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‘I'd rather you ask me because I/I/I don't really know, you know’: The Dilemma of (Auto)Biographical Interviewing in Biographical Research

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By: Published: 2014 | Product: SAGE Research Methods Cases Part 1
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Abstract

As social researchers, we are expected to be methodical in our approach to researching social life. We ground ourselves in reading about the experience of other researchers. When I set upon my PhD, I thought I was prepared. I set out to examine the life (hi)stories of women who had grown up in a children's Home in Belfast during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. Much of the research in the field of care looks at young people in care and care leavers, and the biographical approach has never been used to look at the experiences of adult care leavers from Northern Ireland. In my study, I used the (auto)biographical interview, and I asked my 12 participants to tell me their life story. The title of this case is a response I had from one of my participants when I asked her to tell me her life story. This case is a story of the particular challenges I encountered using this biographical method of investigation. But it is also a lesson, to be cautious about taking advice from theory at face value and sticking to the rules. First, I introduce how I theorised the method, followed by what is ‘supposed’ to happen when using the biographical approach and then I share what ‘actually’ happened.

Learning Outcomes

By the end of the case you should

  • Have a basic knowledge of biographical terminology and the three-stage/subsession approach of biographical research
  • Have a better understanding of the methodological challenges involved in asking someone to tell you his or her life story
  • Recognise and understand the significance of small stories in the overall big story
  • Begin to understand the construction of the life (hi)story as a performative act
  • Be able to begin to think about the ways to analyse and write big and small stories for research output
Theorising (Auto)Biography

The aim of my doctoral research was to explore the lives and experiences of women raised in the care system of Northern Ireland's past. A care leaver is someone who spent a part or all of their childhood in the care of the state (social services) or voluntary organisation (such as a religious order or Barnardo's). I wanted my participants to tell me about their lives, about their experiences. But importantly, I wished for them to decide what they wanted to discuss, to choose what was important to them. I had conducted semi-structured interviews before and have used a topic guide in other interviews. But I wanted a method that had no restrictions because I assumed that by having no topic guide in the interview, the more subjective the research would be. So I set about reading methodologies, and I found myself in the field of interpretive biographical methodology.

However, I felt uneasy with some of the terms being used in the literature I was reading, such as biography and autobiography. For example, when a participant talks about his or her life for social research purposes, it is never completely autobiographical because it involves another person, the researcher. As you have most likely noticed, I have been using the terms (auto)biographical and life (hi)story. As Ken Plummer (2001) notes, a ‘plethora of terms’ has appeared in textbooks over the years which define what can be described as a story a person chooses to tell about his or her life and about himself or herself. Some of the terms are listed below:

  • life history
  • personal history
  • life story
  • self story
  • oral history
  • personal experience story
  • biography
  • autobiography
  • life review
  • narrative

Despite these different names, Robert Atkinson (1998) believes that there is little difference between, for example, a life history and life story and that an oral history can be translated into a life history or story. They are all embedded in one another. In order not to confuse or prioritise one term or approach over another, the terms I used for my PhD was a bricolage of all the terms associated with biographical methodology. I used the term life (hi)story and (auto)biographical interview. (Auto)biography is used in three methodological senses:

  • To emphasise that the (auto) process, as Catherine Riemann (2003) points out, consists of a life ‘produced by one's self’; in other words, the autobiographical component involved in biographical research.
  • The biographical element of the process is, as Liz Stanley (2005) writes, the ‘life produced by another person’, me as an interpreter and analyst.
  • There is always, what Liz Stanley terms an ‘auto/biographical’ engagement on the part of the researcher. Stanley suggests that we are always ‘socially located’ in our research, for example, from a gendered perspective, class or sexuality. As social researchers, we need to be aware of where we are socially located in our research projects.

What materialises from the (auto)biographical interview is the life (hi)story. For me, this term incorporates the following:

  • The life story, as constructed and told by the narrator in the present
  • The actual life history as it happened chronologically in the past

Both these terms depict the complexities of participant and researcher involvement in the interview and the temporality of the past being talked about in the present.

