An Introduction to Biographical Research
An Introduction to Biographical Research
An Introduction to Biographical Research

Biographical research in education may be conceived in many different ways; however, typically the topic con­stitutes the study of a single life, focusing primarily upon an individual who in some way is affiliated with the professional field of education, broadly conceived (Garraty, 1957; Oates, 1986). Other research methodologies are often bundled within the descriptor of biography and include life history writing, oral history, memoir, autobiography, and life narrative (Roberts, 2002; Josselson & Lieblich, 1993).

Among the numerous forms of   biographical research   in education, five types are often noted: schol­arly chronicles, intellectual biography, life history writing, memoir biography, and narrative biogra­phy. These orientations may take the form of articles, vignettes, chapters, monographs, and full-length books. One need not draw fine distinctions among these different approaches, however, and each orientation offers particular strengths for the presentation of the biographical subject. Realms are crossed continually as the intent and purpose of the biographer become more clearly defined during the research process. Ultimately, biographers while engaged in their research are constantly examining their interpretive voices as much as the lives of their biographical subjects.

The schol­arly chronicle is the most fundamental (and common) type of biographical research with its focus on the historical portrayal of an individual life. This basic research orientation constitutes telling the sub­ject’s story in chronological order with emphasis upon the development of a quest plot (life pattern-stages) and the description of acts of recognition (or notoriety) as the biographer marches through the life of the biographical subject. The scholarly chronicle is often viewed as synonymous with biography; however, this research orientation is markedly different from other forms of biographical inquiry.   

Another genre, intellectual biography, forsakes the need for basic chronological structure and develops a narrative of a life through the conceptual analysis of the subject’s motives and beliefs within the world of ideas. Those who write intellectual biography have overcome the interpretive angst of other educational researchers, what Rollyson (2005) has deemed “the biographical apologia,” who include pages of interviewee narrative and rich description but who refrain from interpreting motives and feelings. In contrast, the intellectual biographer recognizes and accepts the invasive yet justifiable analysis and overcomes the intrusive nature of inquiry with care resulting in self-reflective thoughtfulness and insight. 

A third form of biographical research is defined as life history writing (and the narrative study of lives) with strong allegiance to the social science research traditions of oral history and narrative discourse and, specifically, great devotion to theoretical constructs from sociology and psychology. Case study paradigms emerge as life history writers address issues of generalizability, social interaction-social structure, and reliability and validity as well as the biographical quest of any study of a life. This research genre has taken many forms in the field of education, perhaps resonating most in the area of teacher education with the narrative study of teachers’ lives scholarship and, to a lesser degree, with the first-year teacher research that also remains loyal to aspects of intellectual biography (Goodson, 2008; Bullough, 2008).

In recent years a fourth genre, memoir biography (still distinct from autobiogra­phy and memoir) has begun to appear in the field of curriculum studies. Attention is devoted to the researcher’s motives in relation to the biographical subject and with emphasis upon the stylistic presentation of the biographer’s reflections and insights in relation to the factual account of the life. An interpretive narrative of the writer, alongside the presentation of the biographical subject, becomes part of the research. A life story is being told, yet in relation to the transactional experiences of the biographer that in turn influences and foreshadows similar experi­ences for the reader.

A fifth type, narrative biog­raphy, represents a dynamic portrayal of a life without the need for absolute facticity or a compre­hensive account from birth to grave. Neither is this style burdened by the ultimate interpretation of the subject that must be accepted by the reader. Facts are recognized and some interpretations are accepted as being more significant than others; however, the biogra­pher, though consciously aware of his or her per­sonal emotions and reactions to the subject, acknowledges that the telling of the story is primar­ily defined by the subject in relation to the reader. 

No definitive listing of biographical types can ever be constructed since, fortunately, new forms—content and process oriented—are continually being conceived and explored. Other more content-related designations include feminist biography (Alpern, et al., 1992; Ascher, et. al., 1984; Wagner-Martin, 1994) and black biography (Backscheider, 1997), all with emphasis upon identity and the restoration of the “invisible” subject. 

Biography’s relationship to autobiography, memoir, and narrative research in education is well developed and will continually be redefined (Denzin, 1989; Epstein, 1991; Rollyson, 2008) Yet, with the emerging interest in biographical inquiry and with some growing interest in prosopography (group biography), little consensus of terminology exists; for example, it should be noted that while some qualitative research­ers view the term auto/biography as accurate, there are dramatic differences between biography and autobiography—much more than any slash or solidus can convey.


Alpern, S., Antler, J., Perry, E. I. & Scobie, I. W. (Eds.) (1992). The Challenge of feminist biography. Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press.
Ascher, C., DeSalvo, L., & Ruddick, S. (Eds.) (1984). Between women. Boston: Beacon Press.
Backscheider, P. R. (1997). Reflections on biography. New York: Oxford University Press.
Bullough, R. V., Jr. (2008). Counternarratives: Studies of teacher education and becoming and being a teacher. Albany, NY: SUNY Press.
Denzin, N. (1989). Interpretive biography. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
Epstein, W. (Ed.) (1991). Contesting the subject. West Lafayette, IN: Purdue University Press.
Garraty, J. (1957). The Nature of biography. New York: Knopf.
Goodson, I. (2008). Investigating the teacher's life and work. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
Josselson, R. & Lieblich, A. (Eds.) (1993). The narrative study of lives. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Oates, S. B. (Ed.) (1986). Biography as high adventure. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press.
Roberts, B. (2002). Biographical research. London: Open University Press.
Rollyson, C. (2008). Biography: A user’s guide. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.
Rollyson, C. (2005). A higher form of cannibalism? Chicago: Ivan R. Dee.
Wagner-Martin, L. (1994). Telling women’s lives. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press.

By Craig Kridel, University of South Carolina