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biographical research meaning

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Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning pp 457–460 Cite as

Biographical Learning

  • Mette Krogh Christensen 2  
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Agency ; Life course ; Lifelong learning

The term “biographical learning” is used to describe the study of the relationships that exists between learning and biography, the influence of biography on learning processes and practices, and biography as a mode of learning (Tedder and Biesta 2007 , p. 3). The word bio means life , and it comes from the Greek word bios . The word graphy means written or told , and it comes from the Greek word grafia and grafein , which means a record , a note , or a memorandum . A biography is most often referred to as the story of a person’s life written or told by somebody else, for example, “The Education of John Dewey: A Biography” by Jay Martin. In this way of understanding the word, a biography is a literary genre and a style of writing like the novel and the poem. Yet, the biographer (the subject) who is writing the biography (the object) is likely to prefer facts about a person’s life history instead of fiction even if biographies may...

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Alheit, P. (1994). The “biographical question” as a challenge to adult education. International Review of Education, 40 (3–5), 283–298.

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Alheit, P., & Dausien, B. (2002). The double face of lifelong learning: Two analytical perspectives on a ‘silent revolution’. Studies in the Education of Adults, 34 (1), 3–22.

Alheit, P., Bron-Wojciechowska, A., Brugger, E., & Dominicé, P. (Eds.). (1995). The biographical approach in European adult education . Wien: Verband Wiener Volksbildung.

Bale, J., Christensen, M. K., & Pfister, G. (2004). Writing lives in sport. Biographies, life-histories and methods . Aarhus: Aarhus University Press.

Biesta, G., & Tedder, M. (2007). Agency and learning in the lifecourse: Towards an ecological perspective. Studies in the Education of Adults – Special Issue, 39 (2), 132–149.

Bourdieu, P. (1998). Practical reason. On the theory of action . Cambridge: Polity.

Christensen, M. K. (2005). Experience as biographical learning: Inspirations for physical education. Moving Bodies, 1 (3), 21–42.

Christensen, M. K. (2007). Biographical learning as health promotion in physical educations? A Danish case study. European Physical Education Review, 13 , 5–24.

Elias, J. L., & Merriam, S. B. (1980). Philosophical foundations of adult education . Huntington: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company.

Goodson, I. F. (2003). Professional knowledge, professional lives: Studies in education and change . Buckingham: Open University Press.

McLean, M., & Abbas, A. (2009). The ‘biographical turn’ in university sociology teaching: A Bernsteinian analysis. Teaching in Higher Education, 14 (5), 529–539.

Smilde, R. (2008). Lifelong learners in music; research into musicians’ biographical learning. International Journal of Community Music, 1 (2), 243–252.

Tedder, M., & Biesta, G. (2007). Learning from life and learning for life: Exploring the opportunities for biographical learning in the lives of adults. Working paper 7, Learning Lives Website , www.learninglives.org . Learning Lives Website.

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Institute of Sports Science and Clinical Biomechanics, University of Southern Denmark, Campusvej 55, DK-5230, Odense M, Denmark

Dr. Mette Krogh Christensen

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Christensen, M.K. (2012). Biographical Learning. In: Seel, N.M. (eds) Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4419-1428-6_799

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Biographical research is a qualitative research approach aligned to the social interpretive paradigm of research. The biographical research is concerned with the reconstruction of life histories and the constitution of meaning based on biographical narratives and documents. The material for analysis consists of interview protocols ( memorandums ), video recordings, photographs, and a diversity of sources. These documents are evaluated and interpreted according to specific rules and criteria. The starting point for this approach is the understanding of an individual biography in terms of its social constitution. The biographical approach was influenced by the symbolic interactionism , the phenomenological sociology of knowledge (Alfred Schütz, Peter L. Berger, and Thomas Luckmann), and ethnomethodology (Harold Garfinkel). Therefore, biography is understood in terms of a social construct [1] and the reconstruction of biographies can give insight on social processes and figurations (as in Norbert Elias), thus helping to bridge the gap between micro-, meso-, and macro- levels of analysis . The biographical approach is particularly important in German sociology. [2] This approach is used in the Social Sciences as well as in Pedagogy and other disciplines. The Research Committee 38 "Biography and Society" [3] of the International Sociological Association (ISA) was created in 1984 and is dedicated "to help develop a better understanding of the relations between individual lives, the social structures and historical processes within which they take shape and which they contribute to shape, and the individual accounts of biographical experience (such as life stories or autobiographies)". [4]

  • 1.1 Biography as a form of access to larger groupings
  • 1.2 Recent research
  • 2.1 Individual cases and inductive generalizations
  • 2.2 Experienced life history and narrated life story ( erlebte und erzählte Lebensgeschichte )
  • 2.3 Reconstruction of the latent structures of meaning
  • 3 References
  • 4 Further reading
  • 5 External links

Biographies, including autobiographies, have always contained a sociological dimension since their advent in the Antiquity (Plutarch). For the most part of the usage of this notion, biographers dealt with outstanding individual personalities (such as politicians and artists) but there were also exceptions, such as Ulrich Bräker's autobiography, "The Poor Man of Toggenburg" ( Der arme Mann im Toggenburg ). The emergence of Sociology influenced an approach to biography that extended this notion beyond the individual dimension, such as the works of Alphons Silbermann on the life of the composer Jacques Offenbach and Norbert Elias on the life of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart. [5]

Biography as a form of access to larger groupings

The biographical method as a research approach to understand larger groupings was used as sociological material by Florian Znaniecki and William Isaac Thomas in the 1920s. After their work, the biographical approach was considered amongst the dominant research approaches in empirical social research. The study The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918–1920) by Znaniecki and Thomas used an extensive collection of diaries, letters, memoirs, autobiographies, and other personal and archival documents as main source for a sociological investigation. The reception of this work was initially late due to linguistic barriers, but it was then absorbed and disseminated in the Social Science Research Council (SSRC). The biographical research approach formed an important foundation for the development of the Chicago School , which later influenced the symbolic interactionism and the work of sociologists such as Robert E. Park, Ernest W. Burgess, and George Herbert Mead .

Another milestone in the development of biographical research was the analysis of the life course of delinquent youths written by Clifford R. Shaw in 1930 [6] and 1931. [7] After 1945, the interest in biographical research declined due to the success of quantitative methods and structural-functionalist theories. The biographical approach influence was felt mainly in the study of deviance . In 1978, Aaron Victor Cicourel published a case study on the life history of a boy named Mark, that received special attention in the discipline of social work . Cicourel's study explored in detail how a criminal career was constructed through police interrogation, individual and distorted interpretations, and institutional documents .

Recent research

Since the 1980s, biographical research gained momentum in the wake of a growing interest for qualitative social research. Biographical research is now a recognized approach in sociology, especially in the German Sociological Tradition (see Fritz Schütze, [8] Martin Kohli, [9] Werner Fuchs-Heinritz and others). This development was supported by a tendency to shift the sociological focus from system and structure to the lifeworld , the everyday life , and the resurgence of phenomenological approaches in sociology (under the influence of Edmund Husserl ). The sociology turned to the reconstruction of biographical cases and individual life courses as a form to gain insight on social processes .

With the increasing pluralization of life-worlds , modernization, and differentiation in Postmodern societies , the dissolution of traditional values and the conference of meaning, the biographical approach proved useful to study these social phenomena of the turn of the millennium. The actor became an intersection of different and sometimes divergent determinants, logics, expectations, normative models, and institutionalized mechanisms of control (see Georg Simmel's chapter "The Intersection of Social Circles" [10] ). The "normal biography" broke up and prompted the individual to manage his life course on his own and to find solutions amongst different and contradictory influencing factors and figurations . In this situation, the self-discovered biographical identity with its endangered transitions, breaks, and status changes becomes a conflict between institutional control and individual strategy.

The reconstructive approach in biographical research, which is connected to the phenomenological and Gestalt approaches, was methodologically developed by the German sociologist Gabriele Rosenthal. Rosenthal used principles of the method of objective hermeneutics and the reconstructive analysis of Ulrich Oevermann, and the Gestalt and structure considerations proposed by Aron Gurwitsch and Kurt Koffka to develop a method for the reconstruction of biographical cases. [11] [12]

Methods and limitations

Individual cases and inductive generalizations.

