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date: 25 June 2018

Biographical Approaches in Education

Summary and Keywords

Since the 1980s, in different countries, researchers and educators have put into action a number of studies of teachers’ biographies, teachers’ narratives and stories, as well as other ways of employing life history methods, in order to renew the field of education. A vast literature has been produced in the last decades on this perspective, giving testimony to a surprising growth of the educational area under the impulse of such approaches. There was a clear need for a methodological renewal of this field but also a need of a revision of the functions of school and to the way of conceiving education. The idea of lifelong learning frames this scenario and the expectations outlined in the turn of this century, altering profoundly the functions of school and the ends of education. The biographical approaches are taken as an attempt of meeting such demands. However, the work with life histories and biographies has shown different directions, following from a conjugation of factors and from more specific demands for education present in the respective contexts where such experiences have taken place. Such approaches are part of a broader movement of individualization and subjectivism that characterizes contemporary society. The two perspectives focused on in this article—that of English-speaking countries, with a predominant focus on the life and career of teachers; and those developed in Francophone environments, with the focus on the continued education of adults—have shown great growth particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, giving testimony to the appeal that biographical approaches exerted upon researchers and educators. It presents the features of these two trends preceded by an incursion into the field of sociology aiming at highlighting some relevant methodological and epistemological issues. By this way we intend to emphasize the potentiality of biographical approaches to the knowledge of education, drawing attention to the challenges for individuals’ lives in the contemporary society and for the emergence of new ways of conceiving the subjectivities by the new human and social theories.

Keywords: biographical approaches, teacher education, adult education, teachers’ life histories, educational biographies, life histories in education, professional development

Autobiography’s advantage is that, after all, the most fascinating and compelling subject to man is man himself.

—Geraldine Clifford


Teacher education and adult education have become key touchstones in solving the educational problems that challenge most countries today. Under different denominations—pre-service and in-service training, continuing education, professional development, lifelong learning, among others—the recurrence of these themes indicates both the level of concern of governments, universities, and other institutions charged with teacher education; and the recognition that the future of society and of school itself depends largely on the education of teachers and other groups. This has been a major challenge, especially because it implies rethinking the place that schools and teachers occupy in our societies. How do we educate teachers capable of meeting the demands of contemporary school? What competences and skills should they acquire in order to teach the new generations considering, above all, the heterogeneity of the groups attending school today? How do we prepare teachers to work toward the transformation of school and greater social justice?

Among many attempts that have been made to address such questions are the biographical approaches. Since the 1980s, in different countries researchers and educators have conducted a number of studies on teachers’ biographies, teachers’ narratives and stories, as well as on other ways of employing life history methods in order to renew this field of investigation. Indeed, a vast literature has been produced in the last decades on this perspective, giving testimony to a surprising growth of the educational area under the impulse of such approaches. The need for a methodological renewal was clearly felt, but there was also a lack of revision of its theoretical foundations, particularly with respect to the functions of school and to the way of conceiving teacher education, as well as that of adults and other groups that seek education, either initial or continuing education. In fact, biographical approaches imply a different way of conceiving education. It is no longer a matter of bringing education closer to life, but, rather, of considering life itself as the locus of formation. The instability of present times, the loss of traditional cultural references, the emergence of new technologies, among other rapid changes in the contemporary world, all demand a review of the basis upon which education is founded.

In the specific case of teachers, the question was one of turning our attention to them not only as professionals of the teaching, but also as persons with different identities, since they also belong to other social groups, either as youngsters or as adults, of different ethnicities, married or single, in employment or searching for a job: in short, as citizens of a world in constant change. With that, on the one hand, the life of teachers is no longer circumscribed to the world of the school but is situated now within a wider horizon. On the other hand, such widening now includes other social groups hitherto hardly considered as part of the educative scenarios, such as adults and professionals from other areas of education, each one in a different stage of their lives. The idea of lifelong learning frames this scenario and the expectations outlined in the turn of this century, altering profoundly the functions of school and the ends of education, from now on understood in its large scope of formal, non-formal, and informal education. In this way, “learning should not only be systematically extended to cover the entire lifespan, but should also take place ‘lifewide’, i.e., learning environments should be engendered in which the various types of learning can complemented each other organically” (Alheit, 2009, p. 117, emphasis in the original).1 With the multiplication of biographical approaches, questions of methodological, conceptual, and epistemological natures have unfolded, fueling an effervescence of debates and ideas in the area of education. However, this development did not happen homogeneously. Since the 1980s, the work with life histories and biographies has shown different directions, especially between the experiences carried out in English-speaking countries—with a predominant focus on the life and career of teachers—and those developed in Francophone environments, as well in other European countries—with the focus on the continued education of adults. These differences follow from a conjugation of factors and from more specific demands for education present in the respective contexts where such experiences have taken place. However, regardless of their specific features, these trends can be understood as expressions of “the larger movement of individualization and subjectivism that has been underway since the 1970’s” (Delory-Momberger, 2015).

