The Functionality and Usability of Critical Approaches to Life Writing Methods in Qualitative Research: A Book Review

By Majid, Umair | The Qualitative Report, August 2018 | Go to article overview

The Functionality and Usability of Critical Approaches to Life Writing Methods in Qualitative Research: A Book Review


Majid, Umair, The Qualitative Report


Why Life Writing?

"...storytelling matters; it matters to individuals, it matters to
cultures and subcultures, and it matters to our individual and
collective beings as we engage our imagination about past, present, and
future human experiences." (Mulvihill & Swaminathan, 2017, p. 1,
emphasis added)

As with any scholarly jaunt, I began my exploration of this book by acknowledging my objectives, biases, and assumptions. I used these characteristics to orient my focus of the book and determine whether or not it can lead to new insights into how the book may be utilized by novice investigators and integrated in my own work.

As someone who has been immersed in both the positivist and interpretivist paradigms of research, narrative methods have caught my curiosity because of their ambiguity as well as their propensity for illuminating phenomena. I am awestruck by the idea of using interviews with a handful of participants to gain an in-depth view of phenomena. By interviewing each individual, investigators may uncover the attitudes that ground behaviour and choices. However, spending many hours in a discussion with each individual may deepen our collective knowledge about phenomena in a way that emphasizes its minutiae nuances while acknowledging the universality of particular mores. I have also considered the capacity of the narrative ("science of the imagination") to elaborate the logico-scientific ("science of the concrete"; Bruner, 1986). The convergence between these two aspects of inquiry, I believe, holds great promise in my disciplinary area.

In my work, I examine the ways individuals may be engaged in decision-making opportunities relevant to health and social policy. However, while immersing in the plethora of research that enumerates this disciplinary area, I am often halted with the problem of representation (Contandriopoulos, 2004; Rowland & Kumagai, 2017). In other words: Who are these individuals who engage in decision-making? What groups do they supposedly represent? How do they represent these groups? Do they actually represent these groups? How can representation be more representative?

The context of these questions has shifted my attention to life writing approaches. I see these methods as possessing the capacity for explicating what representation entails in the policy context. With this orientation, I started my journey to both clarify the descriptions, tools, and strategies contained in this book, and interrogate how these resources may be capitalized for resolving my philosophical inquiries about the concept of representation.

In Critical Approaches to Life Writing Methods in Qualitative Research, Mulvihill and Swaminathan use critical theory to discuss how approaches to life writing may be used to question the self, status quo, social action, and normative narratives. The authors provide new methodological tools that support critical life writing, review different approaches and methods to life writing by synthesizing previous scholarly work, construct a guide for researchers to design their own life writing project, and advance the continued learning about life writing.

Functionality and Usability

The authors begin their account of life writing methods with an analysis of the historical nuances of life writing and by locating the conceptual and practical advantages to marrying life writing methods with critical theory. In the first chapter, the authors list the many justifications for employing a critical lens to viewing stories and using life writing in research. They offer ten propositions for using critical approaches to life writing, for example, to reify the nature of "self," to empower individuals to voice their opinions against oppression, to explain and contextualize life, to document meaningful lives, and to challenge dominant discourses. In a similar way, Greenhalgh, Russell, and Swinglehurst (2005) emphasize the opportunity to use life writing methods to describe and explain concepts such as cognitive inertia, a tendency to maintain the status quo by privileging normative discourses (Bartunek, 1984). …

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