Collective Biography: A New Chapter for Exploring Agency in the South African Context

  • Samantha van Schalkwyk


The author explores the processes and practices of the research in this chapter. She begins by outlining the epistemology and African-centred feminist theory which have shaped her choice of methodology. In the first part of the chapter, the author unpacks central features of the research—representation, revisiting the data and dynamics around researcher positionality and presence. She then unpacks the distinct methodology, collective biography, which is collectively based, longitudinal and which foregrounds the researcher’s partnerships with the women’s group. The reader is taken through a journey of the research process and introduced to the creative strategies such as role-plays, drama, and visual memory work. This is interweaved with the women’s voices and imaginings that constitute the first layer of narration for this research. The chapter ends with comments on the theoretical lens used to make sense of the women’s voices. The author puts forward a ‘new chapter’ for gender research for the African continent.


  1. Adames, S. B., & Campbell, R. (2005). Immigrant Latinas’ conceptualisations of intimate partner violence. Violence Against Women, 11, 1341–1364.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Andrews, M. (2008). Never the last word: Revisiting data. In M. Andrews, C. Squire, & M. Tamboukou (Eds.), Doing Narrative Research (pp. 86–101). London: Sage.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Bacchus, L., Mezey, G., & Bewley, S. (2006). A qualitative exploration of the nature of domestic violence in pregnancy. Violence Against Women, 12, 588–604.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. Bohler-Muller, N. (2002). Really listening? Women’s voices and the ethic of care in post-colonial Africa. Agenda, 54, 86–91.Google Scholar
  5. Cowman, K. (2012). Collective biography. In S. Gunn & L. Faire (Eds.), Research methods for history (pp. 83–100). Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Davies, B. (1990). The problem of desire. Social Problems, 37, 801–816.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Davies, B. (1991). The concept of agency. Social analysis, 30, Postmodern critical theorising (pp. 42–53).Google Scholar
  8. Davies, B. (1992). Women’s subjectivity and feminist stories. In C. Ellis & M. G. Flaherty (Eds.), Investigating subjectivity. Research on lived experience. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  9. Davies, B. (2000). A body of writing 1990–1999. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.Google Scholar
  10. Davies, B., & Gannon, S. (2006). The practices of collective biography. In B. Davies & S. Gannon (Eds.), Doing collective biography (pp. 1–15). New York: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  11. Davies, B., Gannon, S., Laws, C., Lenz Taguchi, H., McCann, H., & Rocco, S. (2006b). Reading fiction and the formation of feminine character. In B. Davies & S. Gannon (Eds.), Doing collective biography (pp. 35–60). New York: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  12. Davies, B., Browne, J., Gannon, S., Honan, E., & Somerville, M. (2006c). ‘Truly wild things’: Interruptions to the disciplinary regimes of neo-liberalism in (female) academic work. In B. Davies & S. Gannon (Eds.), Doing collective biography (pp. 79–87). New York: Open University Press.Google Scholar
  13. De Fina, A. (2003). Identity in narrative: A study of immigrant discourse. Philadelphia, PA: John Benjamins.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. De Lauretis, T. (1987). Technologies of gender: essays in theory, film, and fiction. Bloomington: Indiana University press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. de Vos, P. (2015). The Limit(s) of the law. Human rights and the emancipation of sexual minorities on the African continent. In D. Higginbotham & V. Collis-Buthelezi (Eds.), Contested intimacies: Sexuality, gender, and the law in Africa (pp. 1–16). Cape Town, South Africa: SiberInk.Google Scholar
