Chapter 2 Biographical Interviews and the Micro Context of Biographicity

Closely Listening for Meaning, Learning, and Voice

In: Discourses, Dialogue and Diversity in Biographical Research
Author: Rob Evans


The chapter examines the capacity of the biographical/life history interview for understanding closely heard talk in interaction. The chapter seeks to question how the emergence and sharing of biographical discourse in interview talk may be identified and described; what evidence is found in interview talk of biographical self or ‘biographicity’, a concept derived from , ); what is the relation between language and voice in a biographical narrative, with particular reference to the notions of ‘synthesis’ () and ‘verbalisation’ (). To do this, the author presents experiences related and shared in the micro context of interview interaction and for this purpose, a section of a biographical narrative of a Polish teacher is introduced and discussed. The private history of the teacher Daria is understood as biographised talk, which is structured both temporally and sequentially. Through the changing interaction between Daria and the researcher and through the wider out-of-frame interaction of both with their respective social worlds, it can be seen that strong elements of interdiscursivity and insight into wider ecologies of learning and living enrich the work of meaning-making that learning biographies represent.

1 Introduction

This chapter will seek to examine and assess the fitness of the biographical/life history interview for understanding closely heard talk in interaction. Questions that this chapter will seek to answer are: (a) how the emergence and sharing of biographical discourse in interview talk may be identified and described; (b) what evidence of biographical self or ‘biographicity’ (Alheit, 2006, 2018) is encountered in the interview interaction; what is the relation between language and voice in a biographical narrative; how do we encounter and recognise biographical learning? A consideration of the temporality, contextuality and reflexivity (Alheit, 2018) of biographical processes will help to comprehend how meaning, learning and voice can emerge from the accumulated layers of experience that represent a stock of resources of experience. These can potentially be ‘used’ to create a kind of intuitive sense of an own biography, that is self-referential and yet remains ‘porous’, transforming and being transformed in ongoing interactions.

The emphasis in the following pages will be on the experiences related and shared in the micro context of the interview interaction and for this purpose, a section of a biographical narrative of a Polish teacher will be introduced and discussed. The private history of the teacher Daria (connected with that of the researcher Rozalia Ligus who originally conducted the interview) is listened to and understood as biographised talk, which is structured both temporally and sequentially. Through the changing interaction between Daria and Rozalia and through the wider out-of-frame interaction of both with their respective social worlds, strong elements of interdiscursivity enrich the work of meaning-making that these learning biographies represent.

Context, therefore, is centrally important here. Adopting Norman Fairclough’s “three different ‘levels’ of social organization” (Fairclough, 1989, p. 25) for the production of social discourse, we can see the level of the interview itself to be an acutely interactive context which encompasses the physical setting and the joint accomplishment of understanding in interactive talk. At a further remove, the interview is embedded in wider interactive contexts, including the institutional character of the research interview and its organisation, the workplace, family and generation, region and community. Finally, there is the broader context of social discourses, the social, national or supranational context in which the participants and the institutions involved live out their roles and positions.

Their encounter in the interview entails very concretely a revisiting in biographical narrative of former communist Poland (1945–89) and its ideological values and language uses told, however, in the personal and professional vernaculars of post-communist Polish society. Thus, the micro interactions of the interview are heard within the meso and macro contexts of complex institutional and social relations, and through the lens of political and personal transformations.

