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Critical Approaches to life Writing Methods in Qualitative Research.

Book Review: Mulvihill and Swaminathan, Critical Approaches to life Writing Methods in Qualitative Research

Reading this book, my first impression was one of curiosity: what did the authors mean by this set of words, "Critical approaches to life writing methods in qualitative research"? Curiosity refers to the desire to know, the type of curiosity that inspires the process of inquiry. In encountering these keywords, "critical approaches," "life writing methods," and "qualitative research" I felt excited about the learning that was to come. I anticipated that reading the book would allow my imaginative thinking as a life writer researcher to grow. (1)

Immediately, I am provided with a set of promises that I welcome: "Our opening premise for this book is that storytelling matters; it matters to individuals, it matters to cultures and subcultures, and it matters to our individual and collective beings as we engage our imagination about past, present and future human experiences." (2) The authors identify five genres that represent life writing: biographies, autobiographies, autoethnographies, life histories and oral histories. They argue that the "critical" piece central for a critical life writing approach is the storyteller's awareness of his or her agency as storycreator. Furthermore, they argue that the qualitative researcher's motivation for becoming a story creator needs to undergo scrutiny.

Drawing on a range of researchers who use life writing within qualitative research design, the authors provide a set of tools for life writing researchers to engage. Throughout the book, researchers are summoned to continuously examine the writing process. The book is organized into four chapters: Introduction with Overview; Theories and Approaches that Guide Critical Life Writers; Practical Applications and Dreamscapes for Life Writers; and Evaluative Criteria and Final Thoughts.

The first chapter provides a great deal of clarity for qualitative researchers interested in doing a life writing project. The novice researcher might feel overwhelmed by the array of genres that support life writing (e.g. biographies, autobiographies, autoethnographies, life histories, oral histories). Mulvihill and Swaminathan's understanding of this complexity is distilled into doable parts to which novice and experienced researchers alike can now refer and build upon for their own inquiries. In this chapter they offer guideposts for organizing life writing projects that include recommended methodological tools, a useful review of scholarly writings on life writing projects, suggestions on both developing and writing projects as well as helpful references that can guide novice life writers. (3)

Mulvihill and Swaminathan introduce "a set of navigational tools" through which to understand the diverse approaches to life writing. These tools include 21 "Research Journal and Sketchbook Exercises" which are intended to support the researcher in situating themselves inside "the mindset of a critical life writer." (4) The authors remind their readers that: "Critical approaches are messy. Life writers struggle with these choices and communicate their awareness of the consequences of their choices through a process of reflexivity. By engaging in reflexivity, life writers share their decision-making processes and interrogate their own positions vis-a-vis the project with which they engage." (5)

In Chapter 2, the authors provide suggestions on how to initiate and carry through a life project to fruition. They shed a light on the processes researchers undergo in selecting a topic or subject, examining data, artifacts and acquiring a knowledge of how to tell a story Such decisions we learn, are central to the performance and voice of the life writer. (6)

Mulvihill and Swaminathan are to be commended because they have accomplished a great deal by discussing researcher's multiple interpretations of each life writing genre. Turning to biography for example, they identify the work of Norman Denzin and his use of the concept of the "epiphanies" (7) to account for the significant moments in an individual's life. They also trace the historical roots of each genre, the shifts each has undergone as well as the challenges and criticisms researchers may face in choosing a given genre when devising life writing projects. The authors strike an interesting balance between providing clarity in the discussion of life writing and leaving further questions for the reader to pursue.

In Chapter 3, the authors merge the practical with the creative. The authors explain, "[d]reamscapes allow for 'practical dreaming', a way by which life writers can use their imagination, positionality, and critical reflexivity tools to engage with their projects." (8) Germane to this notion of dreamscapes are the wide range of research approaches they describe and their incredible diversity. Given the importance of concepts such as intersectionality and life experience, researchers do need to acquire a good understanding about the possibilities available and select which best suits their inquiry. The authors examine various tools, including comparative educational biography, collaborative life writing, life lines, the life history calendar method, imagined dialogues and digital life writing, for both their possibilities and limitations.

Chapter 4, though the shortest of all the chapters, takes up the debates regarding validity, trustworthiness and credibility as being of central importance to qualitative research and features the differing points of view on this issue among life writing researchers. Though drawing heavily on the genre of autoethnography to illustrate their points, Mulvihill and Swaminathan examine suggestions provided to researchers that can act as guideposts in assessing life writers in the process of developing studies that peers will recognize as credible and contribute to the field. Critical Approaches to Life Writing Methods in Qualitative Research will be of value to novice and experienced researchers alike for many years to come.

Reading this book has expanded my understanding about life writing research methods. This is a book researchers can consult when first becoming life writers, similarly it is a text from which seasoned scholars can draw. Its strength is in offering resources informed by the coauthors' deep knowledge of the field in ways that support, encourage and excite the reader toward creating, sustaining and bringing their life writing projects into fruition. As such the book stands to make a significant contribution to knowledge production within the field.

Dolana Mogadime

Brock University


(1) Dolana Mogadime, "Using interdisciplinary feminist theory to arrive at an understanding of critical educators who put human rights at the center of school curriculum," in Safe Spaces: Human Rights Education in Diverse Contexts, ed. Cornelia Roux (Rotterdam, The Netherlands: Sense Publishers, 2012), 193-206; Dolana Mogadime, "Autobiography," in Encyclopedia of Case Study Research, eds. Albert J. Mills, Gabrielle Durepos and Elden Wiebe (Thousand Oaks: CA, Sage Press, 2010), 41-43.

(2) Thalia M. Mulvihill and Raji Swaminathan, Critical Approaches to Life Writing Methods in Qualitative Research (New York: Routledge Press, 2017).

(3) Ibid., 2.

(4) Ibid., 5.

(5) Ibid., 5.

(6) Ibid., 23.

(7) Ibid., 13.

(8) Ibid., 83.
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Author:Mogadime, Dolana
Publication:Vitae Scholasticae
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2017
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