Reading Autobiographical Sources: Potentials and Challenges in Human and Social Sciences
A methodology workshop for Master and PhD students
What can we learn about the Atlantic slave trade from the journal of a slave merchant? What do the memoirs of a humble French artisan teach us about eighteenth-century France? How are religious identities reflected in diaries? Are authors sincere when they write about themselves or do they tend to fabricate manipulated images? Over the last decades, historical research has devoted much attention to so-called ‘autobiographical texts’ (also called ‘first-person writings’ or ‘ego-documents’). On the one hand, historians have used them as sources to get an actor-centred access to the past of human societies.
On the other, they have debated over their trustworthiness, asking if we can actually consider them as a genuine expression of individual experience or if we should rather regard them as narrative constructions made up by assembling more or less standardized discourses. The problems that historians face when dealing with autobiographical texts such as memoirs, diaries or travel accounts raise questions which are relevant to social and human sciences in general. How can we grasp individual experience and to what extent can (and should) scholars integrate such subjective data it in their analyses? What are autobiographical sources and what critical methods can we use when investigating them? Focussing on a historical perspective, this workshop will examine scholarly potentials and methodological challenges associated with such texts and provide analytical tools to examine them. To this end, it will include discussions based on methodological / theoretical articles as well as practical exercises with autobiographical sources.