The Biographical Interview: What Is Supposed to Happen

The most prominent methods of biographical research are Tom Wengraf's Biographic-Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM) and the work of Fritz Schütze. Schütze (2008) writes that life history is a narrative gestalt. The term gestalt refers to the form or shape and in this case, the organising principles a person applies to create a whole narrative from parts. When I was at Queen's University Belfast, I participated in a 1-day training course for BNIM. I was apprehensive with this version of biographical methodology, as there seemed to be so many rules, and so I continued to read. In the end, I set out to use the three-stage/subsession approach to biographical research, used by Gabrielle Rosenthal (2005). The three stages are as follows:

Stage 1: The interview is opened by a general non-contentious question. For example,

Please tell me about your life story. I am interested in your whole life. Anything that occurs to you. You have as much time as you like. I won't ask you any questions for now. I will just make some notes on the things that I would like to ask you about later; if we haven't got enough time today, perhaps in a second interview.

The interviewee is expected to speak at length during this stage, without interruption from the researcher, as the narrative telling must not be disturbed. The interviewer can however make notes on the points they wish to question the participant on further.

Stage 2: After the participant has talked freely at length or created an autobiographical narrative, the interviewer can begin to ask questions during this stage from the notes made in stage 1. However, they can only ask questions on the themes or topics mentioned by the participants.

Stage 3: This stage can take place during a different/later sitting, meaning that the researcher can leave and conduct a preliminary analysis of stages 1 and 2. In stage 3, the interviewee can introduce new topics or themes that may not have been raised by the participant.

This was how I had anticipated the interviews would take place.

What Actually Happened: Hello Pauline!

Pauline was the first participant I interviewed. I made my way to her house, which was in the middle of nowhere. When I arrived, the first thing she did was make us a cup of tea and offer me a jaffa cake! Then without warning, she delved straight into what I understood to be her narrative, without being asked the question. I recall quickly grabbing my recorder from my bag and indicating that I was putting it on. Although everything was outlined in the participant information sheet sent out to them, I did not get the opportunity to talk through the ethical side of things with her (this was conducted at the end). Then I remembered that I was ‘supposed’ to have my pen and notebook. I was not being very professional. So I discreetly (I hoped) retrieved them from my bag and placed them on the table in front of me. I remember thinking about what I had read and what I had learnt at Tom Wengraf's BNIM training day about jotting notes and the rules of how I was supposed to be making notes. But I was unable to do this; Pauline's story was incoherent, and it was disjointed from the outset and I was unable to follow. I was lost and confused in her story. I also realised that I was not really listening to Pauline, yet this is what I was meant to be doing. So I placed the notebook and pen down and did not lift them again. I became less managed and forgot all that I had read. As it turned out, for each of the interviews, the pen and the notebook were useless tools. But I always placed them on my lap, either out of habit or as objects of security. My ability to listen, to really listen, was the greatest tool and only apparatus I needed.

What appeared to be or what I can only assume was stage 1 in Pauline's interview ended within a couple of minutes. She did not delve into a long extempore telling of her life, like it said in the literature. She struggled greatly and began to ask me for help, for example,

  • P: […] uh […] what am I/what/what/what would you like to know like you know like you know? Just ask me.
  • I: Just anything.
  • P: Tell me what you want to know.
  • I: You know, I have no, um […]
  • P: You've no criteria.
  • I: No specific questions.

Pauline was not the only participant who struggled with this method.

Finally Getting to Ask the Question

For the other participants, when we finally settled down to conduct the interview, I asked them the following question or made the following request:

Please tell me about your life story. I am interested in your whole life, not just the time you spent in Nazareth House. Anything that occurs to you. You have as much time as you like. I won't ask you any questions for now. I will just make some notes on the things that I would like to ask you about later; if we haven't got enough time today, perhaps in a second interview.

For most of the participants, the question was not asked as a whole like it appears above or depicted in the literature. As I was asking, there were moments when the interviewee made some sort of verbal gesture to present that they were aware or that they understood what I was asking them. Linda gives an example and she actually finishes my sentence at one point and takes a comic stance towards what is being asked of her:

  • I: Um so yeah basically I'm just asking you to tell me your life story.
  • L: Yes.
  • I: I'm interested in your whole life not just the time you spent in Nazareth House.
  • L: Oh Jeese ((laughs))
  • I: ((laughs)) everything you have to say is of interest and importance for me. Um you've got as much time as you like. Um I'm just gonna jot down notes of things that perhaps I might wanna ask you
  • L: later
  • I: later on.
  • L: Oh
  • I: But yeah you can just start wherever/wherever you like.

