Does my life make social science?

The Turn to Biographical Methods in Social Science
November 10, 2000

As we know, prophets are not honoured in their own country. More pertinently, creative ideas and innovations emerging from the margins or from lowly placed, beleaguered universities, have to struggle for recognition in an intellectual field where institutional force majeure prevails.

In large part, this book arises out of a seven-country EU-funded study of "Social Strategies in Risk Society", coordinated between 1996 and 1999 from the University of East London. The text is the product of a faculty in which the teaching of sociology, anthropology, psycho-social studies, politics, cultural studies, philosophy and social policy are all closely juxtaposed and in which the multicultural character of the student population constantly poses a challenge to notions of identity and social behaviour differently predicated by those disciplines. The European dimension generalises this particularity and gives the book bargaining power. It deserves to stimulate cross-disciplinary debate at a fundamental level in all social science faculties.

This is not to say that the text is unproblematic. It tries too hard and to do too much. The opening introduction by the three editors outlines a range of intentions but does not quite hold them together. In theory and through case studies, the book seeks to harness various uses of biographical methods - in oral history, gender studies, psychoanalysis and in narratology in gerontology - so as to establish their legitimacy as social science. There appears, also, to be a secondary sub-textual purpose - to revive Anglo-German intellectual relations at the likely expense of French influence. The book’s third, explicit  purpose is to consider the relationship between biographical methods and social practice - in medicine and social policy.

An important contribution to the collection is Michael Rustin’s "Reflections on the biographical turn in social science"? He confronts the crucial question - how can individual life histories contribute to an endeavour that can call itself "social science". He argues cogently that social theories that have accommodated the agency of individuals have, in fact, always been prepared to accommodate that agency only on the assumption that individuality is socially preconstructed. Rustin wants to recognise the essentiality of autonomous selves and also still construct sociological explanations. To avoid collapse of the individual into the social, Rustin argues for the need to draw inferences about social structures from individual case studies, like deploying ethnographic records in anthropology or knowledge generation in psychoanalysis.

The consequence is that this collection makes gestures in favour of "reflexivity" but is primarily interested in using the reflexivity of others in ways that sustain the authority of unreflexive social scientific practitioners. Biography is coopted as a prop for an ailing, institutional social science when it could be a springboard for more democratic forms of socio - analytic encounter. While Daniel Bertaux offers a brief critique of Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of "capital", the whole collection needs to show more awareness of the challenges posed by Bourdieu’s unique combination of anti-essentialism, anti-positivism and anti-academicism.

This debate will continue in the corridors at UEL, but is one that has far-reaching implications for the teaching of social science in the new century and for which this book is a welcome stimulus.

Derek Robbins is lecturer in politics and anthropology, University of East London.   

The Turn to Biographical Methods in Social Science: Comparative Issues and Examples

Editor - Prue Chamberlayne, Joanna Bornat and Tom Wengraf
ISBN - 0 415 22837 9 and 22838 7
Publisher - Routledge
Price - £60.00 and £17.99
Pages - 346

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