Faculty of Arts, Humanities and Education

Brave, or plain stupid – the beautiful risk of writing autobiographically


Brave, or plain stupid – the beautiful risk of writing autobiographically

Dr. Paula Stone. Senior Lecturer Primary Education recently gave a talk at our Faculty’s recent Narrative Research Day. Here she reflects on her presentation:

You’re brave, was a constant refrain when I told people I was writing autobiographically for my doctoral thesis. I can’t deny that writing autobiographically for an academically assessed piece of work, was risky. Ignoring accusations of self-indulgency, self-absorption, narcissism or solipsism, in the spirit of feminist epistemology, I decided to tell the story of who I was, to who I am now, during which, I shared not only the facts about the past and the present, but also my feelings as I struggled with my ‘self’ as a middle-aged, middle-class woman who was raised in poverty.

As a young woman, I occupied the position of white, working-class and female, with the related ways of knowing and being. But I have achieved within the education system, I am what Bourdieu and Passeron would call ‘une miraculée’ – an educationally highly successful member of a disadvantaged group, who has survived and thrived in education, despite the unjust distribution of capital in the academic system.

When I started to work at the university, despite my academic success and the concomitant upward mobility, I felt like an academic tourist – a visitor or a stranger in the academic field. But through auto/biography, an approach first established by Liz Stanley, which challenges the divisions between self/other, public/private, immediacy/memory, personal and political, I was able to, for the first time, examine my feelings of illegitimacy. I discovered that my past and present were intimately connected, and I realised that my enduring feelings of illegitimacy were not only psychological and but also sociological.

Finding my voice as a woman from working-class origins, as someone who has embodied feelings of insecurity and inferiority all her life, has been more difficult than I anticipated. And yes, writing my auto/biography has created tremendous emotion and the temptation to hide from it was, on occasion, almost irresistible. But using Pierre Bourdieu and Axel Honneth as psycho-social analytical frameworks I was able to examine, how the complex issues of il/legitimacy and agency continue to impact the formation of self and identity for an individual who has crossed class boundaries.

As Carl Rogers taught, growth and change can only happen when we experience empathetic understanding of our frame of reference, and I have now begun to understand mine. My PhD has provided what Homi Bhabha calls a third space, a space in which I have been able to renegotiate how I see my ‘self’ and create someone new.

My story is an individual story but it could also be what Richardson calls a ‘collective story’ – a story which tells the experience of a sociologically constructed category of people in the context of larger socio-cultural and historical forces.

So rather than being self-indulgent, I would like to suggest that my research was self-knowing, self-respectful, and self-luminous. I know that I have created new meanings for myself through documenting my life story, and my hope is that I have done the same for anyone who reads my thesis. Through sharing my own personal experience of my movement across class categories, I aim to raise awareness of the types of challenges encountered by people who, like me, have occupied both a working-class and a middle-class habitus within the same lifetime.

If you would like to read more, my thesis is called “Confronting Myself: An auto/biographical exploration of the impact of class and education of the formation of self and identity.” Which can be found in CReaTE.

• Bhabha, H.K. (1994) The Location of Culture. Abingdon: Routledge.
• Bourdieu, P. and Passeron, J.C. (1990) Reproduction in Education, Society and Culture, (2nd edn) (Trans. Richard Nice). London, Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage Publications.
• Honneth, A. (1995) The struggle for recognition: The moral Grammar of social conflict. Cambridge: Polity Press.
• Richardson, L. (1997) Fields of play: Constructing an academic life. New Jersey, Rutgers University Press.
• Rogers, C.R. (1967) On Becoming a Person: A Therapist’s View of Psychotherapy: by Carl R. Rogers. London: Constable and Co. Ltd.
• Stanley, L. (1995). The autobiographical I: The theory and practice of feminist auto/biography. Manchester: Manchester University Press.

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