Autobiographies as Extant Data in Grounded Theory Methodology: A Reflection

By Ravenek, Michael | The Qualitative Report, June 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

Autobiographies as Extant Data in Grounded Theory Methodology: A Reflection


Ravenek, Michael, The Qualitative Report


Autobiographies written by those living with illness are readily available sources of data that can also aid in the development of a grounded theory. However, existing methodological guidelines do not provide support for the transparent and rigorous use of these texts. This paper describes a number of issues around the use of these texts, and provides an example of how autobiographies were used in a study conducted by the author. A set of steps that can be used by other grounded theorists considering the use of autobiographies as sources of data is provided, in an attempt to advance this aspect of the methodology. Keywords: Autobiography, Grounded Theory, Extant Data, Guidelines, Reflection

In her description of grounded theory data sources, Charmaz (2006, 2014) makes the distinction between extant and elicited data. Elicited sources involve working directly with participants to "elicit" their experiences for the purposes of a study. Extant sources of data are those that "the researcher had no hand in shaping" (Charmaz, 2006, p. 35), but are nonetheless used in helping to address the research questions of a study. Among the many different types of extant texts are autobiographies of those living with illness, which Charmaz includes in her own work on chronic illness. Glaser and Strauss (1967), in the original guide to grounded theory research, also describe the important role that "library data" can play in theory development. More specifically, in discussing ways to overcome time and resource limitations, they describe "if we can do this with an interviewee or an informant, why not with the author of an autobiography or a novel?" (p. 253). Unfortunately, explicit methods for using and working with autobiographies in grounded theory are not readily available, leaving researchers on their own to devise methods for incorporating this data source into theories.

Broadly speaking, autobiographies are included as a form of unsolicited first-person written narratives. They may occur as hard- or soft-cover books, or digitally as an e-book or series of blog entries that cover the events of a person's life. Autobiographies are distinct from biographies, or pieces written about someone by another person, or work that might be in response to specific questions posed to that person such as in an interview. The story told by the author, including the depth, detail and events covered, is raw and written without the specific probing of others. A systematic methodological review, conducted by O'Brien and Clark (2010), identified a number of issues with the use of this type of data source in qualitative research. More specifically, in the 18 papers reviewed, O'Brien and Clark focused on the methods used by the authors of the papers and how they addressed the ethics of using this type of data in their work. With respect to institutional ethics approval, the majority of the researchers did not feel they needed such approval as the data they collected were in the public domain. Where the water was more muddied, however, occurred with respect to first-person narratives published in blogs and other personal websites. In these cases, the researchers took a variety of approaches in either concealing or revealing the authors of the works they used, with a tension between the need to maintain privacy and the need to attribute copyright to the material. Considering policies from a variety of sources on ethics for conducting research, O'Brien and Clark believe that ethics approval is not required to use only published or publicly available data. Further, given that the narratives of the authors are a form of intellectual property, the authors should be recognized as such within research studies. Given the great variety in presenting the methods used working with these narratives, O'Brien and Clark also describe the need for greater transparency of the process of collection and analysis used so that quality appraisal can be completed. …

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