Telling life stories is a form of learning and knowing about one another, be it a couple getting to know one another, a child and parent building their lives together, siblings sharing lived experiences, classmates sharing their thoughts, or strangers looking for conversation. Furthermore, life stories are the substance for fictional stories that are all around us, in print, audio, and visual media. Thus, the conversations/dialogs/stories/ narratives that surface regarding education must bring individual lives to the forefront; through those lived experiences, alternate ways of thinking about the meaning of school may emerge. Life history research is an interdisciplinary cluster of approaches that use life stories—whether written, oral, or in other forms— as a primary source for social, cultural, and historical research.
Where does life history research fit? It fits everywhere there is a life story to be discovered, told, and heard. How can life history methods be part of education research? They can be part of it when education is viewed as dealing with lives. How researchers view life histories often depends on their academic discipline and orientation; their profession; and their own life stories, both personal and scholarly. The method of life history is rooted in the sociological underpinning of individuals being part and parcel of the society at large. The University of Chicago sociology department promoted this perspective vigorously during the 1920s, with almost every study making some use of personal documents.
Following the University of Chicago’s pioneering life history work, social science research turned toward the positivist framework, relying on more quantitative measures or qualitative measures used to construct universal truths. Nonetheless, life history research continued to be sprinkled in the fields of anthropology and sociology throughout the twentieth century. It was not until the 1980s that the field of education became more and more receptive to qualitative methods, such as life history. Social science researchers, including educational researchers, are gradually abandoning their search for the one great truth.
More recently, education scholars have begun to explore the necessity of using qualitative research methods to gather and interpret rich data regarding lived experiences unfolding in schools. Many qualitative studies in education explore the inequities in education that have existed since the inception of public schooling in the United States. Highlighting the experiences of students, teachers, parents, and the larger school community can humanize the stories of struggle and resistance and push these life histories to the forefront of educational research.
Much of the research dealing with the meaning of schooling for children of color as well as children in lower socioeconomic strata is rooted in a cultural deficiency framework. Thus, life history research is one way to counter this stockpile of research that tends to overlook the complexities of lived experiences. Many educators believe that the body of knowledge that students bring with them to the classroom should be an integral part of the teaching/learning unfolding in schools. As they see it, the current system often views these personal experiences as irrelevant and unimportant. Life history methodology within the area of education research is still getting its feet wet, and of the emerging, groundbreaking projects, most use the life histories of teachers, and not of students.
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