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 Capacity building resources

Auto/biographical and narrative approaches

Pat Sikes


Pat is a Professor of Qualitative Inquiry, at the School of Education, University of Sheffield.


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Recent times have seen what has been described by a range of commentators, as a narrative and auto/biographical turn within the social sciences. This ‘turn’, which is associated with post-modernism and a concomitant lack of faith in grand, master, or meta narratives, has had fundamental and far-reaching implications for all aspects of the research process and for how researchers conceptualise the ways in which they make sense of, and re-present, the social world.

Since the early 1980s, auto/biographical and narrative approaches have come to be increasingly popular with researchers working within the field of education and, inevitably, therefore, they are well represented in the TLRP portfolio. Thus projects which explicitly acknowledge and which, to a greater or lesser extent, make use of them include:

Within the thematic seminar series, papers reporting auto/biographical and narrative research have been particularly prominent in the seminars focusing on: ‘Transitions through the life course: analysing the effects of identity, agency and structure’ (; ‘Social Diversity and Difference: Researching Inequalities in Teaching and Learning’ (; and ‘Changing Teacher Roles, Identities and Professionalisms’ (

The popularity of auto/biography with educational researchers is not surprising (and the slash is there as a reminder of the dialectical relationship between individuals and the societies in which they live, and of the way in which biographies are always mediated through the auto/biographies of those who interpret, analyse and re-present them, see Stanley, 1993). This is because teaching and learning – which are, after all, the fundamental businesses of, and raison d’etre for, education - involve people with particular histories who have had particular experiences, who hold particular beliefs and values and who, consequently, construct particular and different situational identities for themselves, coming together, relating to each other and interacting in a variety of ways. On the basis of usage, it would appear that many agree with Robert Bullough’s view that, ‘when seeking to explain why something happened in a classroom (and educational encounters in a more general sense), increasingly the road to understanding takes a biographical turn, not a detour….. the public and private cannot be so easily separated in teaching (and in learning)….. the person comes through when teaching (and learning)’ (1998, pp. 19 – 21, my italic additions).

A variety of approaches come under the heading of auto/biographical research and a range of them are seen within TLRP projects, where they are often used alongside other methodologies and methods. Norman Denzin gives some idea of just how wide the field is when he notes that it encompasses:
life, self, experience, epiphany, case, autobiography, ethnography, auto-ethnography, biography, ethnography, story, discourse, narrative, narrator, fiction, history, personal history, oral history, case history, case study, writing presence, difference, life history, life story, and personal experience story. (1989, p. 27)
To that list might also be added testimonio, performance ethnography, participatory action research, confessional tales, socio-poetics, collective autobiography, diary research – and there are more, each with their own distinctive characteristics, intentions and rationale.

Essentially though, auto/biographical research is research that starts from and focuses on the personal and subjective perceptions and experiences of individual people.  Where it goes next and what forms it then takes depends on the particular variant being employed. Without exception though, TLRP projects use auto/biographical approaches that are concerned to locate the individual in the wider social, cultural and historical contexts they inhabit, and which use sociological or psychological theory as interpretational and explanatory tools.

The Variations in Teachers’ Work, Lives and their Effects on Pupils TLRP associate project, that was funded by the DfES (see is a good example here and it also provides an excellent illustration of the salience of Bullough’s (1998) reflection quoted earlier. This multi-method project sought to investigate how the personal, work and policy contexts which teachers experience, influence their effectiveness as seen in terms of pupil attainment. One of the key questions the project addressed was, what are the roles of teacher biography and identity: how do they relate to pupil outcomes? The personal and biographical data that was generated through face to face interviews with teachers gave insights that could not have been obtained by other approaches, into how teachers of different ages, at different career and life stages and working in different school contexts perceived and experienced their work. Findings from interviews, teacher and pupil questionnaires and pupil assessment data consequently provided a comprehensive, detailed and holistically based perspective on teacher quality, retention and effectiveness over the whole of the professional career span which could be used to inform policy and practice.
Shifting the focus on to learners,  the Learning Lives: Learning, Identity and Agency in the Life Course project ( used retrospective and ‘real time’ life history and life course approaches (see Goodson & Sikes, 2001), complemented by a longitudinal survey study, to trace and reconstruct the learning biographies of 150 adults aged from 25 through to 65+ The research has focused upon the significance and impact key life course transitions and events have upon and for learning, for sense of identity, and for agency. Taking such an approach yields data which reveals the inter-relationships between different areas of life and between the individual and the contexts in which they live. It also can help to illuminate the ways in which people make decisions and choices about engaging with formal and informal learning situations. Such information can be of use to those engaged in the teaching, support and guidance of adults of different ages and at different stages of their lives. In addition to substantive findings, the project team have reflected on their use of these auto/biographical approaches (

