Life-Writing as Inquiry

Autobiography, ethnography, and literary writing have always been closely entwined. While Ruth Benedict was writing Patterns of Culture in 1934, she was also reading The Waves by Virginia Woolf. And Woolf consulted Patterns of Culture while writing Between The Acts in 1940. Malinowski’s diary records ruminations on Charlotte Brontë, Ford Maddox Ford, and Dostoyevsky, and his own ‘novelistic fantasies’. These links have been brought into the mainstream through such developments as the crisis of representation in anthropology, the reflexive, narrative and linguistic turns, and initiatives to study everyday life such as the Mass Observation Project.

This OCLW strand homes in on the creative and critical practices involved in the writing of obscure and marginalised lives: issues like the politics and poetics of writing contemporary lives, testimonial cultures and witnessing, and autobiographies of resistance. It has a particular focus on methodological innovation, for instance an ambitious programme of research into participatory writing, to explore the ways in which the principles and practices of participatory research might be applied to the making of a text; and what this approach might have to teach us about the sorts of creative, aesthetic, and scholarly standards to which we can aspire. A programme of events will bring together scholars from across the humanities and social sciences interested in life-writing as inquiry, offer opportunities to participate in activities, and to share our discoveries.

The strand is co-ordinated by OCLW Visiting Scholar Katherine Collins who is a Postdoctoral Researcher in Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London, working with life-writing methods to study the impact of Brexit on the lives of expatriated Britons in EU27. She has just been awarded a bursary from the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography to undertake a prosopographical survey of British expatriate communities in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. She has published ethnographic poetry and short stories, and is writing a collection of short stories about the lives of the women in her family.

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