2 The Biographical Interview and Interview Interaction

Qualitative research addresses the most vital areas of individual and group experience of social reality by observing, questioning and recording the testimony of the actors themselves in sites of social interaction chosen for the collection of data. The relationship between social actors involved in processes of change and learning and the researcher is part of any such learning process which is studied through various types of interview. The nature of the interaction and relationship that arises in qualitative interviews has been the object of much research writing through the successive methodological turns of the last few decades. Of particular importance was the move from the more ‘realist’ kind of ethnographic interviewing originating in the Chicago school to a critically reflexive methodology strongly influenced by feminist discourse (for an early discussion of this transition see, for example, Denzin, 1989). Another important strand of research is represented still at present by the originally German-Austrian sociological ‘narrative interview’ founded in the phenomenological tradition of Husserl and the ‘Lebenswelt’ (‘life world’) (Husserl, 1986), and developed notably by Fritz Schütze in a number of dense methodological articles (e.g. Schütze, 1976, 1981) and since deployed by generations of social scientists and educational researchers (Fiedler & Krüger, 2016, pp. 7–9). This branch of biography research is traditionally concerned to leave respondent data ‘uncontaminated’ by researcher influence. It can with some justification be criticised for reliance, too, on a relatively narrow and outdated theory of speech practice (e.g. Schütze, 1976, pp. 224–230; Kallmeyer & Schütze, 2016, pp. 173–175) and an inadequate theoretical accommodation of the rich plurivocality of interview interaction. While Schütze himself could show a committed openness for the “presentational capacity of autobiographical extempore narration” and its singular modes of expression (Schütze, 2016, p. 112), more frequently the “formal-structural textual features” (2016, p. 112) of narrative come to the fore in this field of research and the researcher’s voice is dominant.

The exact nature of the researcher/respondent relationship can vary, of course, though most frequently today it is characterised by the shared nature of meaning-making in (mostly dialogic) interaction, by a participatory, empathetic style of communication, and by a self/reflexive approach to the encounter as a whole and its many-faceted ‘results’. Examples of such relationships, whether, by way of example, involving single mothers’ narratives in West’s or working-class women learners in Merrill’s work show how the interview can serve as a catalyst for biographical narratives of change (Merrill & West, 2009, pp. 133–141). The ESREA Life History and Biography Research Network has contributed in the last two decades to an opening of interpretive and analytical methods to encompass more areas of empathetic, creative, psychosocial or therapeutic dialogue in interaction, transcending the single interview form, even if the interview, understood as co-creation of meaning in talk, for the author, remains the cardinal tool for approaching the life stories of others.

As a research methodology, the understanding of discursive-biographical interviewing as a branch of qualitative research assumes, then, that the biographical research interview is interactive, co-constructed, flooded with inter-discursivity, and that it constructs and constitutes local action and meaning-making in the rich ecologies of learning and living.

3 Biography and Context: The Ecologies of a Told Life

The layers of experience of accumulated and consciously accessed biographical resources can be looked upon as a new form of knowledge. This biographical knowledge, emerging out of the precarious balance-act between the life-being-lived and unlived or potentially-liveable life, is nourished by the stock of experience that is not unconditionally accessible, but which nevertheless represents more alternatives for filling out the social field we live out our lives in than we can realistically grasp or take control of. Alheit refers to this as the ‘over-spill’ of potential lives we accumulate that feeds our knowledge of ourselves, our life-stories and their meaning in relation to others (Alheit, 2006, p. 5).

3.1 The Relational Nature of Biographical Knowledge

Central to this understanding of biographical knowledge construction is the relational nature of biographical narratives and biographical ‘work’. Learning and knowledge acquisition, predicated as they are on biographical experience, are embedded in social learning environments or ‘Lernumwelten’ (Ecarius, 1997). The contexts of learning identity formation are analogously understood here as interconnected ‘ecologies of knowledge” (Anspach, 1987, cited in Miller, 1997, p. 167) in which situation-specific interactional meanings are organised. According to this view of things, subjects make use of the resources of different, socially organised settings to which they belong (or to which they are positioned as belonging, for example) in order to discursively constitute and reconstitute themselves and the institutional settings in which they interact (Miller, 1997, pp. 167–169).

To understand such ecologies of knowledge and learning, we must think of the spaces in which talk is unfolded. When telling their lives, people use language to recreate lived spaces in their talk. Martina Löw calls this ‘synthesis’: speakers establish the spaces in their stories as existing in tension or opposition to their own present-time location as they perceive or claim that to be (Löw, 2001, p. 214). Such an action of synthesis, which connects, includes or excludes people and things through the acts of understanding, memory and imagination, constitutes and ‘fixes’ the spaces inhabited by, and accessible to, the subject and others.

Biographies, their narrative forms, and their subjects are conspicuously constructed in relation to ‘others’ (Mason, 2004). Memory, too, as Halbwachs has argued (Halbwachs, 1997, pp. 65–66) arises in the relationship to others, in the physical and emotional company of collective experience. Ricoeur underlines this centrality of shared experience and shared memory of body and place, of ecologies of knowledge and experience. Memories of places lived in or visited “interlace in one and the same moment an intimate memory and a memory shared among those close to one …”. Our relationship to this intersection of the bodily and the spatial opened up to us in recollection and narrative remains an “arduous” effort of memory work, so to speak, and of perception of the roads followed and obstacles surmounted (Ricoeur, 2000, p. 184, author’s translation).