The role of some leaders was also crucial in this process because it was thanks to them and to their beliefs regarding the promising character of biographies and life histories that such approaches could prosper in the educational field. It is impossible to do justice within the space of this article to the wealth and substantiality of these experiences, but it is only fair that we mention some of those pioneers that took on the task of conducting this movement. Among English-speaking authors, Ivor Goodson, who at certain moments had as collaborators expressive names such as those of Stephen Ball, Andy Hargreaves, and that of John Field more recently, was one of the visionaries that perceived the promising character of life histories to the education and research on teachers. In Francophone spaces, names such as those of Pierre Dominicé, Gaston Pineau, and Marie-Christine Josso appear as leaders of the first generation that took on the work with life histories in the field of adult education. These two perspectives gathered momentum particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, giving testimony to the appeal that biographical approaches exerted upon researchers and educators both from the educational field and from other fields that have as their mission the care of the other.

These two trends, despite having developed during the same period, had their own trajectories, progressing in parallel without establishing virtually any dialogue between them. The objective of this article is to present a general characterization of these two trends within the sphere of the movement of biographical approaches that seems to be displaying signs of weaning, at least when we consider the features these trends acquired in the preceding decades. This analysis was preceded by an incursion into the field of sociology aiming at highlighting some methodological and epistemological issues. By this way, we intend to emphasize the potentiality of biographical approaches to the knowledge of teachers’ lives and of other groups of adults from different social and professional contexts. We also draw attention to the challenges for individuals’ lives in the contemporary society, and for the emergence of new ways of conceiving the subjectivities by the new human and social theories.

It is not, therefore, our purpose to offer a thorough review on this theme. The trends on biographical approaches in adult education developed, for example, in the United Kingdom, Germany, Nordic countries, as well in several other European countries, are not included here because their particularities require a special review. However, it is important to register the names of some expressive researchers who have worked in this trend throughout the years, as John Field (2006), Barbara Merrill and Linden West (2009) from the United Kingdom, Henning Olesen (2015) and Kirsten Weber (2010) from Denmark, and Peter Alheit (1995, 2009, 2015) from Germany.2

Theoretical and Epistemological Questions

The pioneers of biographical approaches in the educational field were not working in isolation. In fact, their initiatives were part of a wider movement aiming at recovering life histories through the social sciences, as previously identified by Daniel Bertaux (1981) in the mid-1970s. In that period, Bertaux begins to gather in Paris researchers from several countries (the United States, Canada, Poland, Hungary, Italy, Germany, England, Brazil, and France) that were developing experiences with life histories in their respective fields of knowledge using various theoretical frameworks—the symbolic interactionism, of course, but also Sartrean Marxism, structuralist Marxism, cultural anthropology, historical social psychology, historical sociology, psycho-history, role theory, and interpretive sociology. Bertaux (1981) registers in his Biography and Society that it was a new wave whose guiding principle was given by the examination of “the connection between social dynamics and historical change: what is the relationships between individual and collective praxis and sociohistorical change?” (p. 6, emphasis in the original)

This perspective required, in its turn, the discussion of certain methodological tensions and challenges, including conceptual questions, such as the very distinction between life story and life history. To Bertaux, life stories are oral reports narrated by the person him/herself to someone, whereas life history is a wider work upon the life of a person or of a group, based on several kinds of documents that can also include life stories. The invention of the tape recorder, according to his considerations, modified life stories in a subtle, albeit substantial way, as a kind of data: “While written autobiographies have only one author, tape-recorded life stories are the result of an interaction between two persons” (p. 8). When published, even they can be read as first-person accounts, life stories have in fact two authors, the narrator and the researcher (Catani, 1975, cited by Bertaux, 1981).

Several authors from this new movement were aware of questions of this order, with the insistence that in the work with life histories the interactional situation experienced between researcher and interviewers could not be ignored in the process of analysis. Franco Ferrarotti (1981) calls attention to an important point when he observes that the person telling his/her life history is not telling it to a tape recorder, but to another person. The narrative is not a report of happenings, but the totality of a life experience communicated therein. Ferrarotti (1981, 1983, 1990) has always been a passionate advocate of life histories, particularly by opposing the quantitative methods that, according to him, have threatened to sterilize sociology. He has tried to show that the biographical method, because of its virtues, answers to a sociological double exigency. On the one hand, it is to the need for a methodological renewal due to a generalized crisis of the heuristic instruments of sociology and, on the other hand, to the need for a new anthropology to respond to the demands for a better knowledge of daily life. The limitations of social theories focused on macrostructural explanations, insufficient to account for the problems, tensions, and conflicts that take place in the dynamics of daily life, and up, according to him, opening way to a growing adhesion to the biographical method, faced with the possibilities that this approach offers to the understanding of the relationships between actions and structure, between individual history and social history.

In his classic text On the Autonomy of the Biographical Method, Ferrarotti (1981) attempts to build the basis for a new epistemology. Following the assumptions of the dialectical reason, such as conceived by Sartre (1960), he says:

If we wish to make sociological use of the potential of biography without betraying its essential characteristics (subjectivity, historicity), we must project ourselves straight off beyond the framework of classical epistemology. We must look for the epistemological foundations of the biographical methods elsewhere, in dialectical reason capable of understanding the reciprocal synthetic praxis which governs the interaction between an individual and a social system. (p. 20)

To recognize how the relationships between the social and individual take place, he recommends that we should not take the individual as the unit of analysis, but the primary groups—family, school, and neighborhood, among other groups that serve as mediators between the individual and society. Faithful to the Sartrean theory of mediations, he understands that in this process the individual synthesizes horizontally his/her social context, and vertically the chronological succession of the relationships with the different spaces of mediation.

