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Discourses We Live By

Hazel R. Wright
Marianne Høyen

VII. Discourses through a self-reflexive lents: thoughts from researchers

28. Discourses, Cultural Narratives, and Genre in Biographical Narratives

A Personal Overview

Marianne Horsdal


Marianne Horsdal considers different approaches and projects using biographical narrative methods, drawing on a lifetime of experience as an educator and researcher in Denmark. This is a concise but artfully composed account, which is set within a historical and theoretical context.

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1The invitation to contribute to this book asked us ‘to interrogate the discourses we live by and consider how they are present in cultural narratives, and how they are relevant to the real life contexts of adult education and of people’s life histories, and to question to what extent people’s accounts are shaped by the understandings already held’, and this is what I have done.

2During a quarter of a century of research on biographical narratives a significant part of my analysis has been to identify and examine the cultural narratives expressed in the life stories right from the beginning. I rarely use the term ‘discourse’ in my books and articles on biographical narrative research, but this does not mean that I object to the terms used in the invitation. I only prefer the term cultural narratives in order to distance myself from the theories on narrative, which in the postmodern line of thought only wanted to speak of discourse. In viewing biographical narratives, also, as a purely linguistic phenomenon, such theorists abstained from any cognitive, embodied or phenomenological approach to the life story narratives.

3My immediate answer to the question posed in the invitation is clear: People’s accounts of their lives are to a very great extent shaped by understandings which may be termed and analysed as discourses or cultural narratives, that is as understandings already held in the communities and societies in which the narrators interact. What is interesting, however, is the way the cultural narratives or discourses appear in the stories.

Biographical Narratives

4When someone is asked to tell about her life — in an interview, in an interpersonal exchange of human curiosity, in a professional setting — the context of the telling is obviously of great significance. We do not tell the same story in different settings, and we do not tell the same story throughout changing times. The context of the narrative has a decisive impact on the discourses we may find in the story.

5This, however, does not imply a complete relativism; the context is very important but not the only significant element of the story told. A life story narrative contains cultural, as well as cognitive and corporeal elements, however inseparable. The life story informs the listener about interpretations of self and existence, as memories from the past, expectations of the future, and the experience of the present are conceived, combined and expressed in the moment and context of telling.

6The argument that we are confined to or limited by the cultural-symbolic signs available to us is often put forward, and for good reasons, mainly due to the influence of impoverished cultural environments. However, it is a remarkable fact that the human imagination enables unlimited creative and innovative use of culturally and socially inherited symbolic forms. The ongoing production of fiction is a proof of the human aptitude for new creations, just as the fantastic possibility of new musical compositions exists in spite of the fact that they all use the same twelve tones. Limitation of the cultural tools for symbolic expression is a social and cultural issue, not an immanent feature of symbolic representation.

7Biographical narratives also contain a mixture of something unique as well as socially and culturally familiar symbolic material; there are remarkably common features. We are a paradoxical mixture of cultural imprints, such as social discourses and features of learned social interactions and, at the same time, we are individually unique human beings due to our corporeal existence in space and time in a cultural environment. Only Siamese twins share an identical path and trajectory throughout life. The rest of us move physically along individual trajectories in space and time although constantly involved in interpersonal relationships of various kinds, which partly determine our interpretations and embodied experiences of our life journey as well as our intentions and actions. Large samples of biographical narratives make the paradox evident. Each story and each human being is unique, and yet stories display so many common traits that similarities are found between many individual stories.

8We are narrated from a third person perspective before we ourselves are able to narrate (Kerby, 1991). The world is pointed out to us adorned or burdened with values and significance from the very beginning. During our upbringing we acquire the available cultural tools in richer or poorer degrees, including the words and discourses at our disposal. Even the cognitive parts, our mastery of language and episodic memory, depends heavily on interpersonal interactions.

9Whether or not we regard ourselves or others as individual beings is a different matter. Individualism is a major discourse or grand narrative in our Western culture today, which significantly affects our interpretations of self. Whether we regard the other as an individual human being or as a generalized member of a group is another question to be considered (Horsdal, 2012; 2017).