In the context of qualitative researches, the biographical research is to be seen as a case-reconstructive approach. The decision to reconstruct cases is in itself an approach to the field rather than a specific research method . Biographical research does not use a single method for data analysis . The most commonly used methods for data construction in biographical research is the biographical narrative interview (see Fritz Schütze [8] ) and/or open interviews . Many use content analysis to analyze the biographical data. The diversity of biographical sources turns an inductive approach , as used in quantitative social research, unfruitful. The logic of an abductive reasoning process is preferred by many researchers that use the biographical approach. The principles of a grounded theory (as in Barney Glaser and Anselm Strauss) [13] are often applied alongside a biographical research.

The questions regarding the possibility to use individual cases to create scientifically valid generalizations arise from the use of the abductive reasoning. This is the question of the sustainability of abductive conclusions (as in Charles Sanders Peirce ). The abductive conclusion that biographical cases are socially relevant and bear general patterns of behavior, action , and interpretation in them is common in sociological practice, although some think that it is not yet fully developed. Different approaches to the development of typologies exist, as well as for the contrastive comparison between types in order to allow for theoretical generalizations (see Uta Gerhardt, 1984; Gabriele Rosenthal, 1993; [11] and Susann Kluge, 2000 [14] ).

Experienced life history and narrated life story ( erlebte und erzählte Lebensgeschichte )

A fundamental problem exists regarding the differences between the levels of the experienced ( erlebte ) life history and the narrated ( erzählte ) life story. [11] Another fundamental implication is the interrelation of experience , memory , and narration . [15] In the early studies of biographical research, great value was placed on the reconstruction of the actual life course of the individual using data from additional sources (such as institutional archives, diaries, interviews with relatives and friends, etc.) and thus eliminating "errors" in the memory and presentation of the interviewee. Today – according to the phenomenological "bracketing" of the being of objects (as by the grounded theory principles) – it is increasingly assumed that the actual life course cannot be reconstructed: experiences are always interpreted by the subject and are mediated by perception, thus constituting the memory in regard to the framework of the overall biography as well as to the situation (for more, see Erving Goffmann notion of frame analysis ) where the narrative is collected. [12]

Thus, the main concern of the biographical research should be the life as experiences and narrated by subjects in clear contrast to the "true facts" of a life course reconstruction. Interpretations and constructions of meaning are of utmost importance to reconstruct a biographical case, as the actions and the self-interpretation of these actions by the individual turns his own biography into a coherent totality. Based on empirical experiences with narrated life history and using the research method of biographical narrative interviews, the method of biographical case reconstruction has developed in the last decades in fields that range from the study of migration [16] to professional careers and healthcare.

Reconstruction of the latent structures of meaning

The question of the construction of meaning leads to the questions of the subjectively intended and the objective meaning. Ulrich Oevermann says that an actor in a situation of interaction produces more meaning than he is aware of. Therefore, some researchers consider the task of the biographical research to be the reconstruction of both types of meaning – the intended and the objective. [17] Behind and below the interpretations expressed by the interviewees are the latent structures of meaning that constitute the sense of life and manifest themselves in biographical life situations. [17] In these latent, hidden patterns of meaning, individual experience and societal conditioning are intertwined. Thus, behind individual action lies a direction and a framework for action. According to Heinz Bude, the method of objective hermeneutics and reconstruction of structures of meaning is used in biographical research as a method for the reconstruction of the latent structures of meaning at play in specific situations of a case [18]

  • ↑ Berger, Peter; Luckmann, Thomas (1966). The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge . Garden City, NY: Anchor Books.  
  • ↑ "DGS - Deutsche Gesellschaft für Soziologie: Portrait" (in DE) . https://www.soziologie.de/de/sektionen/biographieforschung/portrait/ .  
  • ↑ "ISA - RC38 Biography and Society" . https://www.isa-sociology.org/en/research-networks/research-committees/rc38-biography-and-society/ .  
  • ↑ "Objectives of the RC 38 Biography and Society" . https://www.isa-sociology.org/en/research-networks/research-committees/rc38-biography-and-society/ .  
  • ↑ Elias, Norbert (1993). Mozart: Portrait of a Genius . University of California Press. ISBN   978-0520084759 .  
  • ↑ Shaw, Clifford (2006). The Jack Roller. A Delinquent Boy's Own Story . London: Routledge. ISBN   978-0-415-70093-1 .  
  • ↑ Shaw, Clifford (1968). The Natural History of a Delinquent Career . New York, NY: Greenwood Press.  
  • ↑ 8.0 8.1 Schütze, Fritz (2007). "Biography Analysis on the Empirical Base of Autobiographical Narratives: How to Analyse Autobiographical Narrative Interviews - Part I" . University of Magdeburg . http://www.zsm.ovgu.de/zsm_media/Das+Zentrum/Forschungsprojekte/INVITE/B2_1-p-140.pdf .  
  • ↑ Kohli, Martin (1986). "Biographical Research in the German Language Area". A Commemorative Book in Honor of Florian Znaniecki : 91–110.  
  • ↑ Simmel, Georg (2009). Sociology: inquiries into the construction of social forms . Leiden, The Netherlands: Koninklijke Brill NV. pp. 363–408. ISBN   978-90-04-17321-7 .  
  • ↑ 11.0 11.1 11.2 Rosenthal, Gabriele (1993). "Reconstruction of Life Stories: Principles of selection in generating stories for narrative biographical interviews" . The Narrative Study of Lives 1 (1): 59–91 . https://www.ssoar.info/ssoar/bitstream/handle/document/5929/ssoar-tnsl-1993-1-rosenthal-reconstruction_of_life_stories.pdf?sequence=1 .  
  • ↑ 12.0 12.1 Rosenthal, Gabriele (2018). Interpretive Social Research. An Introduction. . Göttingen: Universitätsverlag Göttingen. ISBN   978-3-86395-374-4 . https://www.univerlag.uni-goettingen.de/bitstream/handle/3/isbn-978-3-86395-374-4/rosenthal_interpretive.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y .  
  • ↑ Glaser, Barney; Strauss, Anselm (1967). The Discovery of Grounded Theory . Chicago: Aldine Press.  
  • ↑ Kluge, Susann (2000). "Empirically Grounded Construction of Types and Typologies in Qualitative Social Research" . Forum: Qualitative Social Research 1 (1) . http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1124/2499 .  
  • ↑ Rosenthal, Gabriele (2006). "The Narrated Life Story: On the Interrelation Between Experience, Memory and Narration" . Narrative, Memory & Knowledge: Representations, Aesthetics, Contexts : 1–16 . http://eprints.hud.ac.uk/id/eprint/4894/2/Chapter_1_-_Gabriele_Rosenthal.pdf .  
  • ↑ Apitzsch, Ursula; Siouti, Irini (2007). "Biographical Analysis as an Interdisciplinary Research Perspective in the Field of Migration Studies" . University of York, UK . https://www.york.ac.uk/res/researchintegration/Integrative_Research_Methods/Apitzsch%20Biographical%20Analysis%20April%202007.pdf .  
  • ↑ 17.0 17.1 Oevermann, Ulrich; Tilman, Allert; Konau, Elisabeth; Krambeck, Jürgen (1987). Structures of Meaning and Objective Hermeneutics . 436–447. ISBN   978-0-231-05854-4 .  
  • ↑ Bude, Heinz (1984). Rekonstruktion von Lebenskonstruktionen. Eine Antwort auf die Frage, was die Biographieforschung bringt . 7–28. ISBN   978-3-476-00548-9 .  