Maurizio Catani (1981), another European sociologist intensely involved in this movement, has also dedicated special attention to the methodological questions. However, he has a position more flexible than Ferrarotti’s when he admits that interviews can be combined with data obtained through questionnaires. One of his most referenced works, in view of its methodological originality, is Tante Suzanne. Une Histoire de Vie Social [Aunt Suzanne. An History of Social Life] (Catani & Mazé, 1982), whose authorship is shared between him and Suzanne Mazé, whose life history is itself the object of the study. Differently from other studies, Tante Suzanne does not refer to a life circumscribed to social marginality.

Suzanne was a fashion designer in Mayenne at the time of World War I. Later, she became the wife of a watchmaker in Paris, mother of two, and owner of a garden in the suburbs of Paris, without ever denying her origins.3 By taking this history as object of study, Maurizio Catani had as his objective to analyze the passage from tradition to modernity, understood by him as the result of a resurgence of moral individualism. His methodological trajectory led him to identify and describe seven degrees of individualization, going from the simple report of practices limited in time, raised by those who collect them, to the autobiography written without external intervention. The history of social life, by involving exchanges between interviewer and interviewee, is distinct from biographical interview, according to Catani (1981). From his description it is interesting to highlight here two aspects: the ritualization, implying the freedom of the narrator as to the form of conducting the report; and the “chorality,” related to the several interventions (from parents, friends, and other people) as a form of support to the narration. The history of Aunt Suzanne falls into the category of social history.

Aunt Suzanne agreed to talk to the researcher, giving five interviews between June and July 1971, to which several people were present, both on the side of Catani (his wife) and on Suzanne’s (Catani, 1981). During the seven following years (1972–1979) other control interviews were conducted, asking Aunt Suzanne and some of her acquaintances to clarify a few points. The book is organized by themes and recurrent sequences within the interviews, echoed by the songs that Aunt Suzanne recalls from her childhood, opening and closing the interviews. The testimonies of neighbors and friends corroborate her words and reflect the same social universe. The same can be said about the narrator’s garden, which she describes at length to inscribe “as on a blank page” the people dear to her and the place each one occupies in her heart, “the place where, spatially, a whole life is inscribed” (Catani, 1981, p. 428, cited by Mayer, 1984, p. 508).

It is, as observed by Nonna Mayer (1984), an exemplary history of social ascent, going from the “ascension” to Paris, to the admission in the watch store, to buying a piece of land and a small apartment near the Bastille. It is the progressive construction of an ideological and political identity in which values from various sources are mixed: revolutionary, proletarian and socialist, ascetic, traditional, individualistic, originated in the father, the mother, relatives, from the small town and the big city. That was the path (and the life) chosen by Catani to investigate “the history of the passage from a local and legal society, strictly hierarchized, to an individualistic and egalitarian society, from an economy grounded in interpersonal relationships to an economy founded on monetary relationships” (Mayer, 1984).

Bertaux, Ferrarotti, and Catani, as other authors who took part in this movement for the renovation of life histories, have been referenced in the area of education due both to their insights and to the methodological and theoretical bases coming from various disciplines, such as sociology, history, and anthropology, among others. More than three decades after the publication of their works we can still observe the fertility of their ideas. In France, for example, Delory-Momberguer has endorsed Ferrarotti’s assumptions in a “re-founding” work on biographical research (Lechner, 2011), as we shall see later in this article.

Among these theoretical-methodological notes, we could not fail to mention the importance of the role of memory, which constitutes the basis of all work with life histories and biographies. This issue leads us back necessarily to Maurice Halbwachs, who first studied the relationships between memory and public history. It was in his book La Mémoire Collective, Halbwachs (1968) where he first showed that the individual’s memory is linked to the family relationships, to social class, to school, to church, to profession, in short, with the reference groups. For him, collective memory only acquires meaning when shared, since the narrative of the past is provoked and elaborate around references and points in common with the memory of others.

It is in this sense that Halbwachs affirms that memory is a work, since “most times, remembering is not reliving, but redoing, reconstructing, rethinking with the images of today the experiences of the past” (Bosi, 1979, p. 17). Nevertheless, the discourses about the past are incomplete and fragmentary, as we have already put in a previous work (Bueno et al., 1993). This happens because ultimately the memory is a memory of someone who has an identity and the privilege of possessing it and, additionally, because it operates as an instrument of domination. Only the exceptional, the excellent is recorded—all the rest, the ordinary, the vulgar is ignored. In this way, recovering memory has a political role that demands its reconstruction by individuals and social groups gathered into professions or other social groups.

The methodological perspectives outlined in this section suggest new approaches to the study both of the field of adult education and of the specific field of teacher education, with a view to focus on several groups, marginalized or not, as well as on individuals that ascended socially by taking on certain professions or activities. What do we know about the passage from the end of the 20th century to the 21st century, marked by processes of profound changes in social political, economic, and cultural life for practically all peoples? How have these changes been absorbed by different teachers, students, and other individuals and groups? These are some questions that the biographical approaches can help us to answer, as we will see in the next two sections.