  16. Derickson, K. D., & Routledge, P. (2015). Resourcing scholar-activism: collaboration, transformation, and the production of knowledge. Professional Geographer, 67, 1–20.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Doucet, A. (2008). From her side of the gossamer’s wall(s): Reflexivity and relational knowing. Qualitative Sociology, 31, 73–87.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Eisikovits, Z., & Winstok, Z. (2002). Reconstructing intimate violence: The structure and content of recollections of violent events. Qualitative Health Research, 12, 685–699.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Fish, J. (2006). Domestic democracy: At home in South Africa. New York: Taylor & Francis Group.Google Scholar
  20. Fox, A. M., Jackson, S. S., Hansen, N. B., Gasa, N., Crewe, M., & Sikkema, K. J. (2007). In their own voices. A qualitative study of women’s risk for intimate partner violence and HIV in South Africa. Violence Against Women, 13, 583–602.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Fraser, H. (2004). Doing narrative research: Analysing personal stories line by line. Qualitative Social Work, 3, 179–201.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Gavey, N. (2005). Just sex? The cultural scaffolding of rape. New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  23. Gill, A. (2004). Voicing the silent fear: South Asian women’s experiences of domestic violence. The Howard Journal, 43, 465–483.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Gqola, P. (2017). Reflecting Rogue: Inside the mind of a feminist. Johannesburg, South Africa: Jacana Media.Google Scholar
  25. Haaken, J., & Reavey, P. (2012). Why memory matters: Disturbing recollections. In J. Haaken & R. Reavey (Eds.), Memory matters: Contexts for understanding sexual abuse recollections (pp. 1–13). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  26. Harned, M. S. (2005). Understanding women’s labelling of unwanted sexual experiences with dating partners: A qualitative analysis. Violence Against Women, 11, 374–413.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Hofisi, C., Hofisi, M., & Mago, S. (2014). Critiquing interviewing as a data collection method. Mediterranean Journal of Social Science, 5, 60–64.Google Scholar
  28. Israel, B. A., Schultz, A. J., Parker, E. A., & Becker, A. B. (1998). Review of community-based research: Assessing partnership approaches to improve public health. Annual Review of Public Health, 19, 173–202.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Johnson-Odim, C. (1991). Common themes, different contexts. In C. T. Mohanty, A. Russo, & L. Torres (Eds.), Third World women and the politics of feminism (pp. 314–327). Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  30. Kitzinger, J., & Barbour, R. S. (1999). Introduction: The challenge and promise of focus groups. In R. S. Barbour & J. Kitzinger (Eds.), Developing focus group research: Politics, theory and practice (pp. 1–20). London: Sage.Google Scholar
  31. Kuhn, A. (2000). A journey through memory. In S. Radstone (Ed.), Memory and methodology (pp. 179–196). Oxford: Berg Publishers.Google Scholar
  32. Macleod, C. (2006). Radical plural feminisms and emancipatory practice in post-apartheid South Africa. Theory & Psychology, 16, 367–389.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Macleod, C. (2008). ‘Who? What?: An unindicted view of towards a new psychology of women from post-apartheid South Africa. Feminism & Psychology, 18, 347–357.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  34. Macleod, C., & Durrheim, K. (2002). Foucauldian feminism: The implications of governmentality. Journal for the Theory of Social Behaviour, 32, 41–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. Mauthner, N. S., & Doucet, A. (2003). Reflexive accounts and accounts of reflexivity in qualitative data analysis. Sociology, 37, 413–431.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Mauthner, N. S., Parry, O., & Backett-Milburn, K. (1998). The data are out there, or are they? Implications for archiving and revisiting qualitative data. Sociology, 32, 733–745.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Melucci, A. (1995). The process of collective identity. In H. Johnston & B. Klandermans (Eds.), Social movements and culture (pp. 41–63). Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.Google Scholar
  38. Mkhize, N. (2004). Psychology: An African perspective. In D. Hook (Ed.), Critical psychology (pp. 24–52). Lansdowne, Cape Town: University of Cape Town Press.Google Scholar