Experience mediated by memory is voiced and constructed in narratives held together by language which draws, in Habermas’ words, on ‘grammars’ of telling (Habermas, 1981, p. 207). These ‘grammars’ can be thought of as shared language-worlds for telling life-stories and co–constructing biographical knowledge. Shared understanding of narrative practice (how to begin, how to finish, how to express judgement, emotion, reluctance, and so on) is used to build the theories and standpoints that emerge in narratives as pieces of such ongoing effective biographic knowledge (for the discourse components of narrative see Ochs & Capps, 2001, pp. 18–20). Embodied experiential memory, seen like this, is the basis of the life (lived, unlived, to be lived, re-called) told in the interview.

3.2 Interaction, the Construction of the Social and the Self

Interactions of all kinds, then, family or work situations, social relations, social or cultural practice(s) must all be seen as sites in which ‘doing biography’ is practiced, that is, working on the construction of, and deployment and use of, biographical resources. The discourse practices involved in the biographical co-work ‘done’ in the biographical research interview context reach out across times of the life and connect with the materiality of social life, but their production – in the interview – is local. Therefore, the detail at the micro level serves to document openly how this meaning-making takes place, how this is affected by group belonging, ethnic or cultural discourses, gender, age, political events, global environmental issues, and so on.

The language in which pieces of our life-stories and events which we have experienced directly (or vicariously through the narratives of others) are welded together is ‘multivocal’ (Schiffrin, 2006, p. 204) and multi-layered. Alheit and Dausien compare the spatial complexity of narratable biographical resources with a “landscape made up of different strata and regions of different levels of nearness and distance” (Alheit & Dausien, 2002, p. 578, author’s translation). The temporal organisation of discourse, too, involves multiple time-planes, and non-linear trajectories through lives.

4 Biographicity: Time, Context, Reflexivity

Life stories, Alheit argues, are essentially occupied with the necessity to synchronise two disparate levels of experienced time: firstly, the dimension of events and experiences which usually have a routine, daily, everyday frame, and secondly, those which operate on the life-time scale/horizon, which “links long past events with past experiences, past with present experience and ultimately present with conceivable future events” (Alheit, 1983, p. 189, author’s translation; on frames see Tannen, 1993). To re-work the reserve of experiences with the newly experienced and bring about new associations between the new and the already-lived means that the narrator draws on their collected and layered biographical resources. These resources we can think of as the individual sum or distillation of many different learning processes. They are the result of the individual meaning given to experience which produces subjective forms of knowledge. This knowledge in its turn is the basis of new cultural and social structures of experience. This social practice of accessing (and constructing) life-wide biographical resources – ‘biographicity’ in Alheit’s words – enables and shapes temporal and continually emerging and changing context-bound reflexivity in order to meet the everyday requirements of an individually steered life-course. As Alheit points out: “This biographical structure virtually constitutes the individuality of the self. It can be understood to be a temporally layered, individual configuration consisting of social experiences – including, of course, embodied and emotional sentiments” (Alheit, 2018, p. 14).

Accumulated experience cannot simply be understood, however, as an absolute sum, a mere wholesale collection of impressions, memories, emotions that can be accessed freely, limitlessly, effortlessly. The laying-down of experience itself structures ulterior learning processes and narrows or widens the room for learning. This narrowing and enabling that is a hallmark of ‘biographicity’ is interesting, Alheit suggests, because it can only be accessed, used or steered consciously by the individual to a limited extent. It remains only partially accessible to Others (e.g. in pedagogical input) and can ‘surprise’ the ‘owner’ by the life-openings it makes possible or, too, those it closes off (Alheit, 2018, p. 15).