Janice also provides an example of interrupting the first question:

  • I: Ok so basically um I just want you to tell me your life story. Um, I'm interested in your whole life not just the time you spent in Nazareth house.
  • J: Ok.
  • I: Um, everything you have to say is of interest for me.
  • J: Right.
  • I: You have as much time as you like. Um I won't ask you any questions for now but perhaps I'll just take notes of things that uh perhaps I might wanna ask [.] once you've finished. So you can just literally start wherever you want
  • J: Ok
  • I: you want to start.
  • J: Ok um [.] uh/I've got two sisters and um a brother. And the reason why we sort of came to be in the convent in the first place was that um [.] my Mother um [.] suffered with a brain um haemorrhage.

‘Uh hum’ was a common response during the initial question too. Angie's response to the question was probably the most memorable. As I said the words ‘life story’, she burst into laughter. At first, I was unsure how to interpret this, but then I realised she was not laughing at the project or me. She was laughing because she did not see why anybody would want to hear her life story. What was so special about her life that somebody would want to conduct research about it? She then followed the question (or more so the laughter) with:

  • A: I don't know where to start! ((laughs))

The majority of participants, rather than delving into an autobiography and a telling of their life, sought clarification about what I was asking or about what they thought I wanted to know:

  • C: You mean yer in/[‥] um/eh you you mean like [‥]/you don't want to know really what/how the nuns or anything or acted or anything like that there no?
  • I: Um you know well yeah I'm interested in everything, you know.
  • CL: [.] you want me to speak about, before the convent?
  • CO: Yeah. Yeah. Well me life story, oh do I start now?
The Difficulty of Performing the Auto in (Auto)Biographical Telling

Two of the 12 participants, Diane and Janice, presented, through performance, a life (hi)story that had a beginning, middle and end (BME) and a story, which had a biographical project running through its core. They talked at length, and little questioning was needed. It was a typical textbook case. Interestingly, they had both written or were in the process of writing autobiographical books. In other words, they had both worked on their (auto)biographies. However, they too at times would lose sight of their story.

For the other 10 participants, it was a task they could not perform alone. For example, at the outset, it was clear that this act was going to be difficult for Coleen, and throughout the interview, she continued to ask for help:

  • CO: But um, [.] I'd rather you ask me because I/I/I don't really know, you know [‥].

I remember thinking at the time ‘oh no, I wish she'd just try’, and I began to question myself as an interviewer. What was I doing wrong? What could I do differently that would encourage her to speak? The interview turned into more of a conversation, and I was continuously probing her on topics from the top of my head. This is how I conducted the remainder of the interviews. What is considered stages 1 and 2 in the conventional approach merged together in my research. I was not concerned with asking internal or external questions and above all not in the order told to me. Questions were asked in a more conversational manner, through natural interactional sequence. I heard parts of the (auto)biographical story, about being in Nazareth House, but I also heard random stories, which at first appeared as though they did not belong in this telling. For example, with Angie, at one point, she spent about 20 min of her narrative discussing the washing of tea mugs!

Reaching a Coda and Saying Goodbye

The coda of the narrative is theorised as the concluding segment of a life story. The literature tells us that it occurs at the end of a lengthy stage 1. Fritz Schütze (2008) has argued that people come to a clear end when they arrive at the present. All of the participants, with the exception of Diane and Janice, reached a coda during the first couple of minutes or minute after the question was asked. They made the following statements:

  • P: So that's my life story for all its worth like you know.
  • J: So […] that's [.] me story like ((laughs)).
  • A: Um, anything else I can think of. [‥] Any lies [said in a whisper] ((laughs)) {…} Nah I'm trying to think of what else now. [‥] That's really more or less my story really.

In some of these cases, with thought, the participants continued to tell another story. My suggestion is that a coda can never be reached in its entirety because the story is never ending. Stories are continuously being created. In this project, my participants did not ‘arrive’ at the present impassively; they brought themselves there. In these cases, it was not necessarily a coda to depict the end of the story, but a coda to suggest that the interview needs to finish.

