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 Capacity building resources

Educational Research and policy: epistemological perspectives


Aim of this resource
'What works'
Systematic reviews (web resources)
Generic issues
Large scale population studies
Case study
Stories and narratives
Action research
Philosophical enquiry
Re-imagining educational research


Stories and personal narratives

By Morwenna Griffiths and Gale Macleod, University of Edinburgh

[Note: the full version of the paper which is summarised and referred to here will be published in a special issue of the Journal of Philosophy of Education and subsequently in a book edited by David Bridges, Paul Smeyers and Richard Smith and published by Blackwell in 2008]

We examine the extent to which stories and personal narratives can and should be used to inform education policy. We use the term ‘auto/biography' to refer to research of this kind and this points to the many and varied ways that accounts of self interrelate and intertwine with accounts of others. Auto/biography illuminates the social context of individual lives and at the same time allows room for unique, personal stories to be told. We investigate the epistemology underlying auto/biography in the context of social action. We discuss the circumstances in which auto/biography may validly be used by educational policy makers.

We explore the following questions about the evidential weight that can be placed on particular auto/biographies and whether policy makers can have confidence in them:

  1. What are the characteristics of sound auto/biographical research in relation to policy decisions. ?
  2. What kinds of sound contribution can different forms of auto/biography make to what kinds and stages of policy decision?

These questions depend on assumptions about how soundness should be determined. These assumptions are, in turn, dependent on epistemological positions.

Epistemology of the unique and particular.

(1) We begin by drawing on Arendt (1958), that human institutions are made up of a plurality of unique human beings.

(2) Therefore policymakers need to use an epistemology of the unique and particular.

(3) What is needed is the kind of context-specific practical knowledge we can call, using Aristotelian terminology, praxis .

(4) This epistemology of praxis is to be distinguished from one using universal theory. Theory, Arendt points out, pertains to the bios theoretikos , which is explicitly distinguished from the bios politicos (1958, pp. 13-14). The former is concerned with the contemplation of eternal truths. The latter is a life of (public) action concerned with the 'shared and relational space generated by the words and deeds of a plurality of human beings' (Cavarero, 2002, p.506). Cavarero expands on Arendt's argument, pointing out that to try to use theoria to generate phronesis is to have confused the object of knowledge for the two forms of life, bios theoretika and bios politicos . Theoria, the pursuit of enquiry in the bios theoretika , will not result in the praxis needed for the bios politicos. Cavarero has pointed to a reason for the failure of 'political theory' to produce control. The impossibility of the task is not merely a contingent fact of history. The kind of openness required by the bios politicos makes room for individuals to instigate change in a process of co-construction with others.

(5) This epistemology of praxis is also to be distinguished from one using technical know-how or poesis. Just as theoria appears to offer the prospect of order and control so does techne . However poiesis and praxis are different. Praxis requires personal wisdom and understanding, not expertise.

(6) Praxis is open to new perspectives and understandings offered by the singular and unique stories of individual human beings.

(7) Such new perspectives may be in the form of auto/biography.

Truth and validity in auto/biography

If auto/biographies are a necessary part of an epistemology suitable for policy, then there must be ways of ensuring whether they can be trusted, whether they are sound. There are two ways in which such soundness may be challenged: truthfulness and validity. It is the responsibility of the researcher to present an auto/biography in such a way that judgements can be made about its truthfulness and validity.

Drawing on Williams (2002 ) we focus on two basic virtues associated with truthfulness: accuracy and sincerity. He points out that ‘each of the basic virtues of truth involves certain kinds of resistance to what moralists might call temptation – to fantasy and the wish' (p.45). Judging accuracy and sincerity is a matter for judgement, for weighing evidence, rather than a matter of rules or protocols. Researchers need to make such judgements and also give an indication of how they made, using evidence of how the auto/biographical accounts were produced, with what intended audience, for what purpose, and setting the judgment within as full an understanding of the cultural, political and personal contexts as could be obtained.

We start from the ordinary language understanding of validity ( Austin , 1979). ‘Valid' retains its original association with the Latin ‘validus' meaning ‘strong' and need not be especially associated with measurement. Merriam-Webster (2006-7) defines it as ‘Well grounded or justifiable: being at once relevant and meaningful'; ‘Having a conclusion correctly derived from premises'; ‘Appropriate to the end in view – effective (as in every craft has its valid method)'.

In the case of auto/biographies, attention needs to be paid to: (1) Representativeness and/or the possibility they provide of re-framing the understanding of what is at issue. (2) Representation, genre and literary quality. (3) Reflexivity – Intentions and ideologies of the audience and the researcher.

Research and policy

There are some areas of study in which autobiographical research can be seen as being particularly well suited. In particular, they include the experiences of people at the margins, such as those whose lives intersect more than one dimension of difference such as race, class, gender, disability, or sexuality. Secondly, research into experiences that unfold over time can be examined especially where longitudinal studies are impractical. Thirdly, there may be areas of research in which large-scale studies fail to capture the nuances of extremely complex situations.

There is a range of purposes of research: it can be seen as generating understanding which may influence policy indirectly; it can be seen as exploring the potential of solutions to problems; it can explore reasons for why those particular solutions work and in what contexts; it has a role to play in challenging taken for granted assumptions about education, and in addressing the question of the proper understanding of education itself. Auto/biography has a different contribution to make to each of these research goals, and each goal will articulate differently with policy at different levels and at the different stages of formation, implementation and evaluation.

Auto/biographical studies are particularly suited to some stages of the policy process. Auto/biographical research may (1) identify a problem which policy may be required to address, viewing things from a different perspective and thus identifying previously hidden issues - that is, it ought to contribute to the setting of the policy-agenda; (2) contribute to the refinement of policy, its evaluation and 'fine tuning'; and (3) contribute not just simply to questions of 'what works?' but to issues such as why, when and in what circumstances what works works, and why, when and where it doesn't.

A note about terminology

Aristotle distinguished the practical wisdom ( phronesis ) needed to work with practical knowledge ( praxis ) from the theoretical wisdom ( sophia ) and theoretical understanding ( episteme ) needed to carry out enquiry into timeless truths ( theoria ). Praxis is the kind of practical knowledge needed for the social and moral judgements made by the phronimos (the possessor of phronesis ). Aristotle also distinguished practical wisdom ( phronesis ) from the expertise ( techne ) needed to apply technical knowledge ( poiesis ) when making things.


Arendt, H. (1958) The Human Condition , ( London and Chicago , University of Chicago Press)

Austin, J.L. (1979) Philosophical Papers , (Third edition) Oxford University Press

Cavarero, A. (2002) Politicizing theory, Political Theory 30 (4) pp. 506-532

Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary (2006-7) valid, (Accessed 3 August, 2007)

Williams, B. (2002) Truth and Truthfulness: An essay in genealogy , ( Princeton and Oxford , Princeton University Press)



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