Biographical narratives, then, are to a large extent reliant both on the many details of the everyday and the ambiguous and re-used words shared in interaction with others. As each narrator of a life history dialogues with others whose voices speak from the near and distant contexts in which the narrated life is embedded, biographical (self-) knowledge is more grasped at through intuition and feeling, more guessed at in language, than ‘known’ in certainty. Memory and recollection, recall – reaching ‘back’ to reclaim what has happened in our past – remains always the “enigma of the presence of what is absent” (Ricoeur, 2000, p. 9, author’s translation). Recall and memory are incomplete and unreliable, yet, as Ricoeur reminds us, “Put brutally, we have nothing other than memory to show that something took place, happened …” (2000, p. 26, author’s translation). Notwithstanding, recollection of biographical experience through the inclusion of the absent past in the narrated present does provide, Schiffrin writes, “gradual understanding of ‘what happened’ and leads to reconstruction of the meanings of past experiences” (Schiffrin, 2006, p. 205).

5 Daria’s Story

Taking up Schiffrin’s remarks and Alheit’s notion of the workings of biographicity in life-wide biographical resources, I shall turn now to examine short extracts from one of a number of interviews with Polish teachers carried out by Rozalia Ligus in Polish Pomerania between 2002 and 2004 (Ligus, 2009; for the transcript see pp. 267–277). I provide an impressionistic English translation of the Polish, but analysis of the language refers at all times to the Polish original. The discussion here of the extracts is based on Ligus’ transcription. As far as possible, faithfulness to the original language of the interaction and therefore to the intercultural pragmatics of the reception process and the explication of the results of data analysis should be attended to in research of this kind (Pavlenko, 2007, p. 172). Transcription is, of course, as Elinor Ochs pointed out many years ago, theory put into practice (Ochs, 1979, p. 44) and specific transcription methods reflect specific research aims and affect research outcomes. The shape of speech, with all its slurring, accelerations, repetitions, self-repairs, pauses, changes in volume – in short the prosodic-affective features of natural talk (see for example Tannen, 2007, pp. 22, 32) are largely absent in the extracts used here. The language used in the extracts, too, quite apart from any regional or dialectal features, remains a foreign language the author has understanding of without spoken linguistic fluency and as such there are certainly whole dimensions of meaning in the talk that are inadequately understood. It is therefore imperative, when examining the talk of others, to be aware always of these and other constraints on understanding. This is a further reason for serious caution and restraint when offering explanations and interpretations of what is said in the interview.

5.1 Daria: First Story and Second Story

Daria, in this part of her story about her decision to become a teacher, is describing an experience which significantly transformed her biography. Daria’s account is divided into a ‘first story’ (for a lengthier discussion of this part of Daria’s biography see Evans, 2013, pp. 238–240) and a ‘second story’. Daria signals at the outset that this is the beginning/początek of a series of experiences. Such signals are an important signpost for a coming structuring of events and are important for the contextualisation of the interaction and enhance the sequential coherence of the flow of narrative. Harvey Sacks draws our attention to the ‘work’ that such prefacing does in preparing the co-speaker for the outcome which has yet to be unrolled. First stories implicate the telling of ‘second stories’ (Sacks, 1992, pp. 19–21). The ‘outcome’ here – Daria’s identity as a mature teacher – will be justified in her account by the beginnings. This strong “general teleological focus” is found in all autobiographical narratives, Schiffrin remarks (2006, p. 205), by virtue of which former events in lives assume a greater directedness than they may have had when they first occurred; the story is told/re-told with the “final point” in view which provides the narrative its sense of direction (Ricoeur, 1983, pp. 130–131).

She became a teacher in communist Poland in 1979. By deciding at the age of eight, as she recounts it, to be a teacher, she was looking beyond her regional and family background in which there was no previous history of any higher school education. Her narrative, therefore, must justify the choices she made, must explain her ambition, and has to take account, too, of her path from her family origins and rural social class to her adult self and her current professional identity (for a detailed discussion of Daria see Ligus, 2009, pp. 151–156; see also Ligus & Evans, 2016).