Looking at younger learners, the thematically associated TLRP project, the   Identity and Learning Programme ( has, over 12 years, taken a longitudinal, ethnographic, biographical and narrative approach to track the social influences experienced by two cohorts of children as they have moved through their time in compulsory schooling. A study of this kind provides a unique and valuable resource which shows, among other things, how learning progresses and identities (as learners) develop and, paA   rticularly given that the cohorts came from co-educational primary schools in contrasting ‘professional’ and ‘working class’ areas, highlights the differentiating effects of social class and gender. Over the years since the project began in 1987, there have been a number of publications which both explore and attest to the richness of the approach (  

As well as the sort of general, overall view of teaching and learning careers provided by the examples cited above, auto/biographical approaches can be effective in investigating students’ experiences of specific subject areas. The Keeping Open the Door to Mathematically Demanding Further Education and Higher Education Programmes project ( focuses on mathematics and uses data drawn from biographical interviews with 16 – 19 year olds to investigate the ways in which different cultures of maths learning and teaching offer different learning outcomes and mathematical identities for school students who are socio-culturally differently positioned, in terms of class, gender and community. Such work helps to identify students who may be at risk of exclusion from participating in post-16 maths education and who, consequently would be unable to gain the qualifications necessary for entry into certain professions (egg medicine, engineering). It can also shed light on how social class influences students’ mathematical identities and how certain pedagogical practices may tend to further exclude particular groups of students.

It is axiomatic that attempts to widen participation require some understanding of why certain people do not pursue further or higher education. The Non-Participation in Higher Education: Decision Making as Embedded Social Practice ( goes beyond what could be described as the obvious structural and macro sources of explanation for non-participation (such as social class, gender and ethnicity) and looks at the influence of intergenerational networks of intimacy. The project has taken a case study approach to explore the attitudes towards higher education of 16 non-participating, but potentially recruitable, individuals. It has then gone on to talk with 5 or 6 of these people’s family members and friends in order to investigate the ways in which social and familial intimacies and commitments can underlie and inform educational decision making. The biographical information obtained by these means has been considered in the context of a review of the extant literature, including large-scale survey data, and findings from interviews with widening participation practitioners and key informants. Such an approach yields far more in-depth insights into the complexities relating to participation in higher education than do previous and conventional studies which have tended to focus solely on non-participants under the age of 30.

Auto/biographical research, of what ever variety and regardless of its focus, relies upon narrative. This is because the way in which we gain access to ‘the person (who) comes through’ (Bullough, 1998, p. 21), whether they be the teacher or the learner, to their understandings of the situations they experience, and to their identity/ies, is through the stories – the narratives – they construct and tell. Stuart Hall has noted that ‘identities are the names we give to the different ways we are positioned by, and position ourselves within, the narratives of the past’ (Hall, 1994, p.394), thus emphasising the importance and centrality of biography to any investigation which seeks to investigate diversity and difference. Personal accounts or narratives are essential for auto/biographical researchers for,
stories are the closest we can come to experience as we and others tell our experience. A story has a sense of being full, a sense of coming out of a personal and social history…. Experience …. is the stories people live. People live stories and in the telling of them reaffirm them, modify them, and create new ones. (Clandinin & Connelly, 1994, p. 415)

Referring specifically to sociologists, but, arguably with far wider application, David Silverman suggests that,
‘all we sociologists have are stories. Some come from other people, some from us. What matters is to understand how and where the stories are produced, which sort of stories they are, and how we can put them to intelligent use in theorizing about social life’ (1998, p. 111).

