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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 (cont)

This realisation came towards the end of collecting my primary data, after I had conducted two rounds of interviews and gathered numerous institutional and policy documents. The interviews were the main data source and fell into three functional categories. The first category involved 19 German lecturers, either permanent staff who were still in employment or former part-timers who had moved on to other work and studies, from a number of higher education institutions. With this group, whom I referred to as ‘respondents’, I used a life history interview approach in a semi-structured and open-ended format. A second group of five interviewees, defined as ‘informants’, were asked to provide information on the structural background to the changes that occurred in the professional lives of German lecturers in the institution which was to become the main focus of the project. Finally, having decided to concentrate mostly on this institution I returned to the respondents who continued to work there and re-interviewed nine of the ten lecturers from the first round (the tenth person being unavailable at the time). The second interview was targeted at eliciting responses relating to Bourdieu’s concepts of habitus, capital, field and reflexivity and therefore took a more directed approach than the life history-style of the first interviews. I also emailed similar questions to the six interviewees from the other institutions and received thoughtful responses from all of them – in practice, these interviewees turned out to be as much informants about the institutions where they worked as they were respondents to questions about their career histories.  The remaining interviewees from round one, the three former part-timers, were not contacted to provide further information on the basis that they were no longer in the institutional field that had ejected them several years earlier and that had triggered, but no longer directly affected, the changes that their professional identities had undergone.

A limited form of life history interviewing was therefore one of the main sources of information for my research. Before embarking on the interview process I wanted to be sure that I understood exactly what the term meant.

It is clear from the literature on life history research that, without the reflexivity discussed above and an awareness by the researcher that her autobiography shapes both the research itself and her response to the data that is uncovered Scott 1998, Tierney 2000, Usher 2001), life history may amount to no more than storytelling (Goodson and Sikes 2001, Usher 2001). As Bourdieu points out (Bourdieu et al 1999), it is the interviewer who starts the game, sets out the rules and has the obligation to avoid ‘symbolic violence’ to the person whose story is being told.  However, it must always be remembered that there are two people in any interview situation and that the biography of the interviewee also comes into play. He or she takes the opportunity to create a narrative account, sometimes about a subject that has not been given voice to before – and this can amount to a political act (Merrill and West 2009) which brings the present and the future into the recounting of past events. Life history is a narrative statement and a retrospective account (Tierney 2000) that imposes a chronology to the unfolding activities of a life while also creating boundaries around the happenings and situations that form the focus of the research (Elliot 2005). In creating a narrative an individual gains a sense of herself as an ‘intentional agent with continuity through time’ (ibid, p. 126) and constitutes an identity in the act of constructing the narrative.

For Scott (1998) biographical narrative involves ‘recursive dilemmas’ (p. 32) because it bends back on itself – it is a ‘text constituted in and through history’ (p. 35) in which social actors shape public events through their own autobiography. This suggests that life history is not merely the recounting of memories but is mediated through the social structures that surround the events narrated and the agency of the participants on both sides of the interview table – the respondent and the researcher have a role in the construction of the narratives that eventually form the story of the research project itself. Bourdieu’s interview methodology (Bourdieu et al 1999) supports this view by arguing that, for the researcher, ‘understanding and explaining are one’ (p. 613). 

These, then, were some of the epistemological issues that affected my choice of methodology during the course of my research. I now turn to the process I undertook to find answers to the two research questions I began with.

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