Life History and Biography

Aims and themes of the network

The Life History and Biography network is a lively forum – “a community of learners, researchers, and citizens” (Formenti, West, 2016, p. 11) for debate on research using narrative, biographical and auto/biographical methods so as to illuminate adult lives and learning from the insider’s perspective, as well as to locate such lives in a psychosocial and cultural context. Our conferences – held every year, in the first week of March, Thursday to Sunday, since 1993 – attract significant numbers of researchers, including doctoral students and senior researchers, from a wide range of different disciplinary backgrounds. Participants come from every corner of Europe, and beyond (e.g. Australia, Brazil, Canada, South Africa, South Korea, and the United States).
Within adult education and lifelong learning, life history and biographical approaches vary considerably, and the network represents a variety of epistemological, theoretical and methodological frames. Our conferences are based on recognition and celebration of this diversity, since it brings us to a deeper and richer relationship to research and its possibilities. Hence we have worked over time to build a dynamic community, and create spaces for dialogue, demonstration, reflexivity and discovery enabling participants to write and publish together, to devise new research projects and collaborate in other ways. Earlier conferences explored methodology and different approaches, spanning the theoretical and practical, political, social, spiritual, and aesthetic issues.

History of the network

Since the first meeting in Geneva, in 1993, convened by Peter Alheit, Pierre Dominicé and Agnieszka Bron, the Network has been organising conferences for more than a quarter of a century. These have enriched our knowledge of human lives and learning, but also challenged our views by opening up the many dilemmas in such research as well as addressing the contradictions and tensions of contemporary society. Meaningfully, the first conference was on subjectivities and structures, hence the contrast between individual freedom, consciousness and meaning making with more sociological and critical approaches, that illuminate the extent to which we are storied as well as story tellers.
When Linden West became the Convener, and with contribution from scholars such as Barbara Merrill, Henning Salling Olesen, Kirsten Weber, Gunilla Härnsten, Marianne Horsdal (among many), the Network developed a strong psycho-social approach, which became a leading concept. With the arrival of Laura Formenti as joint convener, and the addition of new active participants, such as José Gonzalez Monteagudo and Rob Evans, new themes emerged and conferences addressed the contradictions of change, wisdom and knowledge, the aesthetic representation of stories, the role of the body and material context in shaping stories. And of what lies beyond words, such as arts-based research, and the place of hope in learning lives. At this point, Alan Bainbridge was added as a new joint convener and the conference developed new psychosocial, cultural and wider ecological themes, such as the discourses we live by and togetherness.
Tensions within Europe and the wider world have become more extreme. In the presentations the nature and role of hope in building better dialogue was considered, as was the connection between diverse peoples at a time when dialogue is difficult and the ‘other’ may be experienced as a threat rather than a source of learning and enrichment. In broader debates, participants acknowledged the seriousness of the political and environmental situation in many of our home nations and the suffering of the millions of homeless people fleeing repression and conflict, the impact of climate change, poverty and destitution.
Conference participants were aware of the need to embrace, value, and to work with ‘difference’ within our own walls. At our plenaries, we reflected on the growing importance of the Network reflecting our global society, and the need to build a safe space for the sharing of views and opinions whatever an individual’s background. And to find ways to address the language barriers that beset a European network, mindful that important ideas can be ‘lost in translation’.
For 2017, the conference was planned around similar notions of integrity, but asks participants to question their own assumptions by examining the suppositions and frameworks that underpin their thinking and their practices and to consider what appropriate actions could be taken to build and support resources of hope. For 2018 we look at togetherness and its enemies; its importance but also why it is so difficult.



ESREA series
West, L., Alheit, P., Andersen, A.S. & Merrill B. (Eds.) (2007). Using Biographical and Life History Approaches in the Study of Adult and Lifelong Learning: European Perspectives. Peter Lang, Frankfurt-am-Main.

Edited books produced by the network
Alheit, P., Bron, A., Brugger, E. & Dominicé, P. (1995) (Eds.). The biographical approach in European adult education. Verband Wiener Volksbildung: Wien.

Evans, R. (Ed) (2016). Before, Beside and After (Beyond) the Biographical Narrative. Duisburg: Nisaba Verlag.

Formenti, L. (2006) (Ed.). Dare voce al cambiamento. La ricerca interroga la vita adulta. Unicopli: Milano.

Formenti, L. & West, L. (2016). Stories that make a difference. Exploring the collective, social and political potential of narratives in adult education research. Pensa Multimedia: Lecce.

Formenti, L., West, L. & Horsdal, M. (2014) (Eds.). Embodied narratives. Connecting stories, bodies, cultures ad ecologies. University Press of Southern Denmark: Odense (DK).

Wright, H.R. & Høyen, M. (2020) (Eds.) Discourses We Live By: Narratives of Social and Educational Endeavour. Open Book Publishers: Cambridge (UK).

Journal’s special issues guest edited by the network

Gonzalez Monteagudo, J. (Ed.) (2008). Approches non-francophones des histoires de vie en Europe. Pratiques de formation/Analyses, 55, Université Paris 8