Discourse and Genre

10Discourse analysis can be a useful tool in the analysis of biographical narratives. Back in 1998 Ochs wrote a fine chapter on narrative in Van Dijks book, Discourse as Structure and Process. A central part of discourse analysis has been the identification of ‘floating signifiers’ and the tensions between various discourses used to determine the assignment of meaning to concepts such as ‘freedom’, ‘democracy’, ‘equality’, or ‘nation’. Discourse analysis thus provides an important tool in critical analysis not least of social media.

11As the chapters in Van Dijk’s book (and, indeed in the very book that you are reading) demonstrate, discourse may be applied in a way somewhat similar to the term ‘genre’, as when you talk of a ‘narrative discourse’ in comparison with a different discursive genre, or as a concept somewhat similar to ‘grand narratives’ or ‘cultural narratives’. But the ambiguity of the concepts may be confusing. You can speak of a narrative genre in comparison with, say, lyrics; and you may speak of the genre of a particular narrative, which may be told as a fairy tale, a Bildung novel, or a tragedy. The terms ‘discourse’ and ‘genre’ may also signify larger or smaller linguistic units.

12As for third term, ‘grand narrative’, Lyotard (1979) proved to be quite wrong in his claim that ‘grand narratives’ were extinct. Although the interpretation of the significance of class and other collective frameworks has changed, grand narratives of ‘individualism’, not to speak of ‘growth’, are still very much alive.

13Personally, I have primarily used the term ‘cultural narratives’ in my own research, signifying both grand narratives and discourses of various kinds, such as the two grand narratives mentioned above, as well as, say, religious narratives and social political narratives, which are part of people’s biographical stories.

Negotiating Meaning

14Some of the hundreds of stories I have collected or analysed show a tendency toward negotiation of meaning between competing discourses, as in the two examples below.

Story 1

Can you force someone to do something — because what will be the result? In a way I feel that when I have finished this education and I am able to do various things and also want to do various things, well, when there are lots of schools missing teachers the problem is that most of the students at the college of education say they may well study there, but they do not want to become teachers. The college works as a jumping-off point for something else. You don’t really know what you want — you have tried the university — may be two or three times. This is typical of many of the students at college. What, really do I think myself? What do I want? We… maybe you have an obligation towards society. My father always maintained that.

(Woman, aged 23)

Story 2

On the other hand, I have no doubts as for when we feel fine. Most people feel bad about being alone, and they feel better being part of communities, and when they feel loved and appreciated by other people. That you now and again may want to act selfish, it may be suffocating, and then you want to break out. But I believe we generally feel better in communities. The thing is that what is frightening in our time is also the gift. That we are released from a lot of family ties, religious ties, national ties, ideological ties… the question is to accept that we haven’t got those ties you had in different times. Yet while we are so differentiated it is important to have the basic belief that at some point we just want the same things.

(Man, aged 27)

15These two young people negotiate an interpretation of self and existence with themselves among several common discourses. The discourse of individuality and variety of choices and ‘death of the grand narratives’ on the one hand, and a need for relationships and communitarianism on the other.

16The open approach to the narrative interview — one in which the story told is the response to one single question: ‘Please, tell me about your life from the beginning until we are here today’, and where interruptions and redirections by further questions from the interviewer are completely avoided — leads to interviews, and stories, that more often display a negotiation of meaning between a variety of different cultural narratives or discourses (Horsdal, 2016b).

17In some research projects this open narrative interview was followed by a more traditional semi-structured interview in which I posed several questions according to the interests of the research. Here, I noticed that the responses to the questions in the semi-structured interview proved to be much more unambiguous and unequivocal compared to the open biographical narrative. In other words, the narrators negotiated meaning in the open biographical narrative, but chose one discourse (that perhaps might be expressed as the ‘good interviewee’) in the semi-structured interview. Also, a very specific context for the interview might limit the application of various discourses to what was thought most appropriate, thus equivalent to Bruner’s argument of rhetorical justifications (Bruner, 1991).

