I was not able to come to the CNR December event. However, there is an issue/area which I would like there to be some discussion about, which relates both to Narrative Research and the Biographical research which Tom Wengraf has been pursuing so energetically since Sostris.
This is the question of the relevance of these methods for the development of Social Theory, and indeed for the development of knowledge of social structures and processes, and indeed cultures too.
My impression is that despite the large amount of research which has been done in these genres, and using these methods, there is a serious difficulty in getting beyond particularism, the accumulation of instances and cases of one kind or another. One might say these methods have been very fruitful methodologically, and have certainly given great scope to individual researchers to do interesting work, but have not so far been very fruitful theoretically, or in terms of generalisation and typification at a societal or cultural level. I think this particularism, or distance from theory and generalisation, limits the influence of this field of research on larger public debates about society and its condition.
A contrast might be made in this respect with Cultural Studies, in the 1970s in particular, where because there was guiding interest (in part this was political) in understanding larger societal developments – particular studies of media, sub-cultural phenomena, etc., did lead to larger theoretical interventions and challenges. For example, an analysis of the media representations of ‘mugging’ in the 1970s led all the way to the analysis of Thatcherism and the crisis of the corporatist social settlement which led to it. There was a whole week of events devoted to Stuart Hall’s work last week at Goldsmiths (Maria was at the Memorial event on Saturday) so this is much in my mind. In the case of Cultural Studies, they devoted immense efforts to theorising what they were doing, with reference to Gramsci, Althusser, post-structural theorists, etc., these theoretical points of reference evolving over time.
Might one envisage a conference of some kind specifically devoted to this question, ‘From the particulars of narrative and or biographical analysis, to new understandings of society?’ I myself think that without generalisation, with conceptions that challenge the prevailing commensense, work of this particularistic kind does not develop the influence it should have (given its quality) nor is it easy for it to become cumulative.
There is another analogy which can be made, with psychoanalysis, and the relationship between clinical case studies (the main form of investigation) and theoretical understanding, which has always been a very close one, more so than I think is the case in the fields of narrative and biographical research. Another analogy could be made with ethnography, and its relation to theories in anthropology, which has also been a strong one.
I don’t know if this issue interests you CNR folk, but if you were interested to pursue it, I would be very glad to be involved in discussion of it, and perhaps in preparing an event of some kind. .