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Auto/Biographies and Life Histories1

Pat Sikes, 2006

As each year passes, biographical and autobiographical approaches
(auto/biographical because the distinction is often unclear see Stanley, 1992) are
increasingly used in the social sciences generally and in educational research in
particular. Some writers have claimed that the endeavour to understand social life
has taken a narrative, auto/biographical turn and that this turn has fundamental
implications for all aspects of the research process, and for how we make sense of
the world. Within the space available here, I can do no more than give you a
tantalisingly brief and basic Cooks Tour type of introduction to what is a fascinating
area. My aim is to whet your appetite to go away and read further and also, maybe, to
undertake your own Life History study of your own educational and research career.
Thus we will explore:

What is auto/biographical research?

A brief history of Life History research

Why use Life History in educational research?

Doing Life History

A framework for a personal Life History

See also:


Points to reflect on

Suggested further reading


What is auto/biographical research?

A variety of particular approaches come under the heading of auto/biographical
research. Norman Denzin gives some idea of just how wide the field is when he notes
that it encompasses:
life, self, experience, epiphany, case, autobiography, ethnography, auto1 Tomado de http://www.edu.plymouth.ac.uk/resined/narrative/autobiographiesfinal.htm

ethnography, biography, ethnography story, discourse, narrative, narrator,

fiction, history, personal history, oral history, case history, case study, writing
presence, difference, life history, life story, and personal experience story.
(1989, p. 27)
To that list might also be added testimonio, performance ethnography, participatory
action research, confessional tales, socio-poetics, collective autobiography, diary
research and there are more, each with its own distinctive characteristics, intentions
and rationale.
Essentially though, and as we are using the term here, auto/biographical research is
research that starts from and focuses on the personal and subjective perceptions and
experiences of individual people. Where it goes next and what forms it then takes
depends on the particular variant being employed. Our concern here is with
auto/biographical approaches that locate the individual in the wider social, cultural
and historical contexts they inhabit, and which use sociological or psychological
theory as interpretational and explanatory tools. Life history, the form of
auto/biographical research that is our especial focus follows this general pattern.
Writing about life history work with teachers, Ivor Goodson emphasises that, the
crucial focus for life history work is to locate the teachers own life story alongside a
broader contextual analysis, to tell in Stenhouses words a story of action within a
theory of context. The distinction between the life story and the life history is
therefore absolutely basic. The life story is the story we tell about our life The life
history is the life story located within its historical context. (1992, p. 6)
The fundamental assumption that underlies life history is that lives are not, cannot be,
lived in isolation either from other people or from social, cultural, historical and natural
events, movements, trends, and values in the world at large. Karl Marxs much
quoted comment is pertinent here:
Men make their own history, but they do not make it just as the please; they
do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under
circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past
(1969 {1845}, p. 389)
Thus, whilst we might have some say over the things that happen to us it is difficult, if
not impossible, to totally escape the influence of our own personal histories and the
histories that have shaped the societies in which we live. In order to understand this,
C. Wright Mills advocated the use of the sociological imagination (1959) to connect
the private and personal to the public and social: life historians fully embrace this
With its initial focus unequivocally being on subjective knowledge, interpretations and
understandings, auto/biographical research is clearly qualitative. However, it may be
employed within projects alongside quantitative methods. For instance, a statistically
based study that looked at rates of recruitment to, retention in, and attrition from,
teaching could be all the richer and maybe even more explanatory, meaningful and

accessible if life histories of teachers falling into each of the categories were to be
As well as being used to investigate substantive topics, auto/biographical approaches
can also become key research foci in their own right. When this happens the
methodology and method are, in a sense, turned back on themselves with the
research process and the researcher/s becoming a, if not the, subject of the
investigation. This shift in attention can be linked to what Denzin and Lincoln refer to
as a triple crisis of representation, legitimation and praxis (that, since the mid-1980s)
confronts qualitative researchers in the human disciplines (2000, p. 17). Put very
simply, the influence of ideas arising from post-modernism and post-structuralism,
which emphasise that there are multiple realities and that experience of the world
depends, crucially, upon how a person is socially positioned, have meant that many
researchers have felt a need to explicitly reflect on and be reflexive about their own
part in the research process. Very many research accounts, regardless of the
methodologies and methods they use, now contain at least some reference to issues
concerning how the researchers biography, their positionality, might have implications
for all aspects of their involvement in a specific project, from their initial decision to
study a particular topic through to their analysis and how they write up their work. In
some cases though, notably in auto-ethnographic work, the researcher researches
their own experience of a particular aspect of life such as, illness, their first year in a
particular job, bereavement, being a researcher, implementing a curriculum or using a
new teaching strategy and so on (for detailed discussion of auto-ethnography see
Ellis & Bochner, 1996 and 2000; Richardson, 1997).
A brief history of Life History research
Although, as we noted at the start, auto/biographical research approaches continue to
gain in popularity, a glance at their histories shows that this is more in the nature of a
renaissance than a new departure.
Wilhelm Dilthey, a German philosopher active in the nineteenth century, is usually
credited with recognising the significance of life histories for making sense of human
experience and social life. It was, however, the monumental work of W.I. Thomas and
Florian Znaniecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America published between
1918 and 1920, which unstintingly made a case for life history:
In analysing the experiences and attitudes of an individual, we always reach
data and elementary facts which are exclusively limited to this individuals
personality, but can be treated as mere incidences of more or less general
classes of data or facts, and can thus be used for the determination of laws
of social becoming. Whether we draw our materials for sociological analysis
from detailed life records of concrete individuals or from the observation of
mass phenomena, the problems of sociological analysis are the same. But
even when we are searching for abstract laws, life records, as complete as
possible, constitute the perfect type of sociological material, and if social
science has to use other materials at all it is only because of the practical

