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Narrative Theory

Teacher Education Quarterly

The Rise of the Life Narrative

The story, then, provides a starting point for developing further understandings of the social construction of subjectivity, if the stories stay at the level of the personal and practical, we forego that opportunity. Speaking of the narrative method focusing on personal and practical teachers’ knowledge, Willinsky (1989) writes: “I am concerned that a research process [that] intends to recover the personal and experiential would pave over this construction site in its search for an overarching unity in the individual’s narrative” (p. 259).

These then are the issues that begin to confront us as the age of the life narrative gathers pace. Let us then review some of the problems that working with individual life narratives face. First the personal life story is an individualizing device if divorced from context. It focuses on the uniqueness of individual personality and circumstance and in doing so may well obscure or ignore collective circumstances and historical movements. Life stories are only constructed in specific historical circumstance and cultural conditions—these have to be bought into our methodological grasp.

Second then, the individual life story far from being personally constructed is itself scripted. The social scripts people employ in telling their life story are derived from a small number of acceptable archetypes available in the wider society. The life story script, far from being autonymous, is highly dependent on wider social scripts. In a sense what we get when we listen to a life story is a combination of archetypal stories derived from wider social forces and the personal characterizations the life storyteller invokes. The life story therefore has to be culturally located as we pursue our understandings.

In general, life stories themselves do not acknowledge this cultural location explicitly; neither do they reflect explicitly on their historical location in a particular time and place. The life story as data, therefore, faces a third dilemma in that it can be a de-contextualizing device, or at the very least an under-contextualizing device. This means that the historical context of life stories needs to be further elucidated and they need to be understood in relationship to time and periodization. We can think of time, as the French Annalistes do, as existing at a number of levels.

First there is broad historical time—the large sweeps and periods of human history, what the Annalistes called the “longue durée.” Then there is generational or cohort time—the specific experiences of particular generations, say the “babyboomers” born after the Second World War. Then there is cyclical time —the stages of the life cycle from birth through to work and child-rearing (for some) through to retirement and death. Finally there is the personal time—the way each person develops phases and patterns according to personal dreams, objectives, or imperatives across the life-course.

These historical factors associated with time and period have to be addressed as we develop our understandings of life story data. This scrutiny of historical context, more broadly conceived, will also allow us to interrogate the issue of individualizing and scripting mentioned earlier. The aim is to provide a story of individual action within a theory of context. This aim is served when we make the transition from life story studies to life histories.

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  • Date of publication: 08/08/2012
  • Publisher: Teacher Education Quarterly
  • Subject:
    Narrative Theory
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