5.2 Shared Discourse and Ecologies of Knowledge

Before Daria comes to her ‘second story’ which will propose a meaningful explanation and justification for her decision to become a teacher, she proposes an equally interesting rationalisation for the ‘strangeness’ of her career choice. In fact, she chooses the explanation perhaps most expected by both participants – the narrator and the interviewer, Rozalia Ligus. As an example of the notion of ‘tellability’ (Ochs & Capps, 2001, pp. 33–36), Daria makes explicit reference to social-political frames of reference which she knows will be familiar to Ligus. In doing this, Daria establishes complicity, based on comparable experience, but also based on the assumption (at the start of the 2000s in Poland) that Ligus will understand fully what she says: literally, that her family was working class/country folk and that becoming a teacher represented a significant social ‘leap’ upwards. The researcher will equally understand the layers of irony and humour (and resentment) that linger on in such terminology in post-communist Poland. They will, it can be assumed, understand tacitly a whole range of arguments about the social ‘suitability’ or ‘political maturity’ of the rural population, and will share experience and knowledge of the role and distribution of individual social and political capital in Poland in the 1970s and 80s and how these changed after the fall of communism (Popow, 2015, pp. 26–33). Deeper still, we can assume possible shared knowledge of the post-war history of the region in which Daria’s life-history and career was played out (Ligus, 2009, pp. 21–57). Ligus puts it thus: “My choice was made because I presumed it would be easier for me to follow her story, even if I started my career 500 kilometers away from her place of work. That was the reason behind the choice of Daria” (Ligus and Evans, 2016, p. 690).

Daria’s narrative leads us very skilfully to an intimate explanation of her early career choice. Daria leads into her ‘second story’ with a cautious-suggestive może/perhaps and proceeds to lay down a description of a significant figure in her life.

Extract 1

Daria’s ‘second story’

Może w sąsiednim bloku, raczej pode mną, mieszkała taka pani, ktora już była kształcona właśnie przed wojną.Perhaps because there was this lady who lived in the neighbouring block quite near me who was educated you know before the warLocalisation: w sąsiednim bloku, raczej pode mną
Hedging. Może
Adverbs of time/evaluation: już była kształcona, właśnie przed wojną.
Ona była nauczycielką muzyki. Już wtenczas, w tym okresie, była tak, koło emerytury, ale już miała za sobą ten okres … Mogła odjeść [na emeryturę] w każdej chwili.She was a music teacher at that time in that period it was like that with pensioners but she was already beyond that she could go into retirement at any momentCategories of place, profession: nauczycielką muzyki
Difference: Mogła odjeść w każdej chwili
I ona właśnie była dla mnie takim może (.4.) wzorem – ja wiem?And she was really for me a possible sort of (4) model – I thinkHedging: właśnie, takim może (.4.) wzorem
Negative epistemic position: ja wiem?

This description begins in a straightforward way: we are introduced to a ‘lady’ who lived in a neighbouring block of flats. The important content of this introductory description is communicated by a delayed unfolding of the information: for the lady in the neighbourhood was educated before the war. The demonstrative adjective used – taka pani/this woman emphasises that something is yet to come. She was ‘already’ – or rather had been educated/had got her education, to render the idea in a simple grammatical sense – educated. The simplicity of these words belies – almost – the evaluative force contained in them. The tell-tale modal particles of time and manner (już already/właśnie just), however, underline the import of what Daria is beginning to say. Against the background of her own family upbringing, which in her own words (as indicated above) possessed no tradition, no experience of higher education, this lady from the neighbourhood represented an entirely different world of culture, education, and social behaviour. In some European countries, I would argue, the epithet ‘pre-war’ might be construed as back-ward-looking, old-fashioned, conservative, or ‘pre-democratic’ and so on. Raymond Williams, for example, characterises the vote of the British working-class in the UK General Election of 1951, “still in conditions of post-war austerity” as a vote to “reject the conditions of pre-war society” (Williams, 1965, p. 356, my italics). This is not necessarily the case in Poland.1 These words were used by Daria to conjure up a commonly shared and idealised alternative to the degradation of the present. ‘Before the war’ was an intact world of values, of beauty, of refinement, of culture. ‘Old Poland’. All now gone. And doubtless understood by Rozalia Ligus.

Daria evidently does not understand it negatively. Quite the contrary, for – though hedged and ostensibly questioned (właśnie just/takim może sort of like/ja wiem? I think) – this educated lady (taka pani, … kształcona) is proposed as her (possible) model who in some way influenced Daria’s decision to become a teacher.

