School of Education

Interest group: Life History and Narrative Research

Interest group: Life History and Narrative Research


Life history research draws historical roots from a range of disciplines and methodological approaches: literature, anthropology, psychology, sociology, educational studies, history, cultural studies, media, etc. By definition, it does not have singular definition since it borrows methodologies and techniques of data production which span many field and disciplines. Nevertheless, it may be argued that the approach coheres around the presentation in narrative form of a subjective personalised experience of a particular social event/s; it attempts to provide an insider in-depth perspective of the nuances and complexities of a particular phenomenon (Reddy, 2000). The aim of the life history and narrative research is to uncover the complexities of the forces which draw from the biographical experiences of the individual as they negotiate a particular landscape of development (academically, professionally, socially, culturally, and psychologically). The many forces coalesce in complementarity with each other (Vithal, 2011) and co-affect each other as ambient and residual forces that reside both in the internal environment of the persons themselves or within the contextual exterior landscape of the curricular, institutional or macro-contextual landscape (Samuel, 1998; 2008). It is not so much a (narrative) record of this past account of the subjective experiences per se that is the main focus of the approach. Instead, the approach provides a means to engage in how the past is understood, experienced and interpreted, which in turn provides insight into the present aspirations of the particular individual as they make selections for their future (Dhunpath & Samuel, 2009). Paradoxically life history research is not naively about the past, but about how the past, present and future combine in the experiences, inspirations and aspirations of the participants with respect to a particular phenomenon. Its illuminative potential attracts many researchers who have become dissatisfied with reductionist tendencies that many other methodologies offer.


By definition therefore, life history research is multi- and inter-disciplinary. It aims to bring together a range of approaches which celebrate the kind of textual information which characterise the individual’s lives in the form of oral, written and other discursive data forms: music, pictures, architecture, etc.. New methodologies are being explored for how to activate this remembering without reverting to nostalgia or romanticisation of the past (Pithouse- Morgan, 2012). The productive use of strategies to activate the potential of the “self in action” is a focus of this methodology which chooses to represent the “ways of knowing” in representational forms which point to the materiality of experience lived by the body and the world (Jørgensen & Boje, 2010; Strand 2012, p. 46), the complexity of the social and cultural condition (Pillay, 2004). Within the School of Education, a range of academics from across the different disciplines have been inspired by the potential to create narrative forms which document the life histories of participants as they negotiate particular theoretical phenomena (Wasserman and Bryan, 2012). These phenomena range from teacher professional developmentleadership and managementcurriculum studieshistorical analysis of institutions, to even policy studies. It should be understood that the theoretical phenomenon under scrutiny forms the basis for this exploratory qualitative methodological approach. The School has earned a positive reputation for deeply rigorous challenges to the limits and potential of this methodology; this has been captured in at least four books detailing this growth trajectory up to the early 2000s:

  • Dhunpath, R and Samuel, M 2009. Life history research: Epistemology, methodology and representation. Rotterdam. SENSE Publishers.
  • Wassermann J and Bryan A (eds.) 2011. Edgewood Memories: From College to Faculty of Education. In-house UKZN publication. Durban.
  • Dhunpath, R 2012. Institutional Biographies
  • Pithouse-Morgan, K and Mitchell, C 2012. Self-study and social action. Peter Lang.

The first documents a tradition of doctoral research (late 1990s and early 2000’s) which problematises the inter-relationship of key issues in the nascent research process, viz., epistemology, methodology and representation. The second and third are examples of how the tradition of life history has morphed into historical and theoretical analysis of institutions. The fourth is pointing to the inter-relationship between the methodologies and the campaign for greater forms of social action.

These staff members have all inspired numerous postgraduate studies. The etablishment of the Special Interest Group (SIG) is thus an opportunity to document the growth and development of these staff and students’ output. The attached list is an example of about 50 postgraduate PhD and masters studies that have used the life history and narrative approach[1]. The choice of how to represent a life history in the form of narrative records is a key strain running though all of these studies which point to the manifold potential of the use of stories to capture “lives as lived; lives as told; and lives as experienced” (Clandinin and Connelly, 2000).

International and national scholars and reviewers of the work of our postgraduate students have commended the creative methodologies being employed by the students. The SIG is an opportunity for a more concerted effort to celebrate this already developed expertise.


The aim of this Special Interest Group is to provide an opportunity to consolidate the work of the staff members and students who have worked using this methodological approach. The aim is to provide a platform for shared learning that have been developed in the execution of these studies over the last ten years. Our students’ work has often not had the opportunity to be disseminated widely within the research community.