18An analytic implication of this is an increasing impact of the relationship between interviewer and interviewee — which, however, is always very important — in a semi-structured interview, colouring the chosen discourses and/or cultural narratives. The more the methodology of the interview procedure supports time for thought, for reflection, for consideration of what to say and how to put it in a relaxed atmosphere, the more negotiations of meaning between different ‘voices’ and given cultural narratives are expressed in the biographical narrative.

19Some commonly held beliefs and widespread discourses, or grand narratives, are present in most biographical interviews. The context of the biographical interview in itself points to an individualistic interpretation of existence and to an emphasized linearity in modern Western life stories. I have in a few cases met other forms, cyclical stories based on the seasons as well as collective conceptions of the person in her relationships of kin or class. Interestingly, the main discourse has changed over recent generations. For those born during the beginning of the 20th century, life was viewed as a common destiny; to their grandchildren, life is viewed as a matter of personal choice.

20The biographical reflexivity I am referring to above is in itself a quite dominant cultural narrative in our cultural environment. We ask the questions: ‘who am I?’ ‘who do I want to become’? ‘Am I doing the right thing?’ ‘Making the right choices?’. These are questions that are part of a grand narrative or discourse of: ‘life as a project and a matter of personal choice’. Naturally, biographical research on lifelong learning underscored this tendency.

21This individual biographical reflexivity so well discussed by Taylor (1989) and Giddens (1990), meaning that individual biographies replaced the cultural narratives of a collective fate (‘Such were the conditions for women/small farmers/workers’) is nevertheless hardly visible in some biographical narratives.

Biography and Social Context

22Biographical reflexivity is mostly found in stories of well-educated, prosperous young people. The two stories presented above come from a project researching biographical learning of active citizens. Stories collected in more impoverished areas beyond the range of possibilities belonging to the middle class rather show an interpretation of existence as a troublesome journey in a rough terrain with few options and a careless resignation to circumstances combined sometimes with some anger and frustration (Evans, 2016; Horsdal, 2016a; 2017). The antagonism between this interpretation of experience and the mainstream dominant discourse of life as a personal project with full control over success or failure may furnish the frustration.

23‘We don’t always get it, as we want’, ‘Life is no bed of roses’, ‘This was hard, it was a failure’, ‘What doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’, are some of the expressions commonly heard in a typical life story from someone from a less privileged background.

24Narrators belonging to the much older generations often tell us about the hard circumstances they endured, with a certain pride that they managed to have a reasonable life after all. The individual — often quite moderate — success is viewed within a frame of a collective fate of poverty, hard work, gender, social class, illness, etc. Today foreground and background are almost reversed for the less privileged narrators. The discourse of life as an individual project to be achieved is hinted at as a background upon which the actual life conditions seem almost given or fatal. And yet, the personal responsibility for success or failure lurks in the background.

25Over many years I have asked my students of education at the university to carry out a narrative interview with someone they know, in order to become more familiar with the methods of biographical research before entering the field. Together we have read and analysed most of those stories in class. This random collection of life stories from my students included a significant number of biographical narratives told by people who had to struggle with very serious problems during their childhoods. Serious neglect, violence, mental illness, abuse of drugs or alcohol make children’s and young people’s lives difficult: it can be a major challenge just to survive without deterioration, and without repeating destructive patterns in their own relationships.

26Other narrators tell about caring families, secure childhoods and lots of happy memories. However, the most significant issue in the stories I have read, across different backgrounds, is the question of relationships.

27Many biographical narratives show relationships as the overall theme of the stories: the relationships within the family between the different members; the relationships in kindergarten, in schools, in neighbourhoods, in sports or other leisure activities, other educational settings and workplaces. Shifts of place or communities of practice, such as the family moving, parents getting divorced, enrolment in a new school etc., entail new challenges within the theme of relationships. Did the narrator manage to make new friends in the new place, did he/ she feel accepted, legitimate in his/her participation, matters. This is significant.