I did not leave immediately after the interviews. I stayed, talked and drank more tea with my participants. I felt that this was necessary, as I wanted to ensure that they were ok, that I was not just leaving them pondering their memories, especially the bad ones. But also, I did not want to appear as though all I had come for was the interview and now that I had it I wanted to depart.

Searching for the Big and Finding the Small

On reflection, I enjoyed each and every one of the interviews. I believe we enjoyed each other's company; we enjoyed constructing and sharing stories (and I enjoyed the Jaffa cakes!). I listened and I trusted my participants to tell me what was important to them, and sometimes during the moment, it was a disappointment or even a shock what I was hearing. But that is the greatest benefit of (auto)biographical process, the element of surprise. My initial approach was intended to be a less invasive method that allowed the respondent to make sense on their own, which results in even more fruitful stories and a deeper meaning and understanding from the respondent. However, the approach I set out to use was invasive also. How can asking someone to tell you his or her life story not be invasive?

I tried to elicit a story from the participants. A story being the life story, known as the ‘big story’. These types of telling are elicited in interview situations, with the aim of answering who am I? For those of the participants who had worked on their autobiography, Janice and Diane, this was achievable, and they presented their somewhat prepared or rehearsed stories, which had a central theme. But yet they too were unable to maintain the ‘big story’ throughout our entire interaction. For the others, I heard only snippets of the ‘big story’ that were not overtly arranged within a plot, and no amount of methodical prompting, coaxing or probing that we read about in biographical theory would seduce them into a telling what was expected of them, or what I was expecting. They could only tell the stories available to them in that space.

I pondered for a long while on what I had done wrong and why I had collected the types of stories I did until I came across an alternative approach to narrative research proposed by Michael Bamberg and Alexandra Georgakopoulou (2008). What I heard in my research were small stories. These can be tales

  • told in interaction,
  • considered to be incoherent,
  • not necessarily of a whole life,
  • of events not lived through,
  • of hypothetical events.

Small stories are stories of the everyday that have no significance in traditional narrative research. This approach is interested in how people construct their selves and their identities in daily interactions, rather than analysing stories as representations of the world and identity within it. Small stories are considered to only frequent everyday conversations. Nonetheless, they appeared in my big story research, when the participant was unwilling or unable to tell the big story, for example, Angie's mug stories. I was aware that these stories would seem irrelevant to other sociologists; yet, I was becoming aware of their significance, and I knew that they needed to be included in the analysis rather than ignored. However, my collection of both interview narrative and data that occurred naturally left me bewildered about how to analyse them

Analysing Big and Small Stories

As I have described, I had not exclusively collected the ‘conventional type’ of data associated with the biographical approach, and as the analysis progressed, I became aware that I was unable to perform a ‘conventional’ narrative analysis. There are a number of approaches by which to analyse a narrative. For example, I was only to remain within the boundaries of

  • thematic analysis,
  • structural analysis,
  • interactional analysis,
  • positioning analysis,
  • discourse analysis,
  • performative analysis,
  • conversation analysis.

Although defined as separate analytical approaches, for my research, they seemed to overlap. For example, we all take positions in discourse, interaction, conversation and performance. I was confused by their separation, and I struggled so much with this stage of the research. I wanted, or more importantly needed, to examine both big and small stories that made up the life (hi)stories of the participants. Yet, this situation seemed contradictory, and the literature contained advice on how to analyse big or small stories separately. The life (hi)story needed to be understood as a (re)presentation but also as a process and a performative act. For this reason, I decided to take into account the way the stories were shaped and embedded in the space of interaction. The small story approach aided this. I decided to take what Georgakopoulou (2006) describes as an ‘intermittent position’ between the two camps of narrative analysis and narrative inquiry. The first camp contains the expressivists, who use narrative as a method to investigate ‘what the stories tell us about the tellers self’. The second camp consists of the productivists who view narrative as an end in itself.

I analysed the life (hi)stories in two ways. First, as a resource, to provide insights into aspects of social life from the subjective view of the participant. I remained interested in what the stories were about, and I remained interested in experience, which is where the thematic analysis proved useful to investigate parts of the ‘big story’. I was bound by the discipline of Sociology to interpret what these stories said about these women and the remarkable lives they have led.