  39. Mohanty, C. T. (1991). Under western eyes: Feminist scholarship and colonial discourses. In C. T. Mohanty, A. Russo, & L. Torres (Eds.), Third world women and the politics of feminism (pp. 51–80). Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  40. Munt, S. R. (2011). Journeys of resilience: The emotional geographies of refugee women. Gender, Place & Culture: A Journal of Feminist Geography, 19, 555–577.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  41. Narayan, U. (2000). Essence of culture and a sense of history: A feminist critique of cultural essentialism. In U. Narayan & S. Harding (Eds.), Decentering the center: Philosophy for a multicultural, postcolonial, and feminist world (pp. 80–100). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  42. Okin, S. M. (2000). Feminism, women’s human rights, and cultural differences. In U. Narayan & S. Harding (Eds.), Decentering the centre: Philosophy for a multicultural, postcolonial, and feminist world (pp. 26–46). Bloomington: Indiana University Press.Google Scholar
  43. Parker, I. (2005). Qualitative psychology: Introducing radical research. New York: McGraw-Hill.Google Scholar
  44. Pereira, C. (2000). Feminist knowledge. African Transitions, 490, 77–85.Google Scholar
  45. Pereira, C. (2002). Between knowing and imagining: What space for feminism in scholarship on Africa? Feminist Africa, 1.Google Scholar
  46. Pratt, G. (2004). Working feminisms. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  47. Reissman, C. K. (1993). Narrative analysis. London: Sage.Google Scholar
  48. Rojas Silva, B. (2017). Book review: Narrative imagination and everyday life. Feminism & Psychology, 27, 385–388.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  49. Seidman, I. (2006). Interviewing as qualitative research-A guide for researchers in education and the social sciences. New York: Columbia University; Teachers College Press.Google Scholar
  50. Sjoberg, G., & Nett, R. (1968). A methodology for social research. New York: Harper & Row.Google Scholar
  51. Sokoloff, N. J., & Dupont, I. (2005). Domestic violence at the intersections of race, class, and gender: Challenges and contributions to understanding violence against marginalised women in diverse communities. Violence Against Women, 11, 38–64.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  52. Squire, C. (2008). Experience-centred and culturally-orientated approaches to narrative. In M. Andrews, C. Squire, & M. Tamboukou (Eds.), Doing narrative research (pp. 41–63). London: Sage.Google Scholar
  53. Stephenson, N. (2001). “Speaking like a woman”: Agency in intersubjective communication. Australian Psychologist, 36, 19–26.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  54. Tamboukou, M. (2008). A Foucauldian approach to narratives. In M. Andrews, C. Squire, & M. Tamboukou (Eds.), Doing narrative research (pp. 102–120). Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.Google Scholar
  55. van Schalkwyk, S., & Gobodo-Madikizela, P. (2015). Introduction. In S. van Schalkwyk & P. Gobodo-Madikizela (Eds.), A reflexive inquiry into gender research: Towards a new paradigm of knowledge production & exploring new frontiers of gender research in Southern Africa (pp. xi–xxxv). Newcastle-upon-Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing.Google Scholar
  56. van Schalkwyk, S., Boonzaier, F., & Gobodo-Madikizela, P. (2014). ‘Selves’ in contradiction: Power and powerlessness in South African shelter residents’ narratives of leaving abusive heterosexual relationships. Feminism & Psychology, 24, 314–331.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  57. Walshaw, M. A. (2010). The researcher’s self in research: Confronting issues about knowing and understanding others. In L. Sparrow, B. Kissane, & C. Hurst (Eds.), Proceedings of the 33rd annual conference of the mathematics education research group of Australasia Incorporated 2010: Shaping the future of mathematics education (pp. 587–593). Australia: Freemantle.Google Scholar
  58. Wright, S., & Nelson, N. (1995). Participatory research and participant observation: Two incompatible approaches. In N. Nelson & S. Wright (Eds.), Power and participatory development: Theory and practice (pp. 43–59). Southampton; London: Intermediate Technology Publications.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  59. Yuval-Davis, N. (1997). Gender and nation. London: Sage.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© The Author(s) 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  • Samantha van Schalkwyk
    • 1
  1. 1.Stellenbosch UniversityStellenboschSouth Africa

Personalised recommendations