Biographical methods, narratives and time frames

Attention to temporality infused the study's methodological approach. Men from different generations were invited to tell their life stories and to reflect in some cases over long periods of the life course. For the grandfathers, whose lives spanned between six and nine decades, this meant that they were asked to recall a very long time frame: we found that many recounted with ease their early lives and talked spontaneously about their own fathers but said little spontaneously about parenting their children. In the next generation, fathers reflected on their parenting from both their perspectives as sons and from their current perspectives as fathers. Again, this generation spoke more spontaneously about the former than the latter. The life course perspective therefore facilitated analysis of how individual narratives shift over the life course as well as being shaped by particular historical and cultural contexts. As Coleman suggests, a life history 'is not a static product of an individual at a particular point in time, but a developing process reflecting a changing view of the life course' (1991: p. 136).1

The use of biographical interviews offered a holistic and proces- sual picture not only through a focus on the life trajectory but the hermeneutic aspects of the life. Such an approach incorporates what Molly Andrews et al. term 'event-centred' and 'experience-centred' narrative analysis (Andrews et al., 2007). The two were necessarily brought together because events and experiences were recounted as memories. As Antze and Lambek (1996) observe, memories are like 'monuments' to be visited but also 'ruins' that we subject to 'restoration' from the perspective of hindsight, while hope for the future is constructed through the recollection of past experiences and the potential reconfiguring of meaning in light of the present (Ricoeur, 1992). Narratives constitute, therefore, unfolding stories in which the actors insert themselves into time past as if they were there and reliving it, while at the same time speaking in the present tense and having an eye to the future (Brannen, 2013).

In life story material, the selections people make from their lives are often telling. As Rosenthal says 'it is by no means coincidental or insignificant when biographers argue about one phase of their lives but narrate another at great length, and then give only a brief report of yet another part of their lives...' (1998: pp. 4-5). Furthermore, biographies and autobiographies conform to 'conventionalised narrative expressions of life experiences' and genres (Denzin, 1989). Narration in the research interview is also a performance. As Riessman (2008) suggests, drawing upon Goffman, we are forever composing impressions of ourselves and projecting an impression of who we are (p. 106). When research informants recounted lengthy life stories - and not all did - it was important analytically to understand that each story had a purpose and was told to and for an audience from the vantage point of the narrator's current evaluations. Therefore it was important to attend to rhetorical devices employed by narrators, for example, metonyms or symbols that speak for or substitute for the thing that is meant.

In attending to text and talk, it is necessary to guard against naive exponents of narrative approaches, in particular the prioritising of 'voice'. As Paul Atkinson (2009) argues, it is necessary to problematise the Romantic notion of narrative and move beyond informant testimony and the idea of bearing witness to what actually happened as a simplistic reflection of lived experience. Just as, in a parallel way, we assess quantitative data in relation to the methods and questions posed at the time, so too it was necessary to bring a temporal lens to analysing qualitative, especially life story and life history data. As suggested by Hammersley (1989), research participants are not necessarily best placed to articulate or even adequately know fully the contexts in which they live. Spaces are, and need to be, left for the researcher to produce sociological narratives, and to engage in what Giddens (1993) termed the 'double hermeneutic'.

Life stories have much to contribute to the development of new ways of bringing methods and data together. In any case, in a rapidly changing and globalising world understanding how lives are lived and narrated by actors is important, as the focus on the different groups in the book has shown, alongside the use of data that contextualises biographies in relation to global, national and regional trends. As argued in Chapter 2 and elsewhere (Brannen, 2013), bringing together a narrative approach and a realist/ contextual/biographical approach suggested the complex interplay between the way people speak about their experiences and the structures against which such talk needs to be understood (see also McLeod and Thomson, 2009). The art of analysis and its presentation to an audience requires integrating the critical elements of a life in a convincing and rigorous way that supports an argument or explanation. The book has thereby aimed to show how biographies are produced, shared and transmitted. This is a difficult feat as Bertaux (1990) observes, 'It takes some training to hear, behind the solo of a human voice, the music of society and culture in the background' (pp. 167-168). As those writing about the genre of literary biography recognise, there is no one method of doing this (Lee, 2009: p. 18).

 
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