Further reading

  • Alheit, Peter (1994): Everyday Time and Life Time. On the Problems of Healing Contradictory Experienced of Time . In: Time & Society, Vol, 3 (3), 305-319.
  • Apitzsch, Ursula; Inowlocki, Lena (2000): Biographical Analysis. A Germans School? In: Chamberlayne, Prue; Bornat, Joanna; Wengraf, Tom (Eds.): The Turn to Biographical Methods in Social Sciences. Comparative Issues and Examples. London: Routledge, 53-70.
  • Bertaux, Daniel; Kohli, Martin (1984): The Life Story Approach: A Continental View. In: Annual Review of Sociology, 10, 215-237.
  • Flick, Uwe; Kardorff, Ernst von; Steinke, Ines (Eds.) (2004): A companion to Qualitative Research. London, UK: Sage Publications.
  • Flick, Uwe (2009): An Introduction to Qualitative Research. Los Angeles, USA: Sage Publications.
  • Glaser, Barney; Strauss, Anselm (1967): The Discovery of Grounded Theory. Chicago, USA: Aldine Press.
  • Goffman, Erving (1959): The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
  • Goffman, Erving (1974): Frame Analysis: An Essay on the Organization of Experience. New York, NY: Harper Publishing.
  • Hitzler, Ronald (2005): The Reconstruction of Meaning. Notes on German Interpretive Sociology . In: Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research [Online Journal], 2005, 6(3), Art. 45.
  • Mead, George Herbert (1972 [1934]): Mind, Self, and Society: From the Standpoint of a Social Behaviorist. Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press.
  • Riemann, Gerhard (2003): A Joint Project Against the Backdrop of a Research Tradition: An Introduction to "Doing Biographical Research" . In: Forum Qualitative Sozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research [Online Journal], 2003, 4(3).
  • Rosenthal, Gabriele (1993): Reconstruction of Life Stories. Principles of selection in generating stories for narrative biographical interviews . In: The Narrative Study of Lives. Thousands Oaks: Sage Publications, 59-91.
  • Rosenthal, Gabriele (1997): National Identity or Multicultural Autobiography: Theoretical Concepts of Biographical Constitution Grounded in Case Reconstructions . In: The Narrative Study of Lives. Thousands Oaks: Sage Publications, 21-29.
  • Rosenthal, Gabriele (2018): Interpretive Social Research. An Introduction . Göttingen: Universitätsverlag Göttingen.
  • Schütz, Alfred; Luckmann, Thomas (1973): The Structures of the Life-world. Evanston: Northwestern University Press.
  • Schütze, Fritz (2007a): Biography analysis on the empirical base of autobiographical narratives: How to analyse autobiographical narrative interviews, Part I In: INVITE - Biographical counselling in rehabilitative vocational training: Further education curriculum, Module B.2.1.
  • Schütze, Fritz (2007b): Biography analysis on the empirical base of autobiographical narratives: How to analyse autobiographical narrative interviews, Part II In: INVITE - Biographical counselling in rehabilitative vocational training: Further education curriculum, Module B.2.2.
  • Znaniecki, Florian; Thomas, William Isaac (1918): The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. Monograph of an Immigrant Group. Boston: The Gorham Press.

External links

  • Research Committee 38 Biography and Society
  • BIOS – Zeitschrift für Biographieforschung (German)
  • Qualitative research

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Biographical Resources: A Research Guide: Introduction

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Biography is a branch of the study of history. The reliability of biographical sources varies widely and is subject to the usual vagaries of historical studies: lack of accurate information, too much or conflicting information, too little information, psychological theorizing, etc. But a well-written biographical article in a reliable reference book or database can be a source of both pleasure and enlightenment. Enjoy!

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A Collaborative and Egalitarian Approach to Adult Education Research

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Introduction

Biographical inquiry enables us as researchers and adult educators to grasp an in-depth understanding of the complexities and nuances of learning in adults’ lives in a collaborative and egalitarian way. There has been a ‘turn’ to biographical methods in the social sciences ( Chamberlayne, Bornat, & Wengraf, 2000 ) over the past thirty years. Perhaps it is more accurate to say this is a renewed interest as oral history and biographical research has a long tradition in disciplines like sociology and history which faded due to the strengthening of positivism. The ‘turn’ was, therefore, a response and a reaction to the dominance of scientific and objective approaches to understanding human behaviour which mimics that of the natural sciences. Such an approach silences the voices of marginalized groups and dehumanizes people reducing the understanding of lives to mere statistics which are devoid of meaning, life and context and subsequently many social scientists began to question this ( Roberts, 2002 ), including adult education researchers within Europe.

The biographical tradition in European adult education was established through the work of people such as Agnieszka Bron, Peter Alheit, Pierre Dominicé, Henning Salling Olesen and Linden West. Their work marked an important move away from early research on adult students which were mostly large-scale quantitative studies ( Woodley et al., 1987 ). Biographical methods “offer rich insights into the dynamic interplay of individuals and history, inner and outer worlds, self and other” ( Merrill & West, 2009, p. 1 ) which quantitative methods cannot do. This ‘movement’, particularly within the UK, was influenced by the work of symbolic interactionists from the Chicago School and feminist scholarship which put the human subject at the core of the research process ( Plummer, 2001 ). There are parallels here with student-centred adult education practice. Other influences have shaped UK biographical approaches such as the psychosocial and more recently the German interpretive tradition as in the work of Hollway and Jefferson (2000) .

As biographical inquiry has developed it has been used alongside art and drama-based approaches and the collection of artefacts as well. This chapter outlines a critical and feminist perspective approach drawing on symbolic interactionism and how this helps in the understanding of people’s lives and adult learning. It draws on research on non-traditional students in higher education to illustrate not only the complexities of undertaking biographical research but also its richness and power in revealing the particular and general, structure and agency, the macro and the micro in the individual and collective lives of adult learners. It will argue for the importance of ‘voice’ and dialogue, even conversation, between the researcher and research participants in the co-construction of stories. While many biographical researchers view the stories as individual, I see individual lives as also telling collective stories and histories through, for example, experiences of class, gender, ethnicity and adult learning thus highlighting issues of inequality. Methodological aspects of doing such research will also be explored.

A feminist & sociological approach to biographical research

Biographical and life history approaches are now one of the most widely used methods in adult education research, particularly in Europe. Its popularity is visible at European conferences and in adult education journal articles. The European Society for Research in the Education of Adults (ESREA) Life History and Biographical Network has been critical in encouraging and developing the use of biographical methods in varied adult education contexts such as higher education, community education, the workplace as well as informal learning in the family and elsewhere. The ‘turn’ to biographical methods brought subjectivity centre stage in the research process and the meaning which people give to their lives. Although popular, biographical inquiry in adult education is characterized by heterogeneity which leads to richness and stimulates debate. This also reflects the fact that researchers in adult education draw on a range of disciplines and perspectives such as sociology, psychology, philosophy and education. Biographical inquiry is also conducted in very diverse ways. In Germany and Denmark, for example, an objective hermeneutics position is favoured whereby the researcher remains distant in order not to shape the account. This approach is exemplified in the work of adult education researchers Peter Alheit and Henning Salling Olesen. In Germany this orientation was partly about making biographical research respectable within a very traditional academic system. In contrast in the UK and Sweden the role of subjectivity and intersubjectivity was viewed as important, heavily influenced by feminism and the work of the Chicago School.

My particular approach has been sociological, influenced by feminism, symbolic interactionism and critical theory, taking a humanistic and subjectivistic approach to research, what Plummer calls a “critical humanism” ( 2001, p. 14 ). On the surface my selection of symbolic interactionism and feminism may appear to be oppositional and contradictory as symbolic interactionism focuses on the individual and micro social theory while many versions of feminism and critical theory emphasize collective conditions and social inequality. However, I would argue that there are similarities and complementarities between them. The work of the Chicago School and, in particular, that of Goffman and Becker had a strong impact on me because it encompasses a humanistic philosophy and celebrates the agentic possibility in people’s lives, marking a move away from the determinism of positivism. The Chicago School of Sociology has been influential in the development of biographical inquiry. This goes back to 1918–1921 and the classic study by Thomas and Znaniecki – The Polish Peasant – on the experience of Polish peasants in a new cultural context to later in the 1960s and 1970s with studies such as the Jack-Roller by Clifford R. Shaw (1966) . Significantly symbolic interactionism places the social actor and the meaning and interpretation they give to their lives and social situation as central to understanding human behavior ( Blumer, 1986 ).