Second, I performed an analysis of the life (hi)story as a construction, viewing the documents as phenomena in themselves. The four-layer approach I devised borrows from each of the methods of narrative inquiry. I analysed the narrative as a space (the interview context) through the following layers:

  • Layer One: Dramatis Personae – In conventional narrative analysis, an investigation takes place into how the stories are ‘peopled’ and how the biographical self is presented in the story. In this layer, I looked at the characters of the story and how they were relationally positioned.
  • Layer Two: Interactive Manoeuvres – This layer of interpretation considers the numerous ways the participants performed their way through the interview. It outlined the strategies used to construct meaning in their stories and how the speaker positioned herself through interaction and through narrative actions, such as evaluation and argumentation.
  • Layer Three: Small Story as Genre – Bamberg and Georgakopoulou (2008, p. 380) note that some writers view such stories as incoherent tellings, which have yet to be incorporated into the life story or that they were not narrating a life (hi)story at all because they did not adhere to the traditional BME infrastructure. My approach has been to treat them as a narrative genre, but not as genre simply in a structural manner (as is within a conventional approach); but the interactional conditions must also be considered. This section discusses some of the small stories (which may have been overlooked at the expense of the ‘big stories’) that materialised in the interviews. They included the telling of ongoing events, future or hypothetical events, allusions, deferrals and refusals to tell.
  • Layer Four: ‘Who am I in all of this?’ – Borrowing this title from Bamberg and Georgakopoulou (2008), this layer (re)considers the narratives in the wider sociocultural context. This was pertinent for this research because of the stories of institutional care continuously circulated in the media, especially the historical care of children by the Catholic Church. How have the published accounts, scandals in the media and cultural myths affected the self? How did the participants locate their selves in all of this? It would be too simplistic to use the participants' narratives to reproduce the master narrative; instead, the aim here was to deconstruct and analytically probe beyond the ‘commonsense assumptions’ that everyone raised in institutions define themselves as victims or survivors. This layer in the analysis acknowledges the public narratives that may impinge upon the participants' framing of their experiences.

Although they have been outlined separately, these layered procedures of analysing the narrative as a space overlapped and cannot be completely disentangled from the thematic analysis that preceded it. The aim of this part of the analysis was to understand the ways the participants interactively construct the referential world, which inevitably indicated how the participants want to be understood.

Writing Big and Small Stories

Each of the (auto)biographies presented to me were unique, and I strived to do my best to write them with great care and sensitivity. The decisions I made in the design and fieldwork stages determined the procedure for not only the analysis just discussed but also the interpretation. For example, despite being overwhelmed with too much data, I chose to use all 12 interviews (as opposed to focusing on one or two) because ethically, it was the right thing to do, and personally, I would have felt guilty if I had not used them all. How could I prioritise one interview over another, when each participant had invited me into their home, had given me their time and shared the most poignant moments of their life with me?

Having analysed all 12 interviews in these two ways, it became apparent that the self and story were experienced and are embedded in three separate spaces and places and this was how I organised writing big and small stories. The narrators storied their identities around being at home. The first two interpretation chapters considered the ‘who’ and ‘why’ of identity; the participants told experiences of Nazareth House and then their experiences of transition from care (the thematic analysis). The third interpretation chapter considered the ‘who’ and ‘how’ of identity, the telling constructed during the interview. I did not create a typology because I agree with Dan McAdams (1993) who argued that human lives are way too complex. Instead I chose to present an array of examples from across the participants. The presentation of the findings attempted to reflect both the life course of the participants and the theme and sub-themes that emerged across the sample as a whole.

Conclusion

This was the first time I had used the biographical method. I have conducted qualitative interviews in the past but I have never outright asked someone to tell me his or her life story. Before I conducted the first interview with Pauline, I read article after article, book after book, chapter after chapter on how to do BNIM or conduct a biographical interview. It seemed pretty straightforward. For 10 of the participants, it was a task they could not perform alone while two participants told a life story that had a biographical project running through its core.

These differences presented dilemmas when I was analysing the transcripts. It was not until later on in the process, when I referred back to the literature, that I realised that what had occurred was completely normal. It was not about my interviewing ability, but about two people interacting in a mutual space. I realised at this stage that what I had asked of my participants, to tell me their life story in this space, was unfathomable. I was asking them to construct a specific identity, in a particular way that was incompatible with how they naturally construct an identity and make meaning through place.

