A Biographical Approach for Social Work

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A Biographical Approach for Social Work. 28 th CIF Conference, Kiljava , Finland Aug. 5, 2009 Johanna Björkenheim. A biographical approach Why use it? Concepts How use it? What is it? When use it? Documentation Ethical aspects. Biographical narratives in social work.
A Biographical Approach for Social Work

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A biographical approach for social work l.jpgSlide 1

A Biographical Approach for Social Work

28th CIF Conference, Kiljava, Finland

Aug. 5, 2009

Johanna Björkenheim

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A biographical approach

  • Whyuse it?

  • Concepts

  • Howuse it?

  • What is it?

  • Whenuse it?

  • Documentation

  • Ethicalaspects

Biographical narratives in social work l.jpgSlide 3

Biographical narratives in social work

  • for collecting factual information about clients’ lives and life situations (life history)

  • as tools for change (life story)

Eu leonardo invite 2003 2006 l.jpgSlide 4

EU Leonardo INVITE 2003-2006:

  • Whatcanvocational rehabilitation gain from biographical research?

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How can social workers take into account the past life of their clients?

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  • EU Leonardo INVITE 2003-2006

  • Literature review

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The present life situation is best understood

  • when viewed against the structure (gestalt) of the entire life story (Rosenthal 2003, JeppssonGrassman 2001)

  • when you know at what stage in life certain events happened, not just that they did (JeppssonGrassman 2001)

  • when you know what were the historical, political and social conditions at the time a certain event happened in a person’s life (Riemann 2003)

  • when you know about the client’s own view of his/her life

  • >>>> This has implications for social work.

  • Slide8 l.jpgSlide 8

    CONCEPTS (1)

    Life history

    – refers to the experiences a person haslivedthrough(Rosenthal 2003)

    Life story, biography

    – someone’snarrated, personal life story as related to another in conversationor as writtendown in presenttime(Rosenthal 2003)

    Life course

    - involvesstudy of ”the social patterns in the timing, duration, spacing, and order of events and roles of human life trajectories(Elder & Rockwell 1979) recognizingthattheseelementsareconsequences of plansthatpeoplecarryforthwithin the constraints of their social world” (Lopata & Levy 2003).


    Slide9 l.jpgSlide 9

    CONCEPTS (2)


    results in a storyaboutoneorseveralthemes


    results in a usuallyquite long life story

    • A biographicalinterviewis usuallynarrativebut

    • A narrativeinterviewis notalwaysbiographical

      (Riessman 2001)


    Concepts 3 biographical identity l.jpgSlide 10

    CONCEPTS (3)Biographicalidentity

    • is the relationshipbetweenidentitydevelopmentand life historyasbuiltupover a long time

    • flowsfromtwosources:

      a) socio-biographicalprocesses

      b) agency for constructingindividualuniqueness

      (Betts et al 2007)

    Concepts 4 biographical work l.jpgSlide 11

    CONCEPTS (4)Biographicalwork

    aims at restoring the biographicalidentity…

    …byreconciling the ’realityprinciple’ and the ’creativity and self-empowermentprinciple’.

    (Betts et al 2007)

    How biographical counselling three forms l.jpgSlide 12


    • Beinggenerallysensitive for biographicalconsiderations in rehabilitioncounselling(Betts et al 2007) > ’biographicalglasses’

    • Biographicalinterview as intervention (Rosenthal 2003)

    • Analysingbiography in a moretechnicalway(Betts et al 2007)

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    1. ’Biographicalglasses’

    • Possible even in short encounters?

    • A question of relating to the client?

      • Seeing that the person has an identity and a biography, which are thus validated even if not known?

      • Understanding that biography has been lived in a context, psychological as well as social (micro / macro)?

      • Noticing a possible need for a longer biographical interview?

    • Other than verbal means of storytelling

    • A life-span perspective

    2 the biographical interview as intervention l.jpgSlide 14

    2. The BiographicalInterview as Intervention

    • Just tellingyour life story to someonecanhavepsychologicaleffects

    • Helpsintegrating and makingsense

    • Furthersself-understandingwithoutmuchinterpretation

    • Givesideas for planning the future

      (Rosenthal 2003)

    A biographical interview in social work compared to a biographical interview in research l.jpgSlide 15

    A biographicalinterview in social workcompared to a biographicalinterview in research

    • There are several, shorter main narratives, not just one

    • There is more narrative questioning

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    Disadvantages of a biographicalinterview in social work?