6 ‘Synthesis’ and ‘Verbalisation’: Explanation through Language of Place or Objects or Period

In this next small stretch of talk Daria unfolds an atmospheric narrative that complements the social and emotional reasons she has already proposed for her decision. In her interaction with Rozalia Ligus she is doing significant ‘work’ of ‘synthesis’ (Löw, 2001) to construct a coherent story and reach a level of shared understanding. The turn to suggestive detail of place, of time and of person are convincing examples, too, of what Schiffrin calls ‘verbalisation’. This is, she says, “the way we symbolize, transform, and displace a stretch of experience from our past … into linguistically represented episodes, events, processes, and states”. Bringing cultural knowledge and past experience to bear, verbalisation “provides a resource for the display of self and identity” (Schiffrin, 1996, p. 168). Daria presents the music teacher as cultured and educated, and she puts the person into a highly telling relationship with the cultured space she occupies or is encountered in: Wykształconą osobą, kulturalną, właśnie z tym swoim domem/An educated person, cultured, and that flat she lived in! Actual contact with the person and the space is described as rare. The impression left on her is all the stronger, and this is recreated by the almost dream-like inventory of the unusual, thrillingly out-of-the-ordinary objects encountered, no doubt with fascination, the few times Daria was able to see them. The language is strongly evaluative. It works by employing the cumulative effects of listing, of repetition, and the details are allowed to occupy the foreground as Daria recounts her experience as an observer, allowing the interviewer (and us) to see the scene she evokes through her (inquisitive or dazzled) eyes.

Extract 2

Daria’s ‘second story’ continued

Wykształconą osobą, kulturalną, właśnie z tym swoim domem. Ja rzadko bywałam w tym mieszkaniu, ale to było właśnie takie i takie rożne stare, stylowe meble, fortepian, były skrzypce, i takie rożneAn educated person, cultured, and that flat she lived in! I wasn’t often in that apartment but there were really these these different old things stylish furniture a piano old violin and various things like thatCategories of person, space and objects:

Personal traits:

Wykształconą, kulturalną

Spaces of difference: z tym swoim domem, Ja rzadko bywałam w tym mieszkaniu

A diverse world: takie rożne stare, stylowe meble, fortepian, były skrzypce

7 To Conclude

Our worlds are complex, we agree. By carrying out micro-analysis of language in interview talk, it becomes possible to hear and see some of that complexity: how biographical discourse emerges and is shared and understood. Attention to evidence of biographical self or ‘biographicity’ (Alheit, 2018) as it is co-constructed in the interview interaction requires that we recognise the tension of different life-time planes within the narrative; that we are aware of the dovetailing of contexts and spaces that clothe and house the protagonists with the props of power, culture, position; that we can listen for biographical learning taking place in the tension between co-constructed language and an own voice.

The close examination of a biographical narrative such as that produced by Daria and the researcher Rozalia Ligus demonstrates, I argue, how the self-reflexive language of biography is capable of creating in the moment of telling multiple ecologies of learning and living that enrich the understanding, in an immediate sense, of those involved, but which has the potential to reach and influence much broader ecological interactions – in family and work, in education, communities, and at the level of societies – creating hope, defeating exclusion.

When Daria employs carefully-constructed language, with all its incomparable textures and nuances, to recreate lived spaces in her talk, she performs a ‘synthesis’ (Löw, 2001, p. 214), putting people and things, in the told life into relationships, deploying efforts of understanding, memory and imagination, and, we may hope, providing in this way some view onto different worlds in which learning lives are located. And, quite possibly, her process of building ‘biographicity’ can be a valuable aid, too, to the researchers who worked with her and with each other on her narrative, and to their ecologies of practice and theory, their colleagues and networks, in the struggle for better, more sustainable ecologies of learning and living.



Indeed, a discussion of this transcript with a young Polish sociologist encountered by chance on a Polish train in 2010 brought our very different understandings of the words ‘pre-war’ very rapidly to the brink of a heated discussion, happily averted in time to alight from the train together with a rapidly enhanced sense of the range of viewpoints possible and necessary in 21st-century Europe (see Ligus & Evans, 2016, pp. 697–698).

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  • Introduction Towards an Ecological Perspective on Learning and the Stories People Tell
  • Conclusion An Evolution of Ideas


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