The Life and Work of Teachers

The biographies and life histories of teachers appeared in the United Kingdom and in North America in the mid-1970s having Ivor Goodson as their main proponent, who worked at several universities in England, Canada, and the United States and was a visiting professor in many others. Goodson begins along this path in the early 1980s, driven by his interest in knowing how teachers see their work and understand their lives, based on the premise that teachers are agents of their own history. Strongly committed to the area of curriculum, he was convinced that our lack of knowledge about teachers’ lives and schooling was “a manifest indictment of the range of our sociological imagination” (Goodson, 1981, p. 69). Contributing to the production of knowledge in this field was, then, the main objective of his work.

The political and cultural context in which this trend emerged was that of England at the turn of the 1970s, a moment marked by major changes in the British school system ensuing from policies implemented by the Thatcher government. In their Teachers’ Lives and Careers, Stephen Ball and Ivor Goodson (1985) described at length this period, warning from the start that

Any attempt to portray the contemporary situation of teachers’ work and teachers’ careers must inevitably begin by recognizing the changing context within which this work is undertaken and careers constructed. Changes in financing of education, in the degree of political interventions into school matters, and in the views of and general level of esteem for teachers held within the public at large, have, and are having, profound effects upon the ways that teachers experience their jobs. (p. 2)

The authors turn to the 1960s to review the perspectives about teachers that have followed each other since then, and to point out changes that during the next two decades began to impact the work and the career of teachers. From a situation of shortage of teachers and of many possibilities of expansion of the teaching career in the 1960s, they showed that the arrival of the 1980s brought with it a worrying scenario, characterized by unemployment and reduction of demand for the services of teachers, who at the same time found themselves constrained in their autonomy by various forms of control adopted by the new policies. Criticisms and accusations about teachers were coming from everywhere, publicized mainly by the Black Papers that blamed them for the failure of the British school system. Teachers were harshly criticized for negligence in developing their pupils’ basic school skills and of other problems. For the more conservative groups, teachers “had failed do adapt the school curriculum to, or prepare pupils for, the changing needs of British industry” (Ball & Goodson, 1985, p. 4). Clearly, two views of school—one traditional, the other progressive—were in contention, each one assuming different perspectives about the role that the school must play in the education of future generations.

This scenario, and the questions unfolding from it, which were not specific to the United Kingdom, but were also present in other countries, led Goodson and other researchers to the defense of biographical approaches, seeing them as a promising way to unveil the intricacies of life at school, that is, how the reforms are translated into school daily life. They intended to understand how the passage from education macro-policies to education micro-policies occurs, as Ball has proposed since the 1980s (cf. Ball, 2012 [1987]). Other authors, such as the British sociologist Martin Lawn (1990) also came to the defense of teachers’ biographies, who emphasized the moral issue and the responsibility of teachers in the tasks of the curriculum. In Teachers’ Lives and Careers, the perspective of achieving this purpose through research is clearly outlined by Ball and Goodson (1985) when they propose to contribute

in a constructive way, to the existing body of research on teachers’ careers both in substantive terms providing data on neglected and under-researched aspects of teachers’ work and by attempting some conceptual development, which may improve the ways in which we conceive of and understand careers in teaching. In particular, we are hoping to emphasize the need to view teachers’ careers and teachers’ work in relation to and in the context of their lives as a whole. (p. 8)

Goodson has also drawn attention to conceptual and methodological questions involved in the biographical approaches, making constant reference to the Chicago School and its followers. Investigating the Teacher’s Life and Work (Goodson, 2008) is a book in which he explores in a methodological and substantive way how to approach the teacher’s life and work. In the field of teacher education, he observed initially that “a great deal of valuable work on teachers’ stories or narratives was carried out in the 1980’s by academics but much of it did not embrace contextual or intercontextual analysis” (Goodson, 1992, p. 6). This fact led him to propose that the studies with life histories should develop this perspective, focusing on the relationships between the macro and micro contexts, as indicated by the lives of the teachers under study (see Ball & Goodson, 1985; and Goodson, 1981, 1997, 2001). By working along these lines, Goodson has made an invaluable contribution to the field of teacher education, not only with his own studies, but also through the organization of collective works gathering authors from several countries associated directly or indirectly to the biographical approaches.4 Within this category, at least three collections published in the 1990s should be mentioned: Teachers’ Lives and Careers (Ball & Goodson, 1985); Studying Teachers’ Lives (Goodson, 1992); and Teachers’ Professional Lives (Goodson & Hargreaves, 1996), this last one with the collaboration of 19 researchers from eight different countries: Turkey, Sweden, Israel, New Zealand, Canada, the United States, England, and Ireland.

