On turns and differences

On turns and differences

The reflexive, auto/biographical, narrative turn of the post-1970s period has brought with it many changes. Most aspects have been intellectually liberating, as witnessed by the rejuvenation of monograph publication, the rise of journals, and the growth of international scholarly networks, not to mention a veritable avalanche of insightful and innovative research and writing focusing on ‘lives’. However, there are important issues concerning delineation of the field that remain under-discussed. Life writing, narrative enquiry, and auto/biographical studies, have all been distinguished components within this wider intellectual turn; and while many overlaps exist between these different approaches, there are also important differences, although there is a paucity of discussion and debate about this.

How best to promote the long-term survival of interconnected interdisciplinary approaches and ways of working that focus on ‘lives’ and ‘the subject’ or ‘self’? For those who want to see this work continue and indeed grow still further, is the best strategy to foreground the differences that exist, to make it more apparent that the three approaches deal with somewhat different things and do so in different ways and the differences are exciting and productive? Or is it a better guarantor of longevity for the field to ignore the fact that these parallel lines of activity sometimes give rise to clashes and boundary issues, sometimes feature people who work within one approach but seem to have little or no knowledge about the others even when direct relevant, but also include people who have strong allegiances across the separations and create synergies between them? Relatedly, if there are distinctive ideas and styles of analysis associated with life writing, narrative enquiry, and auto/biographical studies, then what more precisely are they? And if differences are to be foregrounded, should these concern matters of theory, or methodology, or substantive focus, or all of them? But also might there be more fundamental differences concerning the ontological and epistemological aspects of lives and how each of the three approaches engages with them? Or instead, a quite different strategy, should the synergies be stressed and a single approach be promoted which focuses on the commonalities and crafts a unified perspective drawing on elements of all of them?

These are important questions. However, currently life writing, narrative enquiry and auto/biographical studies continue to run on parallel lines, and while theoretical discussions are frequent, there has been perhaps surprisingly little debate about these boundary issues and the differences and also the overlaps. Casting an eye over key journals in the field reveals much lively and interesting work of a substantive and also theoretical kind, but little that explores these meta-considerations. Is it perhaps time for someone to propose a special issue of one of the key journals in the field, or perhaps a Handbook that traverses the three approaches, to consider these meta-matters in detail?

Last updated:  4 October 2018