chapter  2
14 Pages

The ethics of writing life histories and narratives in educational research


How would you feel if, one day, when reading a book, a journal or a news - paper, you came across writing you knew to be about you that revealed secrets, was unflattering, untrue, or had, in its interpretation, simply got the wrong end of the stick? Not best pleased, I imagine. Whilst such an experience is part of the everyday life of ‘celebrities’, it isn’t something that folk who agree to take part in academic research projects expect to have to go through as a consequence of their involvement. Nevertheless, sometimes they do, and on occasion, that experience has in itself become the focus of further academic writing, and, therefore, the cause of even more exposure. Well known and documented cases of this happening include Wilfred Foote Whyte’s (1943) Street Corner Society study (see Boelen 1992; Whyte, 1992) and Carolyn Ellis’ (1986) Fisher Folk research (see Ellis 1995 and 2007; Tolich 2004). In the accounts of how research participants have felt after seeing the ways in which they were depicted, hurt and betrayal feature large, as does concern about how other people, reading the descriptions, might now regard and behave towards them. These ‘betrayal’ stories make it clear that writing is never neutral or innocent because it is a social and a political activity with consequences and that, as such, writing about, and thereby re-presenting, lives carries a heavy ethical burden. As Laurel Richardson notes:

narrativising, like all intentional behaviour … is a site of moral responsibility

(1990: 131).

In this chapter I am going to begin to explore some of the issues around the ethics of writing life histories and narratives in educational research. This is a massive topic and anything I write can only be partial, both in the sense of coverage and in terms of it being my own personal view.