In one of his reviews, Goodson (1997) shows that the work with life histories had its focus enlarged in several directions: “to collaborative biography, to teacher’s professional and micropolitical knowledge,” and to a wide range of studies focusing on feminist and/or gender issues.5 These studies also seek to adopt the perspectives of the “teacher as researcher” and of “action research.” The passionate defense of teachers’ life histories and biographies drives Goodson to highlight the performative character of these approaches. For him, this approach has implicit in it a reconceptualization of educational research itself, since giving voice to teachers presupposes a valuation of subjectivity and the recognition of the right of teachers to speak for themselves. By being seen as subjects of the study, and not just as objects of research, teachers are no longer mere recipients of knowledge produced by professional researchers (Goodson, 1994) to become, as described by Cochran-Smith and Lytle (1993, p. 2), “architects of study and generators of knowledge.” Both Goodson and the American researchers defend the active participation of teachers in the educational research. Goodson admits that this perspective may generate a counterculture with regard to an attitude of resistance to policies that attempt to make teachers “return to the shadows.”

Other potentialities of these approaches were pointed out by Goodson, as the experiences of teaching and professional life of women. This was kind of a novelty in the 1990s, as the studies developed by researchers from several countries, and included in his collections mentioned above, as those of Margaret Nelson (1992), Sue Middleton (1992), and Miriam Ben-Peretz (1996). As women researchers they felt the importance of this focus and to take into account the women’s point of view to better understand the school life. They analyzed, then, biographies of teachers that were still teaching and others already retired. In a similar way Bueno, Catani, Sousa, and Souza (1993) developed in Brazil a project of continued education with a group of women teachers. One of the conclusions of that study is that the production of narratives of school life by the teachers allowed them to develop a kind of counter memory, that is, “a process of deconstruction of images and stereotypes created about the professional in the course of history” (p. 307).6

These works illustrate the diversity of alternatives for investigation and education opened up with the arrival of biographical studies in the field of education, promoting a significant booming of such approaches, both from the political and from the theoretical and practical viewpoints. The noticeable impulse that these approaches acquired since the 1980s began, however, to show signs of weaning since the beginning of the new millennium. In part, this was a consequence of methodological fragilities that became evident with the diversification of such approaches (Nóvoa, 1995, p. 20).7 However, there are other causes at play in this process. They are related to new objects of interest that emerge in the human and social sciences, particularly by the postmodern narrative theory, which deals with the changes in contemporary world, such as the movements and modulations of critical thinking in this new era (Currie, 1998).

Goodson incorporates this perspective of analysis into his works, and this seems to inject new blood into life histories. In Narrative Learning (Goodson, Biesta, Tedder, & Adair, 2010) and other works on this theme, he begins to analyze different forms of narratives that are found underlying teachers’ stories, to know how such narratives primarily influence learning processes. In Developing Narrative Theory: Life Histories and Personal Representation, Goodson (2013) makes clear his vision about this new direction of his research. Based in several contemporary authors, he affirms that “In the emerging world of rapid communication and change, where people have to change jobs and partners with greater regularity, the cartography of life narratives will itself no doubt respond and possibly transform existing patterns.”8

These developments indicate that the biographical approaches are taking a new path. The influences from the new human and social sciences theories—labeled as either postmodern, post-human, critical—in order to characterize contemporary society and the ways by which their changes affect human subjectivities, indeed, have brought new understandings for biographies, as we seek to point out later in this article.

Adult Education and Life Histories in Education

The biographical approaches in Europe, particularly in Francophone environments, acquired particular contours by developing a theoretical-practical model of life histories under a perspective that tried to work with research and education in an indissoluble way. It was not concerned specifically with teacher education, but with adult education, including students and various professional groups seeking continued education. However, the issues brought about by each group were certainly not the same, implying since the beginnings of this work a renewed appraisal of various concepts and methodological procedures.

Pierre Dominicé was one of the pioneers of this line of investigation. Working at the University of Geneva in the 1980s, he embraced the challenges of this work, around which he quickly brought together a constellation of researchers. A transdisciplinary team was formed and its influences reached not only the Francophone world but also beyond. Mathias Finger and Marie-Christine Josso, both from the University of Geneva; and Gaston Pineau, a French Quebecois associated to the University of Montréal and later to the University of Tours (France), joined in, uniting efforts to face the theoretical, methodological, epistemological, and ethical questions that the new enterprise posed.

At the University of Geneva, the prevailing atmosphere was strongly influenced by the Piagetian legacy. It was a legacy that included not only theoretical conceptions about child and adolescent development, but also about epistemology, knowledge, and science, in which adult life had not been contemplated. Additionally, the new group had to face the challenges posed by their boldness of working outside the conventional patterns of research. However, the proposal of Dominicé (2002) was not inscribed within a line of psychological development of adult life. The primary objective of educative biography, as became clear from the start, was solely “the renewal of the pedagogy focused on adults.” Inspired in the methodologies of life histories, he understood that this approach offered a plurality of clues that led to the reflection about this stage in the education of individuals.

The directions taken by adult education, and the place that the latter came to occupy both in academia and in other formative spheres were also a consequence of socioeconomic changes that happened in Europe during the 1960s and 1970s. Particularly since the 1970s, an array of legal devices was introduced in the labor legislation of various countries, so that businesses had to apportion part of their payroll to the education of their employees (Dubar, 2004). The economic crisis, marked by the increase in unemployment, required a new conception of education and of education devices, since these could no longer be envisaged within the conventional limits of initial or professional education (Niewiadomski, 2001). In some countries, like France, continued professional education extended to include not only active employees, but also the unemployed, youngsters, and other groups according to the spirit of inclusion policies.