Stories, narratives, provide the links, connections, coherences and meanings that we need to make sense of, and to understand our perceptions and experiences of the world and of ourselves: and this is the case whether or not our sense making goes under the heading of research. At this point it is important to be absolutely clear that the narratives and stories being referred to here can be both the stories researchers decide constitute the ‘data’ for any particular research project AND the stories they tell as researchers. As Catherine Reismann puts it, ‘storytelling, to put the argument simply, is what we do with our research materials and what informants do with us’ (1993, p. 1).  Thus data stories are the narrative accounts collected in the search for information, either from informants or from other sources (e.g. written in questionnaires, diaries, logs, etc; spoken in interviews; observation reports made by researchers themselves; personal reflections for auto-ethnographies; photo/video journals; documentary evidence, etc). Research stories, on the other hand, are the accounts that researchers give relating to the conduct of and findings resulting from, their work, usually presented in written form, in journal articles, books, reports, posters, on web sites, and so on. Traditionally these accounts have taken particular ‘scientific’ forms that emphasise objectivity, rationality and logical reasoning, seeking (or purporting) to tell universal truths. Explicitly and avowedly narrative research accounts by contrast, tend to emphasise subjectivities and contextual circumstances and the way in which events are causally linked and given meaning by their connections. They tell a story that is usually temporally and spatially located. Somewhat ironically, perhaps, it is possible for research to present narrative data in a traditional scientific, rather than explicitly narrative, form. Indeed, it is only in relatively recent times, as post-modernist notions and understandings concerning multiple realities have begun to have wider influence and currency, that narrative presentations have really gained any degree of acceptability in academia (see Richardson, 2000; Plummer, 2001). Also, and as Patricia Clough has stated, ‘all factual representations of reality, even statistical representations, are narratively constructed’ (1992, p. 2). Jerome Bruner (1996) makes the similar argument that story making is central to creating an understanding of the world into which a person can feel they will fit.  He claims that all cultures have logical-scientific and narrative forms of thinking and that not all cultures privilege these two aspects in the same way.  He is not trying to establish a binary relation here because, he argues, logical-scientific thinking needs narrative to contextualise and explain it.  Conversely, narrative thinking needs to be analysed, understood and described on occasions, perhaps, using logical-scientific forms of thinking to carry out the analysis of the narrative data.  In other words the two modes of thought are not mutually exclusive, but, rather, interdependent. 

Taken as a whole, the projects that make up the TLRP provide a powerful demonstration of the benefits of taking the sort of complementary, inter-dependent Bruner’s line would appear to suggest. Indeed, the whole TLRP endeavour can be read and understood as a narrative which is seeking re-present the UK educational landscape at the present time. The substantive, methodological and philosophical diversity of the constituent projects contribute to the richness, scope and strength of the story. Go to and start reading!


Bruner. J. (1996) The Culture of Education London, Harvard University Press

Bullough, R. (1998) ‘Musings on Life Writing: Biography & Case Studies in Teacher Education’ in Kridel, C. (Ed) Writing Educational Biography New York, Garland, pp 19 – 32

Clandinin, D. & Connelly, F. (1994) ‘Personal Experience Methods’ Inquiry’ in Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (Eds) The Handbook of Qualitative Research Thousand Oaks, Sage, pp. 413–427

Clough, P. (1992) The Ends of Ethnography London, Sage

Denzin, N. (1989) Interpretive Biography London, Sage

Goodson, I. & Sikes, P. (2001) Life History Research in Educational Settings: Learning From Lives Buckingham, Open University Press

Hall, S. 1994 Cultural Identity and Diaspora, in:P. Williams & L. Chrisman (Eds.) Colonial Discourse and Postcolonial Theory: A Reader New York, Columbia University Press.

Plummer, K. (2001) Documents of Life 2: An Invitation to a Critical Humanism London, Sage

Richardson, L. (2000) ‘Writing: A Method of Inquiry’ in Denzin, N. & Lincoln, Y. (Eds) The Handbook of Qualitative Research 2nd Edn Thousand Oaks, Sage, pp. 923 – 948

Riessman, C. (1993) Narrative Analysis London, Sage

Silverman, D. (1998) Qualitative Research: Theory, Method and Practice London, Sage

Stanley, L. (1993) ‘On Auto/Biographies in Sociology’ Sociology 27, 1, pp. 41 - 52

How to reference this page: Sikes, P. (2007) Auto/biographical and narrative approaches. London: TLRP. Online at (accessed )

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