of this book provides a good discussion of the background of the method, the context in which it has developed, and the theoretical orientations the authors use. Based on their own fields of expertise in sociology and psychology, Merrill and West share their personal and professional experiences as a way of engaging the reader in meaningful learning about biographical research, which they describe as a way of "connecting disparate social phenomena and personal experience and weaving understanding between them in new and sometimes surprising ways" (2). The authors highlight the importance of developing connections between the personal stories of our (participants') lives and the research phenomenon under investigation. By better understanding individual biographies of people in relation to the larger sociocultural matrix of society, we see how particular stories help us pay attention to being human in this world, and how being human in this world makes us pay attention to individual stories.
Chapter 2 leads the reader through a concise historical overview of the biographical method. Given that many students in the social sciences often find the histories of their respective fields and methods to be uninteresting and irrelevant, the authors provide an important timeline of significant influences that open a window of understanding on the method's development. As a way of keeping the reader engaged as they outline these historical moments, they intersperse snippets of auto/biographical case studies that exemplify the research of a given period. In discussing the work pioneered at the Chicago School of Sociology, they provide a case study of a biography published in 1930 about an adolescent named Stanley who, at the age of 14, had [End Page 406] a criminal record. The evocative piece of autobiographical writing shows how the personal is interconnected with the social phenomenon under investigation, namely "how crime is learned, the impact of life in a city and the role of labeling theory in shaping a career of crime" (25).
Chapter 3 presents examples of contemporary uses of the biographical method across disciplines. Continuing the theme of interconnections between the individual and society, the authors discuss the importance of addressing the sociocultural and political by explaining that the biographical method highlights the "interplay between culture, power and available narrative resources, on the one hand, and individual lives and struggles for voice and story, on the other" (39). Case studies deepen the understanding of this link by explicitly examining the complexities of issues such as truth and reconciliation in South Africa, the experiences of immigrant women on giving and receiving care, and preschool programs aimed at families living in low socioeconomic realities. Throughout this chapter, the authors skillfully paint a picture of the interdisciplinary nature of the biographical method and the importance of using the colors, shades, and nuances of other fields to create the most vibrant images. They also begin to link issues of power, privilege, and oppression with individual stories of inequality based on gender, ethnicity, and social class.
Merrill and West begin Chapter 4 with a cogent rationale for why researchers require a theoretical underpinning for their...