    • Toowork- and time-consuming?

    • Effectstooslow?

    • Recording and transcriptionseldompossible?

    • Thereneeds to be a common understandingaboutthisway of working at the work-place?

    • Ethicalissuestoocomplicated?

    What a biographical approach in social work means l.jpgSlide 17

    What?A biographical approach in social work means...

    • …listening to and

    • …respecting the life story as it is told

    • …respecting the line drawn by the client as to what is told

    • …a holistic way of working

    What the biographical approach in social work l.jpgSlide 18

    What?The biographical approach in social work...

    …is NOT oneclearlydefinedworkingmethodbut a way to relate to people’slives and life storiesusingdifferentmethods


    When life stories in social work examples from the literature l.jpgSlide 19

    When?Life stories in social work (Examplesfrom the literature)




    Chronicillness, disabilities




    Käytännön opettaja sosiaalityön kehittäjänä -koulutus


    Psychosocial assessments l.jpgSlide 20


    A psychosocialassessment is seen as an intervention in itself, and the way it is done is important

    In a narrative approach marginalising and oppressive dominant culturalstories are deconstructed

    The service user is supported to create the meaning of his/her life and to rejectstoriesimposed by others

    (Milner & O’Byrne 2002)


    Vocational rehabilitation l.jpgSlide 21

    Vocational rehabilitation

    The meaning of vocation/profession, education, work history

    Storieshelp to structure the future

    Dominant narratives may be supportive or restrictive

    Dominant narratives mayprevent rehabilitation workersseeing and accepting alternative narratives

    (Valkonen 2004)


    Substance misuse l.jpgSlide 22


    How the misusestarted, changed (and stopped)

    The role of substances in a person’s life (alsobefore the person started to usethem)

    (Levälahti 2005)


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    Chronicillness, disability

    Causes life changes

    Is notalways a staticconditionthatyouadapt to once and for all

    Theremaybe a certaincoursewhichincludesdeterioration of function

    The dynamicelement and changesappearclearerviewedfrom a life courseperspective


    (JeppssonGrassman 2001)


    Elderly and dying people l.jpgSlide 24

    Elderly and dyingpeople…

    usuallywant to talk abouttheir life…

    …and get help to find positive aspects in the life lived

    (Molander 1999)


    Bereavement l.jpgSlide 25


    The wish to talk about the deceased person with others who knewhim/her…

    …and togetherbuild a story about the deceasedperson’s life and reconstructone’sownplace in it

    …can be moreimportantthan the emotional ’workingthrough’ of the griefaiming at continuing life without the deceased.

    (Walter 1996)


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    Peer support groups

    Sharing of life experiences in self-helpgroups, reminiscencegroups(Saarenheimo 1997) etc.


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    Documenting life stories

    • Openness about what is being documented

    • Documenting in collaboration? (Mann 2001)

    • Documenting separately?

    • Written autobiography, diary?

    • What happens with the client’s material later?

    • Written narrative feedback to the client? (Milner & O’Byrne 2002)

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    Ethical considerations about the biographical interview?

    • For whatpurpose?

    • When and whennot?

    • Raisesexpectations of help thatcannotbemet?

    • Analysis and interpretation – bywhom?

    • Howwillitbeused? By whom?

    • Confidentiality?

    • Informedconsent?

    Conclusions l.jpgSlide 29


    • Naming your way of working enables reflection and developing it in a more conscious, systematic and methodical way.

    • Life stories should be used with discretion: With whom? When? For what? How?

    • ‘Biographical glasses’ can be used with most clients

    • The biographical approach at its best is holistic and empowering

    Thank you l.jpgSlide 30


    References 1 l.jpgSlide 31

    References (1)

    • Betts, Sandra & Griffiths, Aled & Schütze, Fritz & Straus, Peter (2007) Biographical Counselling – an Introduction. Module 0 in EU Leonardo INVITE Biographical Counselling in