Dubar (2004) and Niewiadomski (2001) have shown how socioeconomic changes processed in that period can be found at the root of the new forms of organizing continued professional education available since then. They refer more specifically to the French case, but the analysis can also be applied to the situation of other countries. According to Niewiadomski (2001), more than just a way for social actors to adapt to the needs of economy, and more than just an alternative for closing the school and university education gap for those who could not achieve the desired levels of education, continued education has been seen as a form to reduce sociocultural inequalities and to promote more democratic means of societal development.

This is certainly a debatable position, but what matters here is to recall that the context of the European society in the 1960s–1970s, by attributing new functions and expectations to the education of adults, favored the birth and development of life histories in education. It was within that context that an increasing flow of professionals demanded new places at the university and at other institutions. In search of education, these groups comprised a population of distinct profiles, including workers from the most varied segments of society, from rural zones to the large urban centers. It was therefore necessary that educators knew the life trajectories of these groups and expectations, a task for which life histories pointed toward a stimulating path in developing innovative practices of education and research. The initial intuitions came from the experiences of each researcher.

Among the various questions that raised the interest of Dominicé (2002), there were the issues of the almost marginal situation of students in academic life, and the lack of knowledge about the life of adults. After all, how do they connect education with life? What do they do with the education they receive? How do they acquire their knowledge? Pineau, in his turn, brought with him an experience of self-education developed in Canada with the method of life histories applied to the study of “a rather ordinary life”—the life of Marie Michelle, a housewife (Pineau, 1983). He explores the process of appropriation by the subject of his/her power of education. The contributions by Mathias Finger (1984) came from his experience in the field of hermeneutics to deal with the epistemological questions associated with the biographical approaches and to the question of the subject in the research in social sciences.

Along the years, numerous other experiences joined these seminal experiences of the trend of life histories in education. In Les Histoires de Vie, Pineau and Le Grand (1993) described this process through a large historical survey that tried to reveal its groundings and describe the multiform practices that came to characterize this approach, from those that unfold in daily life to those that are developed within the academic disciplines. The authors examined in the early 1990s if we were facing a radically new phenomenon or, on the contrary, if it was a subjective regress indicating an identity crisis (p. 19). A few years later, when carrying out a second historical survey, Pineau (2006) identified three periods in the itinerary of life histories: their “eruption” in the 1980s, their “foundation” in the 1990s, and a third period of “differentiating development” in the 2000s. He draws a picture that allows visualizing the productions that characterize and mark this movement, including the networks and associations created to promote the contact among researchers of this trend since the 1980s.9

The methodological issue was, according to Josso (1999), what most mobilized the pioneers, as well as second-generation researchers. To her, the biographical approaches corresponded to a new research paradigm, emerging “inseparably from the progressive rehabilitation of the subject and of the actor” (p. 13, emphasis in the original, our translation). Along these lines, she reviews the work of a group of authors that gave support to the project that she had been developing alongside her colleagues following the proposal of outlining “a new theoretical horizon in the field of adult education that valued an approach to education centered on the learning subject, making use of a methodology of research-education articulated with life histories” (p. 15). In her trajectory, she identifies two major lines, entitled as life histories as project and “the life histories” in the service of projects (inverted commas in the original). With that, she draws a distinction between the works more closely associated to the original proposal, which took life histories as a project of knowing, from those that used life histories to produce knowledge in other areas and about different themes. Her final words in this article show her concern with the future of biographical approaches:

The theoretical project of life histories in education will give testimony to its vitality beyond the first two generations if researchers and practitioners put as their priority a collective work of theoretical articulation of biographical knowledge produced in the field of education, of self-education and of the processes that characterise them, around an ethical-epistemological perspective. Beyond that, it is necessary to emphasise the need for a work of differentiation and, therefore, of clarification of projects and practices of autobiographical narratives, of approaches to experiences and life histories, so as to name more explicitly, if necessary, the founding choices of the underlying educative project—centred on the educative versus the prescriptive—that bring together the whole of these practices, and to state what they (the practices and options) question, and where they are situated away from the conceptions and school practices still dominant in initial education, as well as continued, general or professional education. (pp. 20–21, our translation)

The years that followed these assessments were years of growth. The networks and associations created helped to promote connections between the researchers, mainly through symposia, meetings, and conferences. These networks have been largely responsible for the dynamics that was established among the various groups throughout the years, stimulating still further the life of life histories. International opening has also been fundamental in this process. Pierre Dominicé mentions in this respect the significant contribution made by Christine Delory-Monberger, who joined the group.

