Handbook of Qualitative Research in Education
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Handbook of Qualitative Research in Education

Edited by Sara Delamont

The Handbook of Qualitative Research in Education offers both basic and advanced discussions of data collection, analysis and representation of all the best qualitative methods used in educational research.
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Chapter 19: The Uses of Life History

William G. Tierney and Randall F. Clemens


William G. Tierney and Randall F. Clemens Life history has a long, rich tradition in the social and psychological sciences. Scholars have established the method in several disciplines, ranging from the first sociological life history, Thomas and Znaniecki’s (1918–20[1958]) The Polish Peasant in Europe and America,1 to the popular psychobiography, Erikson’s (1969) Gandhi’s Truth: On the Origins of Militant Nonviolence. The approach has also appeared in multiple forms. The influential Son of Old Man Hat (Left Handed, 1938), for example, is a comprehensive account of one Native American’s life, whereas ‘Adequate schools and inadequate education: the life history of a sneaky kid’ (Wolcott, 1983) is an edited account of one homeless youth’s life. The former is composed entirely of the subject’s own words whereas the latter contains a mix of the subject’s words and the researcher’s interpretation and analysis. Translated Woman (Behar, 2003) is an experimental life history in format and tone, and Gelya Frank would not even characterize Venus on Wheels (2000) as a life history, although its roots and framework spring from life history. Another important characteristic of life histories is that oftentimes they contain no overt theoretical framework – a tradition beginning with the first texts (see Radin, 1926; Left Handed, 1938). This has been a point of contention for many methodologists, who question the merit and scientific rigor of the approach (Watson and Watson-Franke, 1985). Yet, after nearly a century, the method is experiencing a renaissance as individuals’ acknowledge its flexibility and usefulness (Frank,...

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