Interaction with others and how others see us is key to the formation of the self, biography and our definition of the social world. For symbolic interactionists interaction is seen as “a crucial link between the individual and the social group” ( Meltzer, Petras, & Reynolds, 1975, p. 50 ). Constructing the social world is a situated activity. The distinct methodological approach of symbolic interactionism and its focus on the social actor stresses the importance of ‘telling it like it is’. Like feminists much of the research centres on the marginalized in society and ‘sticking up for the underdog’ ( Becker, 1967 ) who also asserts that researchers should ask themselves ‘Whose side are we on?’ There is also a tradition of illuminating individual resistance to the power of institutions ( Goffman, 1961 ). As Plummer elucidates “It is a fully dialectical theory where subject and object, creativity and restraint, pattern and chaos, structure and meaning, knowledge and action are ceaselessly emergently intertwined” ( 1991, p. xv ).

Rooted in a liberal tradition symbolic interactionism only takes us so far in looking at issues of power and inequality. Feminists take a more critical and political stance than this, particularly Marxist feminists. Second wave feminism in the 1970s stimulated the development of feminist theory and methodology in academia and critique of traditional ‘malestream’ research. Dorothy Smith asserts “The women’s movement has given us a sense of our right to have women’s interests represented in sociology, rather than just receiving as authoritative the interests traditionally represented in a sociology put together by men” ( 1987, p. 85 ). In doing so feminists were questioning who has the power to construct knowledge. The everyday lives of ordinary women were deemed to be important bringing women out of obscurity through research. Feminists emphasized how ‘the personal is political’ whereby individual experiences become collective ones. This idea can also be traced back to the work of C. Wright Mills who elaborated that: “… know that many personal troubles cannot be solved merely as troubles, but must be understood in terms of public issues – and in terms of the problems of individual life” ( 1970, p. 8 ). Importantly feminist research gives ‘voice’ to marginalized women through the telling of their stories. For Reinharz “biographical work has always been an important part of the women’s movement because it draws women out of obscurity, repairs the historical record, and provides the opportunity for the woman reader and writer to identify with the subject” ( 1992, p. 126 ). Feminist researchers, in contrast to ‘traditional’ research, work with women and not on women ( Oakley, 1981 ) to avoid exploitation.

Feminist researchers have contributed to the development of biographical methodology in various ways. A subjective (and intersubjective) engagement is advocated between the researcher and researched in a form which challenges and breaks down power differences to establish a more democratic relationship than in traditional hierarchical approaches to interviewing. Ann Oakley (1981) took this further in promoting the idea that an interview should be more like a conversation which may include the researcher sharing some of their story so it becomes a participatory process. For Natalie Popadiuk “… the feminist biographical method is a powerful tool. It engages in research from a unique perspective that provides depth, meaning and context to the participants’ lived experiences in light of the larger cultural matrix in which they live” ( 2004, p. 395 ). Research, it is stressed, is a political process. The ‘voices’ of the women highlight oppression and inequalities in society which need to be challenged and transformed. Undoubtedly feminist researchers had, and still have, a significant impact on biographical research in the UK, including adult education research, with many adult education researchers carrying on the feminist research tradition. As Jane Thompson reminds us “But it is what becomes of the stories that matters. And what uses can be made of them in the search for political knowledge and theoretical understanding” ( 2000, p. 7 ).

Learning from biographies

In researching the experiences of non-traditional adult students in higher education I am interested in looking at issues of class and gender and their intersectionality. I connect individual stories of non-traditional students to class and gender experiences by linking the micro to the macro and locating a biography within a social, political, economic and historical context.

As Denzin points out biographies reveal “an inner world of thought and experience and to an outer world of events and experiences” ( 1984, p. 66 ). Bertaux also reminds us that biographies reveal the common experiences of structure: “The intent of the biographical project is to uncover the social, economic, cultural, structural and historical forces that shape, distort and otherwise alter problematic lived experiences” (1981, p. 4). Biographical methods importantly illuminate the two fundamental foundations of sociology – agency and structure. It encompasses a key question in relation to what extent lives are shaped and or constrained by social structure and to what extent lives can be changed through intentional actions. A person’s life is never fully agentic or structurally determined but rather an interaction between the two although at certain moments one aspect may be more dominant. The stories of working-class adult students in higher education illustrate the role of agency and structure in shaping their learning identities and career. Agency is used, for example, in taking the decision to study for a degree as an adult and a determination to succeed but this may be constrained by structural factors such as financial issues. The interaction of agency and structure are also at play in life transition processes and biographical narratives highlight transitions in the learning life course ( Hallqvist, Ellström, & Hayden, 2012 ; Biesta et al., 2011 ). Experiencing and coping with life transitions is a biographical learning experience as a person’s biography is linked with learning or biographicity as termed by Alheit and Dausien (2002) . Learning, from this perspective, is an integral part of a person’s biography so that “without biography there can be no learning, without learning there is no biography” ( Alheit & Dausien, 2002, p. 15 ).

Biographical research can be used in radical, collective and practical ways by combining “the principles and practice of biographical methods with those underpinning feminism and radical/popular adult education” ( Merrill, 2007, p. 86 ). Such research enables educators to understand where their students are coming from. This is in the tradition of popular education which advocates including the learners’ experiences in the curriculum in order to challenge the structural inequalities they face. Drawing on the idea of Pierre Dominicé (2000) biographies can be used as a learning resource in the ‘classroom’ as a means of enabling learners to understand their way of learning in universities or in adult/community education.

The complexities of doing biographical research

This section draws on a European study on the experiences of non-traditional students in higher education and their subsequent transition into the labour market to illustrate the complexities but also the value of doing biographical research. The project is entitled ‘Enhancing the Employability of Non-traditional Students in Higher Education’ (EMPLOY) and involved six European countries but this chapter will focus on the UK study. Employability is currently given high priority by universities and policy-makers and there is an assumption that all students will benefit in the labour market by learning to become ‘employable’. Our research, however, took a critical stance on employability as adopted by a few other researchers such as Tomlinson (2012) . The voices of the working-class adult students we interviewed revealed experiences of inequality in relation to employability and transitioning to the labour market as HE institutions are not a level playing field. In Bourdieu’s (1986) terms middle-class students have advantages in terms of social, cultural and economic capitals and age which make them more favourable to employers than adult working-class graduates. Collectively the participants’ stories offer a powerful critique of the hierarchical UK higher education system. They also highlight the entrenchment of class, gender, race and age inequalities and practices in society. In terms of sampling we interviewed students in their first year of degree study and again after graduation as well as a cohort of graduates. Longitudinal research helps a researcher to build trust and really get to know participants’ lives in depth. Importantly it highlights changes to the self over time.

Using biographical methods in this study generated thick description or ‘a good story’. “By good stories we mean narrative material that is both rich in detail but also experientially inclusive and reflective in character” ( Merrill & West, 2009, p. 113 ). Biographical interviews involve interpretation by the interviewee and interviewer and are spaces which are creative and dialogical. Importance is attached to building secure, collaborative relationships to listening and working respectfully with participants ( Stanley & Wise, 1993 ) as well as emphasizing that biographical interviews are a form of learning for those involved. Building a trusting relationship is central to the interview process ( Oakley, 1981 ). Following the feminist tradition we strove to build a more equal and democratic relationship between the interviewer and interviewee encouraging a conversational style. Biographical interviewing is a social process and the subjectivity and inter-subjectivity of both the interviewee and the interviewer forms part of this as stories are co-structured and interpreted. As Stanley and Wise point out:

All research involves, as its basis, interaction, a relationship, between researcher and researched … Because the basis of all research is a relationship. This necessarily involves the presence of the researcher as a person. Personhood cannot be left out of the research process … We see the presence of the researcher’s self as central in the research. (1993, p. 161)

Such an interview approach is more demanding and intense for the researcher than ‘traditional’ approaches. A collaborative interview should involve the participants as fully as possible in the research process, not only during the interview but afterwards through giving their story back to them as a transcript. This enables participants to reflect on their story and add to it if they want or even delete sentences through a “dialogical processes that assist story givers in untangling the complex meanings of their own lived experience” ( Lawthom, 1997, p. 456 ).