As he registers in his book La Formation Biographique (Dominicé, 2007), the current directions of the biographical approach correspond to a shifting of his knowledge interests, which now are close to the position of Delory-Monberger. The Franco-Germanic education of this researcher and her free transit between literary studies and social sciences, helping her to overcome disciplinary barriers, and giving access to conceptual questions inherited from other biographical traditions. In the preface to her book Biographie et Éducation (Delory-Momberger, 2003) Dominicé emphasizes that the biographical “is a category of experience that allows individuals to integrate, structure, and interpret situations of their lives” (2003, p. viii) without ever dissociating the relationship with themselves from the relationship with the other. At this point, in which the integration of Delory-Momberguer to the “Geneva Group” was happening, Dominicé (2007) showed signs of being dissatisfied, particularly because not all experiences developed as life histories in education converged in fact to the education. Some researchers were enthusiastic, and perhaps even euphoric with the repercussions of the movement that were going beyond Francophone limits, as for example in the Brazilian case.10 Contrariwise, others manifested concern with the lack of a more comprehensive theoretical and methodological debate that could sustain this growth. In 2001, after a seminar at the University of Geneva, Dominicé (2001) manifested this concern, since there was not there a true theoretical and methodological exchange among the plurality of positions presented. This was a testimony to the difficulties that the practice of life histories presents to the researchers that employ it, whatever is the scientific field in which they are working.

Looking back at his research trajectory, the Swiss researcher mentions several difficulties of the work with life histories in education, as well as the theoretical and methodological challenges still to overcome. He recognizes that “Times have changed. Fashions evolved. The passion for life histories attenuated, even if some . . . continue to proclaim the everlasting originality of life histories in education” (Dominicé, 2007, p. 16, our translation). In view of this, his intention is to point out “the challenge of the loss of the theoretical impact of the practice of life histories” (p. 17) when he reflects about the widening of the biographical horizon.

Based on the German sociologist Peter Alheit (1995), he corroborates the idea that “the adult seems to have lost his marks, those that would ensure his complex family, school, professional and ideological identity; without well-defined ideals he is now faced only with himself” (Alheit, 1995, cited by Dominicé, 2006, p. 347). For both the economic factor plays a dominant role nowadays, and that the chronology of the stages of life is now replaced by an existence subjected to ever more complex choices, since many factors come into play. For example are the value of diplomas, which no longer represent guarantees of employment, unemployment as an always possible reality, the new expectations regarding retirement. Dominicé also mentions other aspects that redefine biographies, such as the migration of populations and the “intercultural amalgamates” brought about by the geographical displacements, the instability of world politics, the threatening presence of war, and civil unrest. All of this inevitably impact the visions with which one thinks and conceives life. In anguish, he asks: “Faced with violence, with carnage or misery, how can one be insensitive? What hopes can we have, what values we should cling to, what kind of solidarity we should invent?” (2006, p. 348, our translation). For him, life histories constitute a challenge to the new generations, particularly as a form to preserve some space of subjectivity and of the knowledge of the self. (Dominicé, 2007).

As heiress to the “Geneva Group,” Christine Delory-Momberger has sought to work on the issues addressed by her predecessors in a new way. If in Biographie et Education (Delory-Momberger, 2003) she examines the links between the biographical space and the educational one in order to show how close are the relations between these two spaces, in a more recent article (Delory-Momberger, 2015), she analyzes those themes through the questions raised in contemporary society, characterized by the individualization of the social. Since the 1970s, she notes, we have witnessed the emergence

of diverse forms of the culture of self. For example there are religious or spiritual iniciations or paths (in order to deepen personal awareness of religious and/or philosophical traditions and beliefs), and a plethora of programs, techniques, training sessions and therapies available for personal development. (p. 32)

This is the “biographical society” in her definition, that she borrows from Astier and Duvoux (2006, cited by Delory-Momberger, 2015, p. 33). According to her, the individualistic tendencies have infiltrated all social strata, and the principles of reflexive individualism stemming from self-actualization have become an imperative of our society. This means that each individual must be the actor and author of his/her own life, responsible for his/her actions and destiny, thereby becoming the “entrepreneur of oneself.” Thus, the biographical society is comprised of the sum of individual biographies.

Translating these broad themes in more specific questions is Delory-Momberger’s goal in the last years, as it can be seen in the two collections she has been published—Autobiographie et Éducation [Self Biographie and Education] and Écriture de la Vie [Writing of Life]—and also in the journal Le Sujet dans la Cité. Revue Internationale de Recherche Biographique [The subject in the City. International Journal of Biographical Research], where she is the editor in chief. With these notions—the subject and the city—this journal aims to focus on the problems of the relation between the individual and the social world integrating the ethical and political dimensions.11

Final Remarks

Ebbing and flowing, that is how we can better define the trajectory of the biographical approaches along the years. The periods of decline seem to be necessary to allow biographies and life histories to recover their vitality and reappear renewed in order to respond to the demands of a new era. In the periods of flow, they show a vigor that seemed to be extinct, but that soon reappears pointing toward new perspectives and fresh horizons. We might inquiry as to where the strength comes from that allows life histories and biographies to be reborn every time. And we might answer that, certainly, its strength comes from its very object of study—life, life histories, the narratives of human experiences—which are nothing but a search for ourselves.

The two biographical trends examined in this article do not escape this analysis. After going through a period of continuous development, particularly during the 1980s and 1990s, they showed signs of cooling down since the beginning of the new millennium. Beyond the specific factors that explain certain declines that each trend came to experience, it was possible to identify a converging cause. Namely, it is the changes that impact the contemporary world, from macrostructural change due to geopolitical and economic reconfigurations to those that impact daily life.

