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A methodological story, or how I planned to create a (metaphorical) chest of drawers and ended up with a bedside table

Author - Susan O'Shaughnessy


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Auto/biography and the life history approach as data

Over the course of my study I came reluctantly to the realisation that a research project into my professional colleagues would not make sense without including an account of my own professional trajectory and the changes I had undergone in my career as a lecturer in German. My reluctance stemmed from a number of sources. In researching a paper exploring the usefulness of life history as a methodological approach O’Shaughnessy 2007), I was struck by the openness of some educational sociologists (Carr 1995, Roberts 1998, Sikes and Goodson 2003) who were prepared to bring their own life histories into their work, almost as a way of apologising for their intrusion into the life histories of the subjects of their research. At first I was enchanted by their stories and pleased to see that there could be a link between the literature and humanities subjects of my own academic past and the discipline of sociology that I was now about to enter. However, as I looked in greater detail at their accounts of how they had grown up to be academics far removed from the social trajectory that was expected of them within their (generally working-class) family circles, I became frustrated by some of the writers’ lack of critical analysis of the social structures that had surrounded their choices and allowed them to change their social class when others could not. It seemed to me that there was something missing from their stories, mediated as they must have been by many years’ experience of writing as academics and memories filtered by their expertise in interviewing and producing qualitative research.

Another point was that these autobiographical accounts were written by people with a long track record in their discipline who, having spent years examining the lives of others, had earned the right to talk about themselves in the same way, if they wished. An intellectual autobiography is not unusual towards the end of a distinguished academic career, as the intellectual autobiographies of Ricoeur (Hahn 1995) and Gadamer (Hahn 1997) can attest. As a new researcher I did not feel I had earned the right to bring my own life history or intellectual trajectory into my first serious research project.

Then I read Bourdieu’s posthumous Sketch for a Self-Analysis (2007), which he had written – perhaps tongue in cheek (Robbins 2007) – intending that ‘this is not an autobiography (Bourdieu 2007, p. x), and saw my own fears expressed from the very first lines. What Bourdieu set out to do in this work was to ‘try to gather together and present some elements for a self-socioanalysis’ (p. 1) while conscious of his ‘apprehensions, which go beyond the habitual fear of being misunderstood’ (ibid). What the book shows clearly is how issues that affected his formative years – his peasant background in Béarn, his boarding school experiences and later academic formation in elite institutions in Paris and his time in Algeria during the war of independence – went on to form the basis of some of Bourdieu’s best known and most influential works (Bourdieu and Passeron 1977, Bourdieu 1988, 1990,1991, Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992). Aware of ‘the scale of [his] path through social space and the incompatibility of the social worlds that it links without reconciling them(Bourdieu 2007, p. 1) Bourdieu used the ‘point of view of sociology’ to explain and understand himself and his life choices as if they were ‘any other object’ (ibid).

Bourdieu was not always so confident in putting himself into the frame, as his account of the writing of an article in the mid-1970s based on his observations at a village dance in Béarn explains: ‘at the time I felt compelled to “disappear”. I contrived to use impersonal sentences so as never to write “I” (…)’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, pp. 162-3)a In Homo Academicus (1988) too, he may have contrived to avoid using ‘I’ but he, very clearly, intended to include himself in his analysis of the French academic world, so that, as a reflexive sociologist, he could fix his gaze upon himself as ‘one representative of a category’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, p. 203), and thereby ‘say aloud the truth of others by speaking about myself’ (ibid). 

It was this point which brought me to the realisation that my study of German language lecturers required my own sociological self-objectivation if it was to offer a thorough insight into the positions and dispositions of IoT colleagues. Having informed the participants of my project before they had agreed to take part that I would not delve into their personal lives during the interviews unless they were open to doing so themselves, I found that very few were. I had also asked my respondents to provide a curriculum vitae, while guaranteeing their anonymity, in order to provide some background information to their academic trajectories that might not surface during the interviews, but most did not do so. It began to seem impossible, therefore, to examine the workings of the individual habitus of my interviewees as ‘a system of lasting and transposable dispositions which, integrating past experiences, functions at every moment as a matrix of perceptions, appreciations and actions…’ (Bourdieu and Wacquant 1992, p. 18) if I did not have the opportunity to go back into their family history and their personal trajectories from before they had begun their academic careers. Turning my socioanalysis onto myself provided a solution that allowed me to go back to the formation of the habitus of at least one representative of the category of German language lecturer. It also helped me to position my professional experiences within the field of German language teaching and the specific institutional field where I had been employed for many years.

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