Understanding class and higher education through biographical methods

More than other research methods biographical approaches reveal the complexities and inequalities experienced in people’s everyday lives at both an individual and collective level. This section looks at the significance of these aspects through the stories of non-traditional adult students in higher education studying at an elite UK university and their transition to the graduate labour market. The following is not an in-depth outline of their lives but a partial one. All were working-class and for women and black students class inequality is also intersected by gender and race. Age inequality was another key factor which impacted on all of them in relation to entering the labour market. In their teens they did not consider going to university and these attitudes were related to class and gender cultures in their family and community. As Paul reflects:

It was a working-class area and people didn’t really do well academically there. I don’t think it’s any reflection of how capable people are but there was just a kind of culture of you didn’t want to be a swot … My family weren’t too pushy and the idea that university is a waste of time. It wasn’t an option for me’.
There was no pressure at all that I remember from parents. It was do whatever you want to do and what’s going to make you happy and I was like ‘I have no idea what I want to do.

As a result most of the participants left school with few or no qualifications. Some undertook a range of jobs before entering university which were unskilled or semi-skilled and low paid – jobs which some found boring. Paul, for example, ended up as a roofer working for his uncle. Studying for a degree offered them a potential for more fulfilling lives and an opportunity denied them at eighteen. Most studied a social studies degree aimed at local adult students. While there is another local university they chose Warwick because it is a top institution in the belief that it would help them in the competitive labour market. Sharon chose law conscious of the university hierarchy and attitudes of employers: “it is the best especially for Law and I know that solicitors can be quite prickly about which university you’ve been to, to whether they employ you or not. I’ve got into the top five universities from coming from nothing”. Once in the institution participants became aware of class (and age) differences between themselves and middle class students and some lecturers. This led at times to a feeling of being the ‘other’ and not belonging. Paul articulates it in the following way:

I have felt isolated and … self-conscious because I don’t fit in just because of the age thing and I think like there is like a class issue as well. And this ability to communicate my ideas vocally when I’m sitting next to some of these people that’s just I don’t know whether it’s to do with their education but I’ve sat next to lots of people who can pick their words off the shelf and are very, very articulate people. They’re quite intimidating.

Class differences were also perceived and experienced by other adult students in terms of knowledge, dress and finance. In relation to ‘employability’ for the labour market inequalities were associated not only with class but also gender and age. They knew that the top companies targeted students at Warwick but were conscious that “… when it comes to what employers are looking for I don’t think I’m it for a lot of them” (Paul). Many felt that, in Bourdieu’s term, they lacked the cultural and social capital which employers want. Sharon realized the importance of the power of social and economic capitals which she lacks thus putting her at a disadvantage to the point of being discriminated against. She witnessed the younger middle class students using their social capital to get into the legal profession:

Some of the students I’ve spoken to, their parents are partners in solicitors so obviously they’re going to walk into a job. Definitely down the barrister route it’s about what private school you’ve been to. I think money definitely because if you haven’t got the money you’re not going to the bar. It costs too much money – £18,000 and £12,000 (cost of the Legal Practice course) for solicitors and then books. I think it’s more who you know as well as what university you’re from.

Students are increasingly expected by employers to gain work experience but this is generally unpaid which working-class students cannot afford as they need to earn money during the university vacation nor can they travel outside their locality. Age was also a discriminatory factor:

Yes, at the end of this year I will have a degree but looking at my age and looking at the students – so many young students with the same degree as me when it comes to employment. Employers – maybe they will say – ‘Yes you have your degree expertise but your age’ and would rather be looking at someone younger than me. (Kate)

Family commitments also tie adults to a particular locality but graduate schemes do not make allowances for this:

Most of the graduate schemes that are available are for people without responsibilities. I can’t go travelling and leave my son at home. There doesn’t seem to be any niche for graduate schemes that are solely based locally. The jobs I’ve looked at they’re looking for people that are flexible and are willing to work all the hours god sends and I have commitments. But that isn’t taken into account for the mature student market. (Jane)

As a result of the inequalities and discrimination they experienced many of these adult students took a while to find a job and when they did it was not always at graduate level. Paul, for example, despite having obtained a first class degree in Politics (the highest UK classification) ended up going back to work as a roofer and finding himself in a precarious work situation as contracts are short term:

Like one person I’m working for he gets the contracts for the schools but what they’ll do, like you finish one school and they’ll say ‘it might be in a few weeks’ because they want to keep you hanging on … Working in building you’re pretty much on a zero hours contract. You won’t get any holiday pay, no sick pay, if it’s raining you won’t get paid or if there’s no work they’ll just drop you.

Doing a politics degree politicized Paul and he analyzed his position through a critical Marxist lens. He had hoped to do a Masters’ degree full-time after finishing his undergraduate degree but with having a family he felt that was out of the question financially. After a year, however, he was able to start a Masters’ degree part-time while also trying to become self-employed as a roofer.

Although the above is a brief snapshot their voices illuminate how biographies are located in the past, present and future and within particular historical, social, political and economic contexts. Their individual stories highlight commonality between their experiences in their past lives, at university and in the labour market as a result of the impact of inequalities on their biographies and in particular, class, gender and age. They illuminate the institutional barriers and inequalities of the UK higher education system and the graduate labour market. Yet at the same time while they are aware of these, their stories also show how they are able to use their agency, to varying degrees, to challenge this and find a path for themselves while also recognizing that the structural inequalities continue unchanged. As Thompson stresses biographical inquiry is a “way of exercising critical consciousness and of producing knowledge from the inside about gender, class and education, deriving from personal, particular and shared experience. Not in the pursuit of ultimate truth but in the search for greater, more nuanced, understanding” ( 2000, p. 6 ).

Concluding reflections

Critical and feminist biographical methodology and radical adult education share similarities in their approaches as both place the interviewee/learner at the centre of the research/learning processes. Importantly they are concerned with challenging inequalities and oppression in society in a pursuit for social justice. Biographical inquiry is, therefore, more than just about a research method and as feminists and critical researchers remind us research is not neutral: it is political. Biographical interviewing is also a learning process for both the researcher and researched. Telling a story is potentially a powerful and transformative experience ( Gouthro, 2014 ; Merrill & West, 2009 ) enabling a participant to reflect back on their life through a reflective and critical lens. For Stroobants “the interconnection of narrative and learning of both the research subjects and the researcher is an inherent feature of narrative biographical research” ( 2005, p. 48 ). Biographies and life histories can also be a critical learning tool in higher education and in other educational contexts as a means of raising critical discussion about inequalities in society. Such an approach sits in the tradition of Freire (1972) by learning through experience and ‘really useful knowledge’ ( Johnson, 1988 ).

The social purpose of the university is currently being subsumed by the dominance of neo-liberalism and managerialism so it is becoming more important than ever for researchers and adult educators to keep a critical tradition and a social purpose agenda alive although the spaces for doing so are getting harder. In the UK we have largely lost this but as researchers and adult educators we need to, in the words of Raymond Williams (1980), find ‘resources for a ‘journey of hope’. Biographical inquiry which uses a critical, collaborative and egalitarian approach is one way of doing this.

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Doing critical and creative research in adult education, case studies in methodology and theory.

Cover Doing Critical and Creative Research in Adult Education

  • Adult Education
  • Art Education
  • Research Methodology

Table of Contents

  • Copyright page
  • The European Society for Research on the Education of Adults (ESREA)
  • Acknowledgements
  • Figures and Tables
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Chapter 1 Introduction
  • Chapter 3 Down to the River
  • Chapter 4 Transition to Adulthood
  • Chapter 5 Collaborative Story Telling
  • Chapter 6 Doing Ethnographic Research in Adult Education
  • Chapter 7 Autoethnography in, and as, Adult Education
  • Chapter 8 Finding Voice and Engaging Audiences
  • Chapter 9 Education Will Set You Free
  • Chapter 10 Seeing the Unseen through the Feminist Museum Hack
  • Chapter 11 Towards Critical and Dialogical Mixed Methods Resarch
  • Chapter 12 The Use of Bibliometrics in Adult Education Research
  • Chapter 13 Investigating Adult Skills Assessment in ESOnline
  • Chapter 14 Pedagogy of Song and Restorying Hope
  • Chapter 15 Visual Research Methods and New Masculine Subjectivities
  • Chapter 16 Research through, and on, Embodied Movement in Orienting One’s Self towards the Future
  • Chapter 17 Planning with People
  • Chapter 18 Creative, Critical and Democratic Research Dissemination

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  • Eur J Psychol
  • v.17(3); 2021 Aug

Creating a Meaningful Life: Psychobiographical Investigations

Claude-hélène mayer.