These changes demand new directions for the studies with life histories, with a view to encompass these problems, since life itself and the expectations around it have changed drastically lately. It is expected, in this sense, that through such approaches we may rethink the education of new generations and the education of adults, their educators. It is a widening of the biographical horizon that implies, on the one hand, a revision of the objectives of education, the role of school and of the other agencies, such as the media, social networks, and the informal education groups that act chiefly in the suburbs and peripheries of major cities; and, on the other hand, in the search for answers to a demand for lifelong education.

We recall our initial questions, asking to what extent the new directions of biographical approaches potentialize the answers that we formulated in the opening of this article: How to form teachers capable of meeting the demands of contemporary school? What competences and skills should they acquire in order to teach the new generations considering, above all, the heterogeneity of the groups attending school today? How to prepare teachers and other educators to work toward the transformation of school and greater social justice? We must still remember that today education goes beyond the school walls in many different ways. Children and youngsters have already demolished these walls, and the technologies are there to prove it. But it is also necessary that the wall of resistances is also brought down by the teachers, as well as by other groups of adults. In what way can they open the school to the external world? In what way can they bring the outside world into the school in order to work toward a more democratic, fairer, and more egalitarian education?

The progress achieved by the two trends examined in this article allow us to think that biographical approaches have in them the seeds and the potential to develop analysis and reflections in response to those challenges. It is within themselves that we will find new perspectives. But a great deal of reflexive effort and intellectual acumen is necessary on the part of the leaders in each generation.

In the last decades, biographical approaches have been brought to consider the post-human theories and the emergence of new discourses about the “Man” and the human. They are a response to growing public awareness about the fast technological progress and the globalization of the economic development, both affecting human activities and putting risks for the earth’s ecosystem as a whole (Braidotti, 2016). The post-human theories, triggered by the convergence of anti-humanism and the anti-anthropocentrism, as well as the developments of the “agentic realism” (Barad, 2003; Fenwick & Edwards, 2013, among others) open up new horizons to think the status of human subjectivity faced with the complexity of the contemporary world, as they require that the lives of human beings are thought based on their relations with nonhuman beings, including not only animals, but also nature, things, machines, and technologies.12

By offering elements for interpretations that go beyond the subject, these theories unveil groundbreaking perspectives to the biographical approaches. “It seems obvious that once the writing (of a) life, life writing, narrating lives, testimonies of lives etc. are no longer (exclusively) done by human subjects new autobiographical forms become possible,” as noted by Herbrechter (2012, p.22). According to him, these changes are due by invasive technologies and processes of “cyborgization” or “prosthesization,” mainly, as well by the impact of social networks, particularly of Facebook, on autobiographical practices, that has led to a process of virtualization of autobiography. The post-human predicament enforces, thus, the necessity to think again and to think harder about the status of human subjectivity and the ethical relations, norms, and values that may be worthy of the complexity of our times” (Braidotti, 2006, p. 197). This is yet a new challenge for biographical approaches and for education.

The words of Geraldine Clifford (1971) placed as the epigraph to this article continue to make sense. However, to bring them up to date with these post-humanistic times, we might have to say, “Autobiography’s advantage is that, after all, the most fascinating and compelling subject to human being is the human being itself.”


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(1.) See also other chapters of the book Contemporary Theories of Learning, organized by Illeris (2009).

(2.) In 1991, researchers and groups dealing with adult education created the European Society for Research on the Education of Adults (ESREA). For more information, access.

(3.) This information on Tante Suzanne is based in Nonna Mayer’s review about Ferrarotti’s work, Histoire et histoires de vie, la méthode biographique dans les scientes sociales and the Catani and Mazé’s work, Tante Suzanne. See Catani and Mazé (1984).

(4.) In 2006 Goodson received the Michael Huberman award from the American Educational Research Association (AERA) for his work on teachers’ lives. See Goodson’s other awards.

(5.) At that time, the studies on gender focused mainly on the women’s social and professional predicament.

(6.) At this time, in a transdisciplinary perspective, the same authors analyzed the ways in which female teachers’ memory works. See Souza, Catani, Souza, and Bueno (1996).

(7.) Bueno, Chamlian, Sousa, and Catani, in an analysis of the studies with life histories conducted in Brazil between 1985 in 2003 also observed the presence of such vices and virtues. See Bueno, Chamlian, Sousa, and Catani (2006).

(9.) Among the various initiatives are the Réseaux Histoire de vie et autoformation created in 1983; the Association Internationale des Histoires de Vie en Formation (ASIHIVIF) created in 1990; and the Réseau Québécois Pour les Histoires de Vie (RQPHV) founded in 1994.

(10.) See Bueno, Chamlian, Sousa, and Catani (2006) about the ways the biographical approaches took in Brazil in the 1980s and 1990s. Under the influence of this group, an association of life histories was created. For details, access.

(11.) For details, access website and also see website.

(12.) A myriad of authors are dealing with these questions, but is fair to mention Donna Haraway, whose works “constitute a pioneering effort to set up a connection between the culture of contemporary biotechnological sciences and that of the human and social sciences,” as it appears in the text “Posthuman, All Too Human,” by Braidotti (2006, p. 197).