28Relationships are the big, big issue, and the feeling of being bullied or excluded seems devastating. Our participation in different communities is valued in the stories according to the kind of relationships they offer or oppose. Even in stories in which working life and career play a significant role in the biography, the relationships within the different workplaces have a heavy impact.

29The dependency on good relationships exposes a certain vulnerability, which can be interpreted as connected to the overall discourse on individualism and the ‘liberation from’, or ‘dissolution of’ earlier more persistent communities based on necessity. The old collective communities did not question the legitimacy of the wish to be accepted and appreciated for the person you are and for what you can do, to the same extent. You were free to go, but also to be excluded.

30I also noticed a tendency to a quite narrow range of social relationships in the stories of less privileged people. Does the outer world seem frightening or hostile? Or, challenging and fascinating? Active citizens have the resilience and extra energy to engage in a larger world, the less privileged tend to care only for their closest relationships. One of the active citizens I interviewed said:

I think it is one of the curses of our time, exactly because we have got so many options, and we’ll always feel there is something we haven’t time to do. The danger, of course, is that you go to the other extreme and search yourself more than necessary, and then that you turn around and say that you’ll only concern yourself with the Danish, or you’ll only concern yourself with your family, or you’ll only concern yourself with your job and that’s it. This is a danger these years, and some people are caught.

(Man, aged 29)

31This is clearly a statement from a person who has the freedom of choice and the resources to reach out to a larger range of communities. In contrast, another interviewee, a young woman alone with four children, from a third generation subjected to a succession of violent family relationships, limits her ambitions to the hope that her children do not become mothers at an early age as she has done. Typically, the only person outside her own closest family mentioned in her story is a doctor who treated her when she was sick as a child. How narrow or how spacious is the human lifeworld in which we engage? And what reserves of strength do we need, and have, for this engagement?

In Conclusion

32I now take up the question of hope foregrounded at an ESREA Life History and Biography Network conference I attended (Canterbury, 2016), for I hold that the sharing of life story narratives can play a significant role in supporting social harmony. It may, in itself, enhance a view of the other as someone with whom you can identify as well as recognize and accept as a different, unique, and equal person. The paradox between the individual trajectory and the persistent interdependency of humans in society cannot and should not be resolved; just acknowledged. Most certainly narrative competences, enabling individuals to safely negotiate their way round prevailing discourses, are indispensable today in a world full of troublesome, even dangerous, manipulative behaviours.



Bruner, J. (1990). Acts of meaning. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Evans, R. (2016). Life is normal in Donetsk: Narratives of distant conflict and young adults’ learning biographies. In: Formenti, L. & West, L. (eds), Stories that make a difference. Milano: Pensa MultiMedia Editore.

Giddens, A. (1990). The consequences of modernity. Cambridge: Polity.

Horsdal, M. (2012). Telling lives. Exploring dimensions of narrative. Abingdon: Routledge.

Horsdal, M. (2016a). The intergenerational impact on the experience of learning. In: Formenti, L. & West, L. (eds), Stories that make a difference. Milano: Pensa MultiMedia Editore.

Horsdal, M. (2016b). The narrative interview — method, theory and ethics: Unfolding a life. In: Goodson, I. (ed), The Routledge international handbook on narrative and life history. Abingdon: Routledge.

Horsdal, M. (2017). Tilværelsens fortællinger. Tilegnelse og anvendelse. København: Hans Reitzels Forlag.

Kerby, A. (1991). Narrative and the self. Indiana, PA: Indiana University Press.

Lyotard, J.F. (1979). La condition postmoderne. Paris: Minuit.

Ochs, E. (1998). Narrative. In: Van Dijk, T. (ed), Discourse as structure and process. London: Sage.

Taylor, C. (1989). Sources of the self: The making of modern identity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


Professor Emerita at the University of Southern Denmark, is a key international specialist in the study of narratives and has written widely on the subject in both Danish and English. Introducing her seminal work, Telling lives: Exploring dimensions of narratives (2012), she reveals how through examining family memorabilia and having an academic background in Literature, she developed an interest in life history, later embracing identity research and cultural studies in a desire to increase both theoretical and methodological understanding.


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