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Reviewed by:
  • Biography, Gender and History: Nordic Perspectives ed. by Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir et al.
  • Hannah Yoken (bio)
Erla Hulda Halldórsdóttir, Tiina Kinnunen, Maarit Leskelä-Kärki, and Birgitte Possing, editors. Biography, Gender and History: Nordic Perspectives, K&H 2016, 274 pp. ISBN 978-9512966776, €25.00.

As the title Biography, Gender and History: Nordic Perspectives makes clear, this volume triangulates three central themes—biography, history, and gender—and discusses them using case studies from across the Nordic region. The primary objective of the book is to strengthen the relationship between history and biography by utilizing biography as a method of historical analysis. The book is divided into four thematic sections: genre, gender, context, and relations. Despite the focus of the book being on case studies from the Nordic region, there is nothing explicitly Nordic in the theoretical and methodological scope presented in this collection. As articulated in the introduction, to talk of a biographical turn in the Nordic countries and beyond might be too stark, since there is a long tradition here of historical biography. However, what this collection does is approach biography from a critical point of [End Page 416] view. In its chapters this book problematizes and rethinks a multitude of aspects relating to biographical approaches to writing history, from the sources used to the theories applied.

This book is of practical utility to researchers working on or considering working on historical approaches to biography or biographical approaches to history. What is refreshing about this interdisciplinary collection is the transparency with which researchers from various backgrounds discuss the methodological challenges they have faced while doing biographical research and the source-related resolutions that they have needed to make. For example, several chapters explore the trials of using sources that detail the lives of specific individuals without the input of the individuals themselves in the construction of these documents. To demonstrate this challenge, Irene Andersson discusses in her chapter on the Swedish Communist Valborg Svensson the use of surveillance information and how this type of information fits into a wider discursive network of primary sources. Another chapter by Kaisa Vehkalahti details the development of Finnish child welfare documents and how these sources produced life stories for administrative purposes.

A second practical yet highly valuable insight stressed in this volume is how biography draws attention to and challenges the conventional structures of historiography. In her chapter on feminists Alexandra Gripenberg and Ellen Key, Tiina Kinnunen walks the reader through the challenges and benefits of narrating two lives in parallel by employing the concept "fighting sisters." Another related example is provided by Birgitte Possing, who discusses her rationale for structuring the biography of Danish politician Bodil Koch as a nonchronological, thematically driven narrative, while omitting heavy theoretical and methodological discussions from her book to make it accessible for a wider audience. Thus, what is being narrated in this collection is how historical research into the biographies of individuals has been conducted, as much as the biographies themselves. At times, this focus inevitably leads to methodological considerations and theoretical postulations overtaking and eclipsing the biographical material and life stories presented. However, the book is rich in suggested reading, with case studies often stemming from fuller biographical projects upon which these more methodological essays are based.

While this collection does not focus on or offer novel revelations concerning the ethical dimensions of biographical research, it highlights some interesting approaches, most notably by suggesting we pay further attention to the relationship between the narrator and the individual being narrated. As Maarit Leskelä-Kärki concisely posits, researchers bring their own selves and life experiences into their research, whether knowingly or unconsciously, and there is a balance to be reached between getting too involved with [End Page 417] and remaining too distant from the individual being researched. While not at the forefront of the analysis provided, Leskelä-Kärki extends processes of relationality to also encompass the relationship between author and reader. Though this proposition is not explored in depth in the book, it leads to important questions surrounding the extent to which writing by historians should be approachable and accessible to wider audiences. Biography, which as a genre...


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pp. 416-420
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