1 Department of Industrial Psychology and People Management, University of Johannesburg, Johannesburg, South Africa

2 Faculty of Cultural Studies, European University Viadrina Frankfurt (Oder), Frankfurt, Germany

Paul J. P. Fouché

3 Department of Psychology, University of the Free State, Bloemfontein, South Africa

Roelf van Niekerk

4 Department of Industrial and Organisational Psychology, Nelson Mandela University, Port Elizabeth, South Africa

This article serves as the editorial to the Special Issue of Europe’s Journal of Psychology that focusses on “Creating a meaningful life: Psychobiographical investigations.” The introduction provides a brief overview of the articles that offer original and innovative approaches to the growing research area of psychobiography, meaning and identity from different theoretical, methodological, disciplinary and socio-cultural background.

It does not have to be pretty. It has to be meaningful. — Duane Hanson, American Sculptor, 1925–1996

Psychobiographical research focuses on the lives of extraordinary individuals and employs psychological theory to clarify and illuminate historically significant events, processes and contributions ( Fouché & van Niekerk, 2010 ). In essence, psychobiographies are psychological biographies that offer explorative psycho-historical descriptions and interpretations of life history data. It is for this reason that the field of psychobiography is often viewed as a sub-division of psycho-history.

During the past four decades psychobiographical research has developed into a vibrant and popular area of research and gained considerable international interest ( Elms, 1988 , 1994 , 2007 ; Kasser, 2017 ; Mayer & Kovary, 2019 ; McRunyan, 1997 ; Ponterotto, 2015 ; Schultz & Lawrence, 2017 ; Wegner, 2020 , in press ). The study of individuals is an intriguing and illuminating field in psychology that contributes to the understanding of individual personality development within the socio-cultural and historical context ( Mayer, Fouché, & van Niekerk, 2021 ; McAdams, 1994 ; Ponterotto & Moncayo, 2018 ). Some psychobiographies also investigate multiple personalities with a common dimension amongst them. An example is the work by Carolina Saccaggi (2015 ), titled “ Leading the latter-day Saints: Psychobiographical studies of Mormon Prophets. ”

Extraordinary individuals (sometimes also referred to as significant individuals) have been studied from multiple perspectives ( Fouché, 2015 ; Fouché, Nortjé, Welman, & Van Niekerk, 2018 ; Fouché & van Niekerk, 2010 ; Mayer & Kovary, 2019 ; Mayer et al., 2021 ; Ponterotto, 2017 ; Ponterotto, Reynolds, Morel, & Cheung, 2015 ). A range of methodological and theoretical approaches have been used to provide alternative interpretations of entire lives or selected life events ( Mayer, 2017 ; McAdams, 1999 ; McRunyan, 1997 ). The meaning of life and how it is defined and created elucidate how actions and experiences are constructed and ultimately, how lives are lived. Psychobiographies on meaning-creation have, however, hardly been published to date ( Mayer, 2021 ; Mayer & Kelley, 2021 ). In the past psychobiographical studies have often focused on psychoanalytical interpretations of significant individuals’ and their possible psychopathology. On the other end of the continuum, some historical psychobiographies also tended to use religious explanations of “saintly” persons. This is commonly referred to as hagiographies, whereby undue reverence is given to certain individuals. It appears that there has been a move away from both “pathologising” individuals on the one hand and showing undue and undeserved reverence of individuals on the other hand. The focus has shifted towards valuing their psychological strengths and the meaning they create from past life trauma, their creativity and productivity in their various areas of expertise. This entails a more eugraphic approach to undertaking psychobiography.

Aim of This Special Issue

This special issue aims to fill the gap on meaning-creation in psychobiographical research. It particularly focuses on the creation of meaning to life and significant events in the lives of extraordinary individuals. The aim is to uncover and reconstruct the characteristics, virtues, events, existential forces, life-themes, narratives and talents that enable significant individuals to create meaning in their lives.

Contributions in This Special Issue

This special issue includes nine psychobiographical investigations on creating a meaningful life from different disciplinary, socio-cultural, historical, political, and economic perspectives. The investigations address and develop previous psychobiographical research by promoting a focus on the question on how to create a meaningful life. The Special Issue further includes a Book Review and this Editorial. The contributions in this Special Issue are written by twenty authors from four continents and seven countries, namely South Africa, Australia, the US, Hungary, Poland, Greece and Germany. It thereby contributes to making psychobiographies an impactful global research topic.

This section provides a brief overview of the articles published in this Special Issue.

This Special issue starts with the article “ The meaning of life and death across Frankl’s life: Archetypal and terror management perspectives ” written by Claude-Hélène Mayer, Nataliya Krasovska, and Paul Fouché. It aims to uncover the meaning of life and death across the lifespan of the extraordinary person, Viktor Frankl (1905–1997). The study describes the meaning of life and death through two theoretical approaches: the archetypal analysis based on Carl. Jung’s and Carol Pearson’s work as well as a terror management approach based on the melancholic existentialist work of Ernest Becker. The article evaluates how archetypes and death anxiety interacts and how they built meaning in different stages of Frankl’s lifespan. The theories are discussed and illustrated in the light of Viktor Frankl’s life.

In the article written by Hanan Bushkin, Roelf van Niekerk , and Louise Stroud titled “ Searching for meaning in chaos—Viktor Frankl's story ”, the focus is on the search for meaning within unpredictable, life-threatening, and chaotic contexts viewed through the lens of Frankl‘s concept of noö-dynamics. Although Frankl formulated his existential approach to psychological practice before WWII, his experiences in the concentration camps confirmed the view that it is through a search for meaning and purpose in life that individuals can endure hardship and suffering. In a sense, Frankl’s theory was tested in a dramatic way by the tragedies of his life. This article focuses specifically on the period between 1942 and 1945 and explores Frankl’s strategies for attaining meaning. In his theory Frankl proposed that the creation and discovery of meaning can be achieved through creative pursuits, the experience of love, and through an attitudinal value. This investigation indicated that Frankl created meaning by employing at least eight strategies: creative pursuits, serving others, contradicting experiences, committing to decision, establishing spiritual connections, perceiving meaningless tasks through meaning-creation lenses, creating and pursuing goals, and lastly, maintaining an unconditional attitude of strength. The article contributes by shedding light on specific principles and strategies to create meaning in unchangeable circumstances and contexts.

Carla Nel, Barbara Burnell, Paul, Fouche , and Roelf van Niekerk , provide in their article “ Meaning and wellness: A comparative psychobiography of the lives of Helen Suzman and Beyers Naudé ” a comparative psychobio­graphical study pregarding the lives of two extraordinary individuals. A comparison of the construction of meaning, as an important aspect of wellness within the holistic wellness model, is made for these South African anti-apartheid activists. Suzman (1917–2009) dedicated her career to opposing apartheid policy as parliamentary politician. Naudé (1915–2004) was a renowned public figure dedicated to the pursuit of social justice in his role as theologian. The holistic wellness model views spirituality as crucial to ascribing meaning to life events and underlines the importance of meaningfulness in enhancing wellness. In addition, the model acknowledges multiple potential sources of meaning. The differences and similarities pertaining to the domains of meaning-making of these two subjects are discussed in this article. The article contributes, through the use of a comparative psychobiographical methodology to the eugraphic exploration of the meaning-making processes of these exemplary individuals.

“ The emperor of fashion’s new starts—Karl Lagerfeld’s creativity in psychobiographical perspective ” is written by Claude-Hélène Mayer and James Kelley . It deals with the life of the fashion designer Karl Lagerfeld and his creative approach to work and life. The authors apply two specific creativity theories to Lagerfeld’s life and work, namely the mini-c, little-c, Pro-c and Big-C creativity theory and Sternberg’s WICS-model. The article uses a psychobiographical case study design formulated according to a research paradigm of modern hermeneutics. The findings demonstrate the interplay of mini-c, little-c, Pro-c and Big-C creativity throughout the subject’s lifetime, as well as the subject’s application of WICS, both of which led to the subject’s worldwide success.

