Barbara Merrill and Linden West. Using Biographical Methods in Social Research. Thousands Oaks, CA: Sage, 2009. 211 pp. ISBN 978-1412929585, $39.95.
Selecting a qualitative methodology for a research project is not for the faint of heart. Graduate students and seasoned researchers alike often scour the library stacks and on-line journal indexes in an attempt to locate just the right methodology for their inquiry. Part of the decision-making often lies in how well the authors provide a clear, detailed, and engaging description of the process. Do they locate the methodology in an historical context that helps readers understand how it is similar and different to related approaches? Are the epistemological and theoretical underpinnings discussed as a way of providing a clear map of the research process? Can a new researcher follow the detailed instructions of how to conduct the research from beginning to end? In other words, how well do the authors tell a coherent story about the method that provides a strong theoretical and practical foundation from which to work?
The first half of this book provides a good discussion of the background of the method, the context in which it has developed, and the theoretical orientations the authors use. Based on their own fields of expertise in sociology and psychology, Merrill and West share their personal and professional experiences as a way of engaging the reader in meaningful learning about biographical research, which they describe as a way of "connecting disparate social phenomena and personal experience and weaving understanding between them in new and sometimes surprising ways" (2). The authors highlight the importance of developing connections between the personal stories of our (participants') lives and the research phenomenon under investigation. By better understanding individual biographies of people in relation to the larger sociocultural matrix of society, we see how particular stories help us pay attention to being human in this world, and how being human in this world makes us pay attention to individual stories.
Chapter 2 leads …