This special interest group will therefore aim to provide an opportunity drawing on internal expertise

  • To provide a platform for sharing internally amongst our research community the work of our postgraduate students;
  • To select examples of related work which could be brought into dialogue with each other;
  • To share methodologies and experiences of the use this approach;
  • To provide a trajectory for the development of a dissemination strategy of individual or shared work (e.g. joint or individual publication with /without supervisors);
  • To develop draft papers which will be submitted to local, national and international journals through shared networks within the research community of the SIG[2];
  • To select worthy exemplars from the possible publication of a book indicating the growth and development of the methodology within the School of Education over the last ten years.[3]


The strategy is to develop three workshops for sharing and dissemination of work amongst the about 50 students and staff; the development of draft selected journal articleschapters for a book publication and the development of book proposal to a reputed and willing publisher. This should culminate in a draft book by early 2014.


3 workshops August, September, October 2013
Submission to journal November 2013
Book proposal November 2013
Draft f book chapters January 2014
Full draft of book Submission to publishers: February 2014

Proposers and participants of the SIG

The list (Appendix One) of approximately 50 PhD and MEd students will be invited to be part of the SIG. We anticipate at least 50% of this group to agree to participate.



  • The task of the SIG will be to develop a more comprehensive listing of staff and student outputs.
  • Beecham, R. (2002). A failure of care: A story of a South African speech & hearing therapy student. Unpublished DEd Thesis, Faculty of Education, University of Kwa Zulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.
  • Clandinin, D. J., & Connelly, F. M. (2000). Narrative inquiry: Experience and story in qualitative research. San Francisco: Jossey Bass.
  • Dhunpath, R. (2002). Archaeology of a language development NGO: Excavating the identity of the English language education trust. Unpublished D.Ed Thesis, Faculty of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
  • Jørgensen & Boje, 2010 Material Story telling – learning as intra-active becoming. Publich lecture.Kathard, H. (2003). Life histories of people who stutter. On becoming someone. Unpublished DEd thesis, Faculty of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
  • Pillay, G. (2003). Successful teachers: A cubist narrative of lives, practices and the evaded. Unpublished D.Ed Thesis, Faculty of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
  • Pillay, M. (1992). Zulu communication disorders: Beliefs and perceptions. Undergraduate Research Study, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
  • Pillay, M. (1997). Speech-language therapy & audiology: Practice with a Black African first language clientele. Unpublished M.Ed Dissertation. Faculty of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.
  • Pillay, M. (2003). (Re)Positioning the powerful expert and the sick person: The case of communication pathology. Unpublished D.Ed Thesis. Faculty of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa.
  • Ramrathan, P. (2002). Teacher attrition and demand within KwaZulu-Natal in the context of HIV/AIDS. Unpublished D.Ed Thesis, Faculty of Education, University of Kwa Zulu-Natal, South Africa.
  • Reddy, V. (2000). Lifehistories of Black South African scientists: Academic success in an unequal society. Unpublished D.Ed, Faculty of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.
  • Samuel , M & Dhunpath, R. (Eds.). Lifehistory Research: Epistemology, Representation and Methodology, SENSE Publications, Netherlands (forthcoming 2009).
  • Samuel, M 2003. Autobiographical Research in Teacher Education: Memories as Method and Model. In Lewin, K; Samuel, M & Sayed, Y 2003. Changing Patterns of Teacher Education in South Africa: Policy, Practice and Prospects. Sandown: Heinemann. 253-272.
  • Samuel, M 2003. Autobiographical Research in Teacher Education: Memories as Method and Model. In Lewin, K; Samuel, M & Sayed, Y 2003. Changing Patterns of Teacher Education in South Africa: Policy, Practice and Prospects. Sandown: Heinemann. 253-272.
  • Samuel, M 2007. Accountability to Whom? For What? Teacher Identity and the Force Field Model of Teacher Development. Forthcoming publication.
  • Samuel, M. (1998). Words, lives and music: On becoming a teacher of English. Connelly, F. M., & Clandinin, D. J. (1990). Stories of experience and narrative inquiry. Educational Researcher19(5), 2–14.
  • Samuel, M. (1999). Exploring voice in educational research. Perspectives in Education18(2).
  • Samuel M and Van Wyk, M. 2008. Narratives of Professional Development. Implementing a new Professional Development Policy at the University of KwaZulu-Natal. Education for Change. Special Issue: Teacher development Vol.12. No.2. December 2008. 137-153
  • Singh, L 2007. Birth and Regeneration: the Arts and Culture curriculum in South Africa (1997-2006). Unpublished Phd thesis. Durban: University of KwaZulu-Natal.
  • Strand, A. M. C. 2012, Enacting the Between – On dis/continuous becoming of/through an Apparatus of Material Storytelling, PhD dissertation. Aalborg University, Department of Communication and Psychology.
  • Vithal, R (2008). Mathematics Education, Democracy and Development: Challenges for the 21st Century. Inaugural Professorial Address. 04 April 2008. Durban: Faculty of Education, University of KwaZulu-Natal.


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