I have learnt that the (auto)biographical interview does not guarantee easy access to who a participant is and how they construct their self and identity. In the ‘successful’ cases, the stories were somewhat rehearsed and were ‘big’ in appearance. In the remainder of the cases, the method failed in its mission to obtain the ‘big story’, but what I gained instead were the smaller stories, the real means through and upon which they construct who they are. I mean real as in not artificial. The stories people tell everyday are considered to be the stories upon which people construct their identities. The ‘small story’ approach to the biographical narrative has made me view the ‘data’ differently, and I now appreciate that these women did not or could not tell a ‘big story’ because the ‘big story’ is not everyday phenomena. In an attempt to account for the difference in stories, I devised the four-layer approach to analyse the life (hi)stories, to incorporate the narrating activity and interaction itself as an important part of identity formation. Through doing this, I have learnt that as a researcher, I need to be flexible not only in my approaches to interviewing but also to analysis. The literature can suggest ways of analysing interview data, but fails to recognise the shy, self-conscious and those who are just unable to answer such a question.

If I were to conduct the research again, I would most certainly approach the interview in a less ‘artificial’ manner or more so not place such grand expectations on my participants. My advice to others who use the biographical method is that there is always light at the end of the tunnel; just do not be afraid to experiment and step outside of the methodological box.

Discussion Questions
  • In my doctoral research, I use the terms (auto)biographical interview and life (hi)story. What do I mean by these terms? How would you theorise these terms?
  • List the pros and cons of asking someone to tell you his or her life story.
  • How would you deal with a participant who struggled with answering the initial question or the method as a whole?
  • I have not discussed the ethics I encountered in this project. What do you think would be some of the ethical considerations of this method?
  • I discussed briefly how I approached the analysis of the big and small stories. Can you think of any other methods of analysis that may be appropriate in analysing such data?
  • What do I mean when I say that the life (hi)story is a ‘performative act’?
  • What other methods might I have used in trying to capture the life (hi)stories of my participants?
Further Reading
Bamberg, M. (2007). Narrative analysis and identity research: A case for ‘Small Stories’. Retrieved from http://www.clarku.edu/∼mbamberg/publications.html
Bamberg, M. (2010). Who am I? Big or small – shallow or deep?Theory & Psychology, 21, 122–129. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1177/0959354309357646
References
Atkinson, R. (1998). The life story interview (Qualitative research methods series 44). London, England: SAGE.
Bamberg, M., & Georgakopoulou, A. (2008). Small stories as a new perspective in narrative and identity analysis. Retrieved from http://www.clarku.edu/∼mbamberg/publications.html
Edwards, D. (2012). The girls of Nazareth House, 1940–1960: (Auto)biographical understandings of care experiences and identities (Unpublished doctoral thesis). Queen's University Belfast, Belfast, UK.
Georgakopoulou, A. (2006). Thinking big with small stories in narrative and identity analysis. Narrative Inquiry, 16, 122–130. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1075/ni.16.1.16geo
McAdams, D. (1993). The stories we live by: Personal myths and the making of the self. New York, NY: Guilford Press.
Plummer, K. (2001). Documents of life 2: An invitation to a critical humanism. London, England: SAGE.
Riessman, C. K. (1993). Narrative analysis (Qualitative research methods series 30). London, England: SAGE.
Rosenthal, G. (2005). Biographical research. In R. L.Miller (Ed.), Biographical research methods (Vol. III, pp. 25–58). London, England: SAGE.
Schütze, F. (2008). Biography analysis on the empirical base of autobiographical narratives: How to analyse autobiographical narrative interviews – Part I. Retrieved from http://www.uni-magdeburg.de/zsm/projekt/biographical/1/B2.1.pdf
Stanley, L. (2005). On auto/biography in sociology. In R. L.Miller (Ed.), Biographical research methods (Vol. II). London, England: SAGE.
Wengraf, T. (2006). Interviewing for life-histories, lived situations and personal experience: The Biographic-Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM) on its own and as part of a multi-method full spectrum psycho-societal methodology. Retrieved from http://www.uel.ac.uk/cnr/Wengraf06.rtf

Methods Map

Life history interviews

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