difficulty of obtaining at the moment a sufficient number of such records to

cover the totality of sociological problems, and of the enormous amount of
work demanded for an adequate analysis of all the personal materials
necessary to characterise the life of a social group. If we are forced to use
mass phenomena as material, or any kind of happenings taken without
regard to the life histories of the individuals who participated, it is a defect,
not an advantage, of our present sociological method. (1918 1920 pp.
Following on from this, the life history work undertaken by members of the University
of Chicago School of Sociology laid a solid foundation, maybe could even be said to
have created a canon, for the approach. Studies such as The Gold Coast and The
Slum (Zorbaugh, 1929), The Jack-Roller (Shaw, 1930), and The Professional Thief
(Cornwell and Sutherland, 1937) published during life historys peak years, are now
regarded as classics. However, as Ken Plummer points out (2001, p.x), the roots of
life history do not lie solely in Chicago. For example, slave narratives from the
eighteenth century onwards (e.g. Frederick Douglas (1855) My Bondage and My
Freedom), life stories presented in nineteenth century studies of poverty and working
class experience (e.g. Henry Mayhews (1851) London Labour and the London Poor),
accounts of womens lives used for feminist agendas (e.g. the eighteenth century
writings of Mary Wollstonecraft and the autobiography of Francis Place who lived
between 1771 and 1854), all have contributed to attempts to understand both the
experiences and perspectives of particular individuals in society and society through
their experiences and perceptions.
On the whole, the people whose life histories (and her stories as some feminists
insist) have been presented by social scientists have tended to be people with
relatively little social power, often those who are marginalized in some way and/or
who may be considered deviant. There are various reasons as to why this is the
case, including some which are ethically dubious such as it being easier to do
research with people who lack power and because there is often a voyeuristic interest
in the exotic and different. On the other hand, researchers who use auto/biographical
approaches, and life historians particularly, may well be doing so because they have
a political commitment to give voice to and name, silenced and hidden lives. Whilst
the notion of emancipatory or empowering research is problematic, raising as it does
questions around the power of the researcher vis a vis their informants (see Fine et al
2000; Troyna, 1994), looking at lives from the point of view of the people living them
forces a confrontation with alternative subjective perceptions and, as Becker put it in
commenting on The Jack Roller, offers the possibility to begin to ask questions about
delinquency from the point of view of the delinquent (1970, p.71). Doing this could
provoke a questioning of orthodoxies as it might lead us to begin to understand why
individual people faced with certain combinations of social and personal experiences
take particular decisions and act in the ways that they do.
Being An Excluded Pupil

Life history research with pupils who have been excluded from mainstream
schools and given a place in a Pupil Referral Unit (PRU) shows how some
young people find it difficult to conform to the sorts of rules and constraints
that are common in secondary schools. Many of these students are
concerned to obtain qualifications and go on to further and/or higher
education. Attending a PRU does, in some cases and ironically, ultimately
lead to the educational inclusion of some students. See Molinari, V. (2003)
Being Excluded: A Case Study of a Pupil Referral Unit Unpublished EdD
thesis, University of Sussex

Life historys focus on the individual and the consequences of differential social
positioning clearly accords with post-modern and post-structural sensibilities and
understandings regarding multiple realities and subjectivities, which goes some way
to explain its increasingly common usage. Auto/biographical research fits the
preoccupations of the present age as it no longer did when it went out of favour in the
1940s when statistical methods, large scale survey research and an emphasis on
situation and the development of abstract theory became dominant within sociology.
This dominance did not come about because these approaches, methods and
concerns were necessarily superior but because it is more likely that, as Flyvberg
suggests, style changes are what characterize social science: it is not a case of
evolution but more of fashion (2001, p. 30). All methodologies and methods have
their own life histories (or genealogies in Foucaults conceptualisation), worthy of
study in their own right, which have influenced the forms they take, and how, where,
why and by whom they have been used. Having some basic awareness of the
antecedents of any particular approach may help potential users make a more
informed choice about its appropriateness for their specific research endeavour.
Why use Life History in educational research?
In understanding something so intensely personal as teaching, it is critical
we know about the person the teacher is (Goodson, 1981, p. 69)
I have found when seeking to explain why something happened in a
classroom, increasingly the road to understanding takes a biographical turn,
not a detour.. (Bullough, 1998, p. 19)
Both of these quotes give some insight into why life history has come to be so popular
for studying a wide range of topics to do with education and schooling. Teaching is an
intensely personal, interactive, relationship-based activity. At the same time,
educational establishments and the schooling process are public institutions, charged
with serving society and meeting social needs and purposes through the nature and
content of what they teach in both the formal and the hidden curricula. Robert
Bullough commented that, the public and private cannot be so easily separated in
teaching.. the person comes through when teaching (1998, pp 20 21). Whilst in
that specific quote, the person is the teacher, it could equally refer to the student or

anybody else who may be involved, such as a classroom assistant or an educational

psychologist. Teacher, student, and contexts all interact, inextricably melding personal
and public, with any outcomes being the result of the mix. This is well recognised and
over the years there have been various attempts to produce curricula and pedagogies
that are, to a greater or lesser extent, teacher proof. Policies and practices, systems
and structures have also been designed with a view to reducing the various social
and personal disadvantages that some students are perceived to come to their
education with. For instance, in recent years in England and Wales, the National
Curriculum, the Literacy and Numeracy Hours and the Baseline and Standard
Assessment Tests can be considered as examples of such strategies. On the whole,
the success of any move to minimise the personal has tended to be limited. Life
history research can help to shed light on why this is by taking an holistic view and
investigating how teacher and student beliefs, values and understandings, which are
largely a product of personal and social histories influence how teachers interpret,
mediate and realise what goes on in educational institutions AND how students
experience and make sense of it.
In retrospect and in the UK, the publication in 1985 of two books (Ball & Goodson
(Eds), 1985: Sikes, Measor & Woods, 1985), both reporting research that used life
history can be seen to have sparked off the interest in (or fashion for) the
methodology in the field of education. Much subsequent work has focussed on
teachers perceptions and experiences of different aspects of their professional life
with the explicit recognition that lives are not hermetically compartmentalised into
professional selves and personal selves, and that what happens in one area of life
potentially impacts upon and has implications for other areas too. Studies have
variously looked at:

why people become teachers;

initial teacher

the concerns and preoccupations of teachers of different ages;

the experiences of women, black, gay and lesbian and differently abled

how teachers own experiences of school and teachers can have significant
influence on their own professional attitudes and practices;

how religious faith can influence teacher perceptions, experiences and


the motivations, beliefs and values of teachers of different subjects;

the experiences of teachers working with different age phases and in different







teachers working in middle and senior management;

how becoming a parent can impact on professional perceptions and practice;

at parent teachers who have children with special educational needs;

how teachers perceive, experience and enact imposed curricular, pedagogical

and organisational changes;

the ways in which the biographies of teachers have influenced the

development and nature of particular subjects, areas of the curriculum,
pedagogies, pastoral practice, organisation and cultural values in individual
schools and more widely.

These studies have shown how personal and social histories influence the ways in
which teachers perceive and make sense of their work, affecting their beliefs and
values, the ways in which they teach, how they view the content they teach and the
interpretation they put on that content, and how they relate to students and
colleagues. At the same time, the influence being a teacher has on life outside of
school, on relationships with family and friends and within the community is also
Parents Who Teach
Having had a child, Pat Sikes became aware that her attitudes, beliefs and
values as a teacher underwent a radical change. She was interested in
finding out whether other parents who teach were similarly affected and
consequently set up a life history research project which focused on
teachers perceptions of the ways in which parenthood had influenced all
aspects of their professional lives. This work is reported in:
Sikes, P. (1997) Parents Who Teach: Stories From Home and From School
London, Cassell

As well as yielding information that can further understanding of aspects of education

and schooling, life history has considerable potential as a strategy for personal and
professional development, helping teachers, and other educational professionals, at
all stages of their career to reflect critically on their beliefs and practices leading to
informed development and change (see Goodson & Sikes, 2001, pp72 73 for a
summary of work of this kind).
Whilst a great deal of life history research has focused on teachers, the approach has
also been used to investigate the perceptions and experiences of students. Thus
there have been studies of the educational experiences of girls, working class, ethnic
minority, lesbian and gay students, underachieving boys, students with various

learning difficulties or with special needs, teenage mothers, students excluded from
mainstream schools, college drop outs, refugees/asylum seekers and so on.
Although the focus has often been on students who are considered to lack social
power or who are, in some way marginalized, life historians have also turned their
attention to those whose educational careers are successful, with studies of doctoral
students, medical students, and high achievers.
There is a lot to be learned from investigations of how students experience school
that could be used to inform policy and practice. For instance, a study that used life
history to explore the inclusion in mainstream schools of students with various kinds
of special need could yield information that other approaches would not provide:
information that could help individual schools, parents and teachers plan and work
more effectively in this area and information that could inform local and national
Life history provides a depth and richness of information and insight that other
methodologies cannot. It also produces research writing that is interesting,
meaningful and accessible. This is important because it is in their potential to make
imaginative contact with readers (see Goodson & Sikes, 2001, p. 50) that much of
the power of life history lies. Life history can move people. As we suggested earlier,
accounts that make it explicit that research subjects are people with lives and
feelings just as we are, can bring us to new and critical understandings and lead us to
question taken for granted assumptions. Shared humanity is a good basis for social
Doing Life History
This section deals with some of the practicalities of doing life history with the caveat
that it should not be read as a blue-print or as a recipe for the approach. We do not
believe that there is only one, proper way of doing life history research. Different
projects will have unique features and requirements and each researcher is likely to
have their own personal style and a unique emotional engagement with any particular
project. Indeed, the extent to which life history methodology is individualistic and
personal, relying as it does on intensely idiosyncratic personal dynamics (Sikes,
Troyna & Goodson, 1996, p. 43) is a defining characteristic of the approach. This
does mean though, that it is a methodology that cannot easily be taught because...
personal dynamics are themselves unpackagable (ibid, p. 44). It is essential that life
historians are able to establish easy and trusting relationships with their informants
and that they are interested in listening to the stories these people have to tell. This is
definitely not a methodology for the acutely shy, diffident, or misanthropic!
Choosing Life History
The key reason for using any research method has to be that it is the most
appropriate one, the one most likely to produce data which addresses, answers or
otherwise meets and fulfils the questions, aims and purposes of a specific enquiry. Of
course, the sorts of questions researchers ask depend upon their personal ontological

and epistemological positioning, upon how they view the nature of the social world
and the nature of knowledge. As we have seen, life historians value subjective
perceptions, experiences and accounts; they take an holistic view, locating the
individual within the social contexts they inhabit presently and have inhabited in the
past. Thus, the general type of questions they are likely to be seeking answers to
include: What is your story? What do you consider to have influenced your beliefs,
values, understandings and actions? Why has your life taken this particular course?
How have you come to have a particular philosophy of education? Why do you teach
in the way that you do? What were the consequences for you of being: a girl/boy,
working class/middle class, a member of your ethnic, religious or denominational
group, heterosexual/lesbian or gay or of belonging to your particular family, living in
a particular part of the country at a specific historical time, attending a particular type
of school, having particular abilities or disabilities and so on. If the questions that
are being asked are more of the who, where, how many and what kind varieties, then
choosing life history could well be unnecessary and uneconomic in terms of the time
and effort and resources it requires. Life history can, of course, be used in
combination with other methodologies and methods if this seems appropriate.
Research Populations
Sample size
Research samples for life history research are usually relatively small. As we have
noted, interviewing, transcription and analysis are time consuming and expensive
activities. Regardless of economic considerations though, life historians usually,
although not inevitably, use life history because they take a particular ontological and
epistemological position which values the subjective and idiographic. Their aim is not
to make to make the sorts of nomothetic generalisations that need to be based on
findings from a large sample.
It is impossible to state how many informants should be involved in any project. So
much depends on the aims of the research, on the topic, and on what is actually
possible given the resources that are available. Many life histories, including most of
the original, ones, undertaken by members of the Chicago School in the 1920s and
1930s, were of one person and aimed to give detailed insight into a specific
individuals perception and experience of their life. Harry Wolcotts classic, The Man
in the Principals Chair is the obvious example from education. If, however, the aim is
to reveal shared patterns of experience or interpretation within a group of people who
have some characteristic, attribute or experience in common, then ideally sample size
will be adequate when you get saturation or repetition. For instance, if you were
investigating teachers experiences of an imposed change and, your first four
informants talked in terms of feeling deskilled and professionally dissatisfied then you
could have some confidence that these stories taken from the same set of
sociocultural relations support each other and make up, all together, a strong body of
evidence (Bertaux, 1981, p 187)
Sample selection

Life history research rarely involves a random sample of informants. For a start, the
sole aim is seldom to make generalisations and so, therefore, such a group is not
required. Given the nature of the approach, what is necessary is that informants are
articulate and willing to reflect on, and talk about their experiences. They also need to
have knowledge and experience relevant to the topic being researched (Erben, 1998,
p. 5). Consequently, sampling is frequently either one or more of the following types:

purposive: the research is concerned with specific characteristics, attributes

or experiences and informants are included because they meet the criteria;

opportunistic: for example, by chance the researcher meets someone who

volunteers or who is willing to be an informant;

convenience: the researcher has easy access to the informants;

snowball: the researcher works with an informant who tells her of friends or
colleagues who might be interested in participate;

homogeneous: everyone who has a common experience, attribute or

characteristic. This is only likely to occur when the research focuses on a
relatively small group eg a department within a school.

extreme case: when the informants characteristics, attributes or experiences

are strikingly different, or in some other way noteworthy compared to others in
the potential research population.

Pat Sikes (1997) Parents Who Teach: Stories From Home and From School for
instance, made use of all but homogeneous sampling.
As is the case whatever methodologies and methods are used, doing insider research
(that is, doing research in a social context that you yourself are part of) can be a tricky
business. However, when it comes to life history research where people are
frequently talking about very personal matters, the potential sensitivity and
problematical nature of the situation is heightened. As Madeline Grumet puts it, even
telling a (personal) story to a friend is a risky business; the better the friend, the riskier
the business (1991, p. 69). Think very carefully before undertaking a life history study
at work, with friends or family because you can never know what you may find out
and or what the implications of possessing personal knowledge may be.
Negotiating Access and Participation
Having identified potential informants, the next stage is to invite them to take part.
This may seem a relatively straightforward matter but it does raise a number of
questions and issues. Perhaps the most significant of these concerns the research
bargain: that is the understanding between the researcher and the informant about
what the nature of their relationship is and what each can expect from their mutual
participation. Depending on the particular study, participation can involve a serious


commitment on the part of the informant since life history interviewing can take up
many hours. Perhaps the best and most honest policy is simply to explain the nature
of the work, to say that it can stretch over a considerable period and leave it at that,
giving the informant the assurance that they can back out at any time.
Informants also need to be aware that, obvious though it is, involvement in life history
research does mean that that they will be reflecting on, and talking about themselves
and things that have happened to them. There is a clear similarity between personal
counselling and life history interviewing and, depending on the focus of any research
project and how that relates to a particular informants life, there is a possibility that
painful areas and experiences may be touched upon or evoked. For instance, even
talking about the implementation of a curriculum project that a teacher was involved in
at the time when a member of their family was ill could bring back difficult memories.
However, researchers are not counsellors. In the research setting they are collecting
information, not setting out to practice therapy, even if they are qualified so to do.
Both parties need to be clear about this and potential informants be given the chance
to understand the sorts of areas that are likely to be covered so that they can make
an informed choice about participating. Clarity is, therefore, of the essence.
It is a good idea to give informants a written document to which they can refer if
necessary, setting down expectations, rules, clauses etc. If there is to be any
deviation from this initial agreement, then the onus is on the researcher to negotiate
the change.
Information to Life History Informants
A document for Life History informants might cover the following:

confidentiality and anonymity: the researcher should be clear about

who is going to listen to tape recordings, have access to interview
transcripts and other types of data and so on. They should explain how
they are going to disguise, anonymise or otherwise protect the identity
of informants. An approach which often proves popular is giving
people the opportunity to choose their own pseudonym.

anything about work the researcher would like the informant to do,
such as keeping a diary or writing accounts of particular experiences.

ownership of any tapes and/or transcripts.

the informants rights to change, comment on, contribute to analysis

and the eventual presentation of findings.

where and when interviews will take place.

contact numbers and addresses.


Strategies for Collecting Data

A one to one interview-conversation between informant and researcher is perhaps the
most commonly used strategy for collecting life history data. Good inter-personal
relationships are crucial here: researcher and informant need to be able to trust each
other and feel comfortable in each others company. This usually means that the
researcher should be prepared to share their own experiences and perceptions, and
be willing to engage in a reciprocal, rather than a one way, interchange.
Whilst the researcher will have areas that they want to know about, it is probably best
to go for a relatively unstructured, informal, conversation type of encounter. This is
because you can never know just exactly what has been important or influential in
another persons life and it is the case that asking particular questions tends to lead to
particular answers. In other words, being too focused can mean that you miss out on
potentially relevant information. Of course, it can be useful to have a check list of
areas and questions to ensure coverage but this should normally be used as a guide,
rather than as a schedule.
Group Work
For some projects, group work can be a useful strategy. Of course, the success of
such an approach depends upon the dynamics and trust between the various
members of a group. If it is the researcher who is convening the group specifically for
the purposes of their study, then it may be that much remains to chance! If a group is
already constituted as a class, or a department or members of a society etc - then
the researcher needs to be mindful of the dangers of sharing personal information
and also aware that informants may be reluctant to divulge it.
A useful way to start life history research is by inviting respondents to construct a
timeline of key events in their life with, if appropriate, a particular emphasis on those
experiences relate to any focus the project may have. Timelines are helpful in that
they can serve as a prompt to memory and can also be used, if required, as a
structure for interviews. However, there may be occasions when a linear and
chronological approach can have the effect of influencing people to try and fabricate a
coherent and linked account when things were not actually like that. This pressure to
coherence in a life is one that most of us experience. Researchers need to think
through the implications for their specific projects of actively encouraging informants
to story their lives in this manner.
Journals, Diaries and Other Personal Writings
Some life historians make use of journals, diaries and other personal writing and

these can be very valuable. However, asking informants to keep diaries for the
purpose of a project doesnt always work that well because some people take to it
better than others do. It can also be requiring just that bit too much from people who
are already giving of their time and energy. In addition it is the case that personal
writing is an explicitly self-conscious activity perhaps even more so that talking
about oneself. Researchers need to take an interrogative and analytical approach to
any language, oral or written, that they decide to use as data!
Using Documents
Documents of various kinds, including syllabi, prospectuses, school reports, agenda,
memos, letters, publicity material, school magazines, newspaper accounts and
programmes of events, may cast further light on the life or lives being considered.
Researchers may collect these themselves and/or ask informants to bring them along
Working with Life History Data
Recording Data
Good life history interviewing demands careful listening. Researchers need to be able
to listen beyond what is actually said so that they can pick up on clues and pursue
hints to what might be productive lines of inquiry. Having to take detailed notes is, for
most people, something that gets in the way of concentration. Also, unless the
researcher has high level shorthand skills they are unable to be able to take down
what is said verbatim. For these reasons using a tape recorder is strongly
recommended. Inevitably, taping is not fail or fool proof. Technical glinches can occur,
people can speak too softly, background noises can overwhelm, you can run out of
batteries, mislay the mains lead, or even worse, forget to switch on the record button.

There is also the question of the extent to which knowing that they are being recorded
might inhibit informants or make them self-conscious. Tape recording can influence
the nature and content of what is said and sometimes, in the course of a life history
interview informants will ask for the machine to be switched off whilst they say
something sensitive. What the researcher does with that information, and with those
things said before and after recording started is something that has to be considered
carefully. They also need to think about what they will do if an informant does not wish
to be taped. If, as is likely, they go ahead and take notes they must make it clear
when they come to write up that they are not working directly from the informants
Experienced life historians do tend to be of the view that, the benefits of taping
considerably outweigh the drawbacks. However, it is essential to point out that a
recording (audio and video) can only capture what is said. It can only ever be a partial
re-presentation of an interview encounter albeit an extremely valuable one.

Transcription of taped interviews is difficult and time consuming and if the researcher
is paying a transcriber, can be very expensive. Doing your own transcription is a really
good way of getting to know the data intimately and is an aid to analysis in that
repeated listening can alert you to themes and issues. It is not always necessary to
make a full transcription. A summary transcript using key words and phrases with a
note as to where this occurs on the tape (a machine with a counter is essential) can
be more than adequate. Again, making a summary transcript is an analytical activity
in that it involves the researcher in categorising their data right from the start.
The purpose of analysis is to interpret and re-present information in a way that makes
sense and which tells us something about the world. Researchers tell an explanatory
story about the situation they have investigated, usually by presenting data they have
collected within a framework of some kind. This framework may take the form of
classifications, models, typologies, categories, concepts, narratives, cases and so
on, usually held together under a theoretical umbrella. What constitutes a framework
can be variously interpreted and it is up to the researcher to be as explicit as they can
about their particular position and about the analytical methods, processes and
techniques they have used to generate it. Leading on from this, increased awareness
of the role of the researcher in the research process means that more people are
taking the view that the biography of the researcher also needs to be made explicit
because this has a significant influence both on the way they approach analysis and
the analysis they eventually make. For those using life history approaches to study
other peoples lives self reflection and awareness and an explicit acknowledgement of
the researchers voice, would seem to be axiomatic.
Respondent Validation
Life history work tends to be a collaborative venture between researcher and
informant. Both parties frequently play a part in reflecting on the life story and then
locating it in historical and other contexts. Respondent validation refers to the process
of taking theories and interpretations back to informants and asking if they make
sense to them and if they adequately describe and/or account for their experiences
and perceptions. Although respondent validation has been seen as an important test
for qualitative research it is not unproblematic. This is because informants may not
always like the interpretation that is made or, if research is reported in specialist
language or in terms of complex theories, they may not be able to understand it. This
may place the onus on the researcher to make their work accessible but this may not
always be easily done. It may also sometimes be the case that informants want no
other part in the research than to be interviewed and this has to be respected.
It is good practice to seek respondent validation but researchers need to think about
what they would do if informants disagree or ask for alterations. If these are
appropriate, all well and good, but if not then one way forward may be to add a note
to the effect that informants took a different view.


Data Presentation
On a number of occasions we have noted that life history accounts tend to be
interesting, meaningful and accessible to readers. This is largely because of the
subject matter many of us do find other peoples stories fascinating, especially vis a
vis our own experiences but it is also, probably, because most life historians are
consciously writing a narrative account. This shapes the form of their writing. Also life
historians will be talking about everyday life events in everyday language, often
quoting directly from what informants have said. With regard to quoting and editing,
researchers need to be able to explain what they have done and to justify their
actions. Then there is the issue of how far informants words should be left to speak
for themselves and how much commentary and analysis there should be. Of course,
the form presentation takes will depend on the nature of the particular research
project and the audiences for which the presentation is intended. If the work is to be
submitted for a qualification, students need to be certain that they meet official
requirements and criteria and that, if they challenge conventional expectations, they
make a strong case for doing so.
A brief note on ethics
Ethical considerations should be to the forefront in all researchers minds and
permeate all research endeavours. The brevity of our treatment here, with regard to
ethic and auto/biographical research in no way reflects the significance we attach to
the area.
Research per se is an inherently political activity in that it has a bearing on how
human beings make sense of their world. Consequently, because it impacts upon
people, all research potentially involves ethical issues and considerations. The
implications of this, for anyone touched, in any way, by any particular research
project, vary tremendously, from the insignificant to the life altering. Life history work
involves people in a very intimate way, therefore the potential for being affected by it
is all the greater and, therefore, the responsibility of the researcher towards their
informants is considerable at all stages of the research process. At the most
elementary level they need to guard against choosing to study a topic out of simple
or voyeuristic curiosity; they need to be aware that, as we have noted, talking about
any area of life can evoke distressing memories; they need to be careful not to
manipulate relationships with a view to obtaining better data; and they need to be
conscious of the difficulties involved in ensuring confidentiality and anonymity. They
also need to be aware of the patronising and imperialistic overtones associated with
claims that being involved in life history work can be emancipatory and empowering!
Blanket ethical codes, such as those produced by the British Educational Research
Association, the British Sociological Association and the British Psychological Society
are important and useful but we would recommend that the ethical implications of
each specific research project be carefully considered.
For detailed discussion of questions of ethics and power in life history research,


readers are referred to Goodson, I. & Sikes, P. (2001) Life History Research in
Educational Settings: Learning From Lives Buckingham, Open University Press, pp.
89 104.
A Framework for a Personal Life History
As we have said, these days research accounts often include an auto/biographical
section. Understanding the influences that have shaped you as a researcher can be
illuminative and valuable, and even liberatory in that it may make clear that how
particular aspects of your life have worked out were less to do with you and more the
consequence of social positioning or historical events.
If you intend to use life history in a research project it is a good idea to practice on
yourself, maybe on your own or in collaboration with a colleague or fellow student or
researcher. As was suggested earlier you may decide to start with a timeline. This sort
of information this could touch on includes:

Place and date of birth

Family background and history including ethnicity and religious affiliation

Parents occupations and level of formal education; their general character and

Siblings: place and dates of birth; occupations and level of formal education;
their general character and interests

Extended family: occupations and level of formal education; their general

character and interests

Your childhood: description of home and general discussion of experiences

Community and context: general character and feel

Educational experience: pre-school, schooling; courses taken, subjects

favoured, qualifications attained or not; general character of school experience;
peer relations; teachers; good and bad experiences

Higher education and professional preparation

Occupation: general work history

Personal relationships: partners, children

Interests and pursuits

You may choose to focus in on a particular aspect of experience such as your

career as a researcher, detailing significant influences and experiences.


When you have compiled the basic information, you should begin to think about how
your life fits in to the historical contexts through which it was lived. Depending on your
interests, you may want to consider how gender attitudes and expectations, or
changes in educational policy or organisation, or being involved in a particular
curriculum or pedagogical innovation might have influenced the things that happened
to you. If you are thinking about your research career you should look at how
paradigm fashions and shifts in thinking might have impacted on your research
related beliefs and values. You should also explore how beliefs and values arising
from upbringing and experience could have played a part in shaping your interests
and concerns, and so on.
Having undertaken this exercise, not only should you have an informed
understanding of your own positionality as a researcher, but also an experiential
awareness of an important and valuable research methodology.
Auto/biographical approaches in general, and life history methodology in particular
focus on and explore both the experiences and perspectives of particular individuals
in society, and society through their experiences and perceptions. Connecting the
personal and the public has ever been the key task for social scientists and,
consequently, auto/biographical work has a long and distinguished, if somewhat
chequered history. For those concerned to understand aspects of life as they relate to
schools and schooling and education, life history is often a highly appropriate
approach. This is because education and schooling are inherently personal and
relationship based.
Life history is detailed and intensive research. Life historians need to possess the
personal characteristics that will enable them to establish trusting and positive
relationships with their informants.
Points to Reflect on

Is it possible to do any social research without giving some attention to

historical dimensions?

The essence of social research concerns the relationship between individuals

and the various social worlds they inhabit. How can research which does not
privilege this relationship be justified?

What can research that focuses upon one or a small number of people tell us
about general experiences and concerns?

How can you critically evaluate research if you know little or nothing about the

If research methodologies and methods are subject to fashion, what are the
implications for knowledge and understanding at any particular time?

Life history requires researchers to possess particular personal characteristics

(i.e. the ability to establish trusting relationships with informants). Does this
requirement differ substantially from the need for other specific research skills
(eg in questionnaire design)? If so, how and why, and what are the

Do the similarities between life history interviews and counselling mean that life
historians need to be more sensitive about their informants than other

Suggested Further Reading

BSA (1993) Special Issue: Auto/Biography in Sociology Sociology 27,1, February
A collection of papers that explore, critically, the role of auto/biography in sociological
Erben, M. (Ed) (1998) Biography and Education: A Reader London, Falmer
This useful collection includes substantive contributions on biographical research
methods and theory, and uses empirical studies to show how biographical work can
be used to study a range of areas and topics in educational contexts.
Goodson, I. (Ed) (1992) Studying Teachers Lives London, Routledge
All the chapters in this book arise out of life history research focusing on aspects of
teachers lives. Some deal with methodological issues, others are substantive in
Goodson, I. & Sikes, P. (2001) Life History Research in Educational Settings:
Learning From Lives Buckingham. Open University Press
All you need to know about doing life history research in educational settings! This
book combines accounts of research with information about how to do life history
whilst also considering methodological and epistemological issues and concerns.
Plummer, K. (2000) Documents of Life 2: An Invitation to a Critical Humanism
London, Sage
This second edition of Plummers classic book has played a major role in popularising
life history research. Anyone serious about doing life history should read it!
Roberts, B. (2002) Biographical Research Buckingham. Open University Press
This book offers a comprehensive guide to major issues in the study of lives for those
working in social sciences and related fields.
Tierney, W. (2000) Undaunted Courage: Life History and the Post-Modern Challenge
in Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (Eds) The Handbook of Qualitative Research 2nd edn

Thousand Oaks, Sage

This chapter illustrates how post-modern understandings can be used to make
contemporary sense of individual lives.
Ball, S. & Goodson, I. (Eds) (1985) Teachers Lives and Careers Lewes, Falmer
Becker, H. (1970) Sociological Work: Method and Substance Chicago, Aldine
Bertaux, D. (1981) Biography and Society; The Life History Approach in the Social
Sciences London, Sage
Bullough, R. (1998) Musings on Life Writing: Biography & Case Studies in Teacher
Education in Kridel, C. (Ed) Writing Educational Biography New York,
Garland, pp 19 32
Cornwell, C & Sutherland, E. (1937) The Professional Thief Chicago, University of
Chicago Press
Denzin, N. (1989) Interpretive Biography London, Sage
Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (2000) Introduction: The Discipline and Practice of
Qualitative Research in Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (Eds) Handbook of
Qualitative Research: Second Edition Thousand Oaks, Sage, pp. 1 28
Ellis, C. & Bochner, A. (Eds) (1996) Composing Ethnography: Alternative Forms of
Qualitative Writing Walnut Creek, AltaMira
Ellis, C. & Bochner, A. (2000) Autoethnography, Personal Narrative, Reflexivity:
Researcher as Subject in Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (Eds) Handbook of
Qualitative Research: Second Edition Thousand Oaks, Sage, pp. 733 768
Erben, M. (Ed) (1998) Biography and Research Methods Biography and Education:
A Reader London, Falmer, pp. 4 -17
Fine, M., Weiss, L., Weseen, S. & Wong, L. (2000) For Whom? Qualitative Research,
Representations, and Social Responsibilities in Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y.
(Eds) Handbook of Qualitative Research: Second Edition Thousand Oaks,
Sage, pp. 107 131
Flyvberg, B. (2001) Making Social Science Matter: Why Social Inquiry Fails and How
it Can Succeed Again Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
Goodson, I. (1981) Life Histories and the Study of Schooling Interchange 11, 4, pp.
62 - 75
Goodson, I. (1992) Studying Teachers Lives: An Emergent Field of Inquiry in

Goodson, I. (Ed) Studying Teachers Lives London, Routledge, pp. 1 17

Grumet, M. (1991) The Politics of personal Knowledge in Withering, C. & Nodding,
N. (Eds) Stories Lives Tell: Narrative and Dialogue in Education Columbia,
New York, Teachers College Press, pp. 67 - 77
Marx, K. (1969 {1845}) The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, Marx and
Engels Selected Works Volume 1 Moscow, Progress Publishers
Mills, C. W. (1959) The Sociological Imagination Oxford, Oxford University Press
Molinari, V. (2003) Being Excluded: A Case Study of a Pupil Referral Unit
Unpublished EdD thesis, University of Sussex
Plummer, K. (2000) Documents of Life 2: An Invitation to a Critical Humanism
London, Sage
Richardson, L. (1997) Fields of Play: Constructing an Academic Life New Brunswick,
Ruttgers University Press
Shaw, C. (1930) The Jack-Roller Chicago, University of Chicago Press
Sikes, P., Measor, L. & Woods, P. (1985) Teacher Careers: Crises and Continuities
Lewes, Falmer
Sikes, P. Troyna, B. & Goodson, I. (1996) Talking Lives: A Conversation About Life
History Taboo: The Journal of Culture and Education 1, Spring, 33 54
Sikes, P (1997) Parents Who Teach: Stories From Home and From School London,
Stanley, L. (1992) The Auto/Biographical I; Theory and Practice of Feminist
Auto/Biography Manchester, Manchester University Press
Thomas, W. I. & Znaniecki, F. (1918 1920) The Polish peasant in Europe and
America 2nd Edn, Chicago, University of Chicago Press
Troyna, B. (1994) Blind Faith? Empowerment and Educational Research
International Studies in the Sociology of Education 4, 1, pp 3 - 24
Zorbaugh, H. (1929) The Gold Coast and The Slum: A Sociological Study of
Chicagos North Side Chicago, University of Chicago Press