The article titled “ The episodic man: How a psychobiography of Donald Trump casts new light on research into narrative identity, ” written by Dan McAdams , emphasizes that people create meaning through life narrative. The author presents the life and personality narration of Trump throughout his life time and concludes that Trump has an internalized and evolving story of the self that reconstructs the personal past and imagines the future. Trump lived in the emotionally vivid moment (episode), fighting to win each moment. Seeing him through the lens of the episodic man helps to explain many puzzling features of Donald Trump’s personality, from his charismatic effect on millions of Americans to his penchant for lying and malice to his very strange brand of narcissism. This article gives insight into an in-depth analysis of Trump’s episodic nature, suggesting that people vary not only with respect to the kinds of stories they create for their lives but also with respect to the extent to which they construe life in narrative terms.

In their article titled “ The work of a revolutionary: A psychobiography and careerography of Angela Davis ” authored by Jason Reynolds (Taewon Choi), Bridget Anton, Chiroshri Bhattacharjee, and Megan Ingraham reconstruct Davis as a revolutionist, political activist, academic, and writer who has navigated and discussed issues of race, class, gender, and social policies throughout her life. Davis’s story provides a unique understanding of how contemporary issues relate to personal goals and meaning-making in the creation of a career and commitment to a legacy of education and social change. This psychobiography extends beyond the usual to understand more deeply the why of a specific person’s behaviors. It explores Davis’s personal, professional, and representational life using tow theoretical stances, namely the Social Cognitive Career Theory and Simon and Klanderman’s social psychological model for Politicized Collective Identity (PCI). This article thereby expands previously used theoretical models in psychobiography and stimulates new ideas for psychobiography and careerography.

“ The spiritual wellness of an intellectual, novelist, journalist and politician: The meaningful life of Sol Plaatje ” was written by Crystal Welman, Paul Fouché, Pravani Naidoo and Roelf van Niekerk . The study illustrates Sol Plaatje’s (1876–1932) spiritual wellness across his lifespan. As a South African intellectual, novelist, journalist, and politician, Plaatje was also a founder member of the South African Native National Congress, which later became the African National Congress (ANC). His meaningful life history reflected a significant degree of spiritual wellness. The Wheel of Wellness model (WoW) by Sweeney and Witmer was applied to interpret the biographical evidence of spirituality and meaning in his life. Key findings indicate that spirituality characterized Plaatje’s childhood years and continued to play a pervasive role throughout his adult years. His sense of meaning and purpose was personified in the promotion and preservation of human rights and dignity, that embraced inter-racial love, compassion, and service to others.

In their article titled “ An existential psychobiography of Maya Angelou ”, the authors Nadene Harisunker and Carol du Plessis focus on the life of acclaimed author Maya Angelou (1928–2014) through the lens of Frankl’s existential psychology with a specific focus on concepts such as will to meaning and finding meaning in suffering. Angelou’s life autobiographies, poetry, and letters were analysed to contribute to this psychobiography. The inherent search for meaning within Maya Angelou’s life was clearly apparent in the analysis. This study contributes to the development of the research method of psychobiography, with a specific focus on meaning making, using an existential theory for meaning making in Maya Angelou’s life.

The aim of the article titled “ Meaning-making narratives within a puzzle of parts: A psychobiography of Sylvia Plath ”, written by Angela Panelatti, Joseph Ponterotto and Paul Fouché is to unveil Sylvia Plath’s (1932–1963) meaning-making narratives, within her life’s puzzle of parts, by utilizing the Internal Family System (IFS) model of Schwartz. The authors use Alexander’s psychobiographical indicators of salience to prioritise and extract relevant evidence from Path’s life. Additionally, a conceptual framework facilitated the longitudinal exploration of Plath’s meaning-making narratives within her life’s puzzle of parts. In light of Plath’s use of her creative genius to address socio-historical issues and injustices against women, her life lends itself to meaning-making narratives to empower and inspire future generations of previously disempowered groups.

The Special Issue closes with a book review on the book of Dan P. McAdams, a well-known psychobiographer from the United States. Claude-Hélène Mayer , an international pioneer in psychobiographical studies and publications, has reviewed the book in her contribution “ The episodic superhero and the purpose of winning—Psychobiographer Dan McAdams on the life and personality of Donald Trump ”. The Book Review provides a comprehensive overview of the psychobiography of Dan McAdams and discusses selected theses provided in the psychobiography on Trump.

A Future Vision of Psychobiography and Meaningful Lives

This Special Issue presents the latest studies on psychobiography in the context of creating a meaningful life. The studies offer particular insights into specific individuals in socio-cultural contexts from different conceptual and theoretical, as well as methodological stances within psycho-history.

It is suggested that future studies in psychobiography and about meaningful lives can contribute to creating a world and realities of readers who might be inspired by the creation of meaningfulness of extraordinary individuals. It is further assumed, that for a future healthy, balanced world, a new focus on meaningfulness in life is urgently needed. This Special Issue contributes to providing insights into new and original ideas of extraordinary individuals to construct a meaningful life and world from various disciplinary, social and cultural perspectives. The editors therefore hope to contribute stimulating discourses which add value to the readership of EJOP.

Acknowledgments

We would like to thank Professor Vlad Glãveanu for the kind support in publishing this Special Issue with EJOP.

Biographies

Claude-Hélène Mayer (Dr. habil., PhD, PhD) is a Professor in Industrial and Organisational Psychology at the Department of Industrial Psychology and People Management at the University of Johannesburg, an Adjunct Professor at the European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany and a Senior Research Associate at Rhodes University, Grahamstown, South Africa. She holds a Ph.D. in Psychology (University of Pretoria, South Africa), a Ph.D. in Management (Rhodes University, South Africa), a doctorate in Political Sciences (Georg-August University, Germany), and a habilitation in Psychology with focus on Work, Organizational, and Cultural Psychology (European University Viadrina, Germany). Her research areas are: transcultural mental health, salutogenesis and sense of coherence, shame, transcultural conflict management and mediation, women in leadership, creativity, and psychobiography.

Prof. Paul J. P. Fouché is a registered Counselling Psychologist. He obtained a B Soc Sc, B Soc Sc Honours (Psychology), and M Soc Sc (Counselling Psychology) at the University of the Free State as well as a D Phil (Psychology) at the University of Port Elizabeth. For his doctoral research, he completed a psychobiography on Field-Marshall Jan Christiaan Smuts. Paul is currently employed in the Department of Psychology at the University of the Free State. He was previously employed at the Vista University (Welkom Campus) and the University of Port Elizabeth.

Prof. Roelf van Niekerk is a registered Clinical and Industrial Psychologist as well as a Master Human Resource Practitioner. He obtained a BA Theology, BA Honours (Psychology), and MA (Industrial Psychology) at the University of Stellenbosch; a MA (Clinical Psychology) and D Phil (Psychology) at the University of Port Elizabeth, and a M Ed (General Education Theory and Practice) at Rhodes University. Roelf is currently the Director of the School of Industrial Psychology and Human Resources at the Nelson Mandela University. He was previously employed at the Universities of Port Elizabeth, Free State, Fort Hare, and Rhodes University.

The authors have no funding to report.

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

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biographical

Definition of biographical

Examples of biographical in a sentence.

These examples are programmatically compiled from various online sources to illustrate current usage of the word 'biographical.' Any opinions expressed in the examples do not represent those of Merriam-Webster or its editors. Send us feedback about these examples.

Word History

1714, in the meaning defined at sense 1

Dictionary Entries Near biographical

biographize

Cite this Entry

“Biographical.” Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary , Merriam-Webster, https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/biographical. Accessed 5 Jan. 2024.

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Center for Biographical Research

For four decades, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly has explored the theoretical, generic, historical, cultural, and practical dimensions of life writing. Once a year, a formal, guest-edited special issue explores a topic of emerging critical interest, including most recently Graphic Medicine, guest edited by Erin La Cour and Anna Poletti. Biography also publishes insightful reviews and an annual bibliography of works about life writing. Our newest feature, the International Year in Review, invites contributors from around the world to produce concise essays on some of the most influential publications in biography, autobiography, memoir, and other forms of life writing, offering personal perspectives on global trends in the field.

Submission Guidelines

Unsolicited submissions to  Biography are welcome. Texts should be double-spaced and approximately 2,500 to 9,500 words in length, including works cited lists and endnotes.  Biography  is now using the eighth edition of the Modern Language Association (MLA) reference and works cited system. Authors are welcome to submit their essays to  Biography  following MLA’s guidelines, or they can use another style and reference system with which they are more comfortable. Please include a 50-word abstract and a biographical note of one or two sentences. All copyrights are held by the Biographical Research Center unless other arrangements are agreed upon.

Biography  follows a policy of double-anonymous submissions . Authors should email their essays to [email protected] without their names appearing anywhere on or in the document. Until a final decision is reached, the identity of the author will not be revealed to outside readers or our acquisition editors.

If you are unable to anonymize your work without significantly interfering with your argument, please include in a cover note to the managing editor with your submission a message stating that anonymizing your text was not possible. We will not be able to conduct double-anonymous peer review for your text under these circumstances, but the managing editor will maintain a single-anonymous review, where the names of your text’s readers will be protected.

Biography does not consider simultaneous submissions. Submissions sent to  Biography should not be under consideration by any other publisher. Because we ask you to wait until we have made a decision about your piece, we aim to send final decisions to authors within four months from the original submission date. We also ask that authors send us a single submission at a time.

Inquiries are welcome. Send all editorial correspondence to  Biography at [email protected] . Please address questions about book reviews to our Book Review Editor at [email protected].

Copyright and Republication

Copyright to essays and reviews appearing in Biography are held by the Biographical Research Center, unless otherwise stated. Authors are free to post and/or republish their individual pieces in their institutional repositories or other publications as they see fit. We ask that authors ensure that Biography is credited as the first publisher, and that authors let us at Biography know about their republications.

Biography only obtains permission to publish images in its own print and online formats. Republication of articles with images will require the author to seek out formal permission to republish these images.

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COMMENTS

  1. Biographical research

    Biographical research is a qualitative research approach aligned to the social interpretive paradigm of research. The biographical research is concerned with the reconstruction of life histories and the constitution of meaning based on biographical narratives and documents.

  2. An Introduction to Biographical Research

    This basic research orientation constitutes telling the sub­ject's story in chronological order with emphasis upon the development of a quest plot (life pattern-stages) and the description of acts of recognition (or notoriety) as the biographer marches through the life of the biographical subject.

  3. Biographical research

    Biographical research is a qualitative research approach aligned to the social interpretive paradigm of research. The biographical research is concerned with the reconstruction of life histories and the constitution of meaning based on biographical narratives and documents. The material for analysis consists of interview protocols , video recordings, photographs, and a diversity of sources.

  4. PDF Introduction to Biographical Research

    Biographical research is a wide field of different approaches und research strategies with blurred boarders and overlapping areas. Therefore it seems to be useful to orient oneself in this jungle of empirical strategies and conceptual ideas.

  5. Biographical Research

    Biographical research is a qualitative research approach that follows the social interpretation paradigm of research. Biographical research is concerned with reconstructing life histories and constructing meanings based on biographical stories and documents.

  6. (PDF) Biographical Research

    Biographical research aids in developing a concept of learning which is context-specific, rather than dependent on individual traits, such as personality or cognitive ability. This approach...

  7. Introduction: Reconstructive biographical research

    Reconstructive biographical research is a distinct sociological approach to social analysis. It explores the interrelation between 'biography' and 'society' and thus belongs to those sociological approaches that are linked to the assumption that 'society' is made up of individuals and cannot be conceived independently of their interpretations and actions.

  8. PDF Biographical research

    The book title Biographical Researchis not intended to be associ-ated with a precise definition but to indicate various, often interrelated, approaches to the study of individuals. Biographical research is an excit-ing, stimulating and fast-moving field which seeks to understand the

  9. Biographical Learning

    Definition. The term "biographical learning" is used to describe the study of the relationships that exists between learning and biography, the influence of biography on learning processes and practices, and biography as a mode of learning (Tedder and Biesta 2007, p. 3). The word bio means life, and it comes from the Greek word bios.

  10. Biographical research

    The biographical research is concerned with the reconstruction of life histories and the constitution of meaning based on biographical narratives and documents. The material for analysis consists of interview protocols ( memorandums ), video recordings, photographs, and a diversity of sources.

  11. Biographical Resources: A Research Guide: Introduction

    Cornell University LibGuides Biographical Resources: A Research Guide Introduction Biographical Resources: A Research Guide: Introduction A selection of major sources of biographical information purchased or licensed by the Cornell University Library. URL: https://guides.library.cornell.edu/biographyresearch Introduction

  12. Biographical Research

    Biographical research evolves as a practice in which the interrelation between biography and society is interrogated. It is an attempt to understand and situate individual life experiences and ...

  13. About: Biographical research

    Biographical research is a qualitative research approach aligned to the social interpretive paradigm of research. The biographical research is concerned with the reconstruction of life histories and the constitution of meaning based on biographical narratives and documents.

  14. SAGE Biographical Research

    Biographical research may take a range of forms and may vary in its application and approach but has the unified and coherent aim to give ′voice′ to individuals. The central concern of this collection is to assemble articles (from sociology, social psychology, education, health, criminology, social gerontology, epidemiology, management and organizational research) that illustrate the full ...

  15. Chapter 2 Biographical Inquiry in: Doing Critical and Creative Research

    The 'turn' to biographical methods brought subjectivity centre stage in the research process and the meaning which people give to their lives. Although popular, biographical inquiry in adult education is characterized by heterogeneity which leads to richness and stimulates debate.

  16. (PDF) Biographical methods

    Biographical methods January 2008 Authors: Joanna Bornat The Old School Abstract The chapter reviews three different approaches to biographical methods, the biographical interpretive method,...

  17. What is biographical research and why is this method ...

    Abstract: Despite of emergence on the 70's on the education field and being consolidate around a decade later, the biographical research is still poorly understood by some researchers and not fully accepted by some members of the scientific academy. The explanation most discussed by theorists is related to the positivist perspective that persists even on human sciences.

  18. Biographical Research: Searching for Meaning

    Biographical Research: Searching for Meaning. Kath Aspinwall View all authors and affiliations. Volume 23, Issue 3. ... (Ed.), Biography and Society, Sage Publications. Google Scholar. Bogdan, R. (1974), Being Different. The Autobiography of Jane Fry, Wiley, London. ... A PLEA FOR BIOGRAPHICAL RESEARCH AS INSIGHT INTO SMALLER FIRM MARKETIN...

  19. Full article: Using biographical approaches to explore student views on

    Contexts and challenges. The linking of learning and life-history approaches is by no means new but it is only recently, with the 'biographical turn' in the social sciences (Citation Chamberlayne et al, 2000), that this methodology has attracted attention beyond a select coterie of advocates.For a long time biographical methods had a limited application even within qualitative research.

  20. PDF Biographical learning : two decades of research and discussion

    History and Biographical Research, a part of the European Society for Research on the Education of Adults (ESREA). The network bears witness to the new interest in biographical ... coherence, identity, a meaning to their life history and a communicable, socially viable lifeworld perspective for guiding their actions (Alheit & Dausien, 2002, p. 17)

  21. Creating a Meaningful Life: Psychobiographical Investigations

    This special issue aims to fill the gap on meaning-creation in psychobiographical research. It particularly focuses on the creation of meaning to life and significant events in the lives of extraordinary individuals. The aim is to uncover and reconstruct the characteristics, virtues, events, existential forces, life-themes, narratives and ...

  22. Biographical Definition & Meaning

    1 : of, relating to, or constituting biography 2 : consisting of biographies a biographical dictionary 3 : relating to a list briefly identifying persons biographical notes biographically ˌbī-ə-ˈgra-fi-k (ə-)lē adverb Examples of biographical in a Sentence

  23. Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly

    About. For four decades, Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly has explored the theoretical, generic, historical, cultural, and practical dimensions of life writing. Once a year, a formal, guest-edited special issue explores a topic of emerging critical interest, including most recently Graphic Medicine, guest edited by Erin La Cour and Anna Poletti.

  24. Biographical Research: Searching for Meaning

    Biographical Research: Searching for Meaning. Kath Aspinwall. Management Education and Development 1992 23: 3, 248-257 Download Citation. If you have the appropriate software installed, you can download article citation data to the citation manager of your choice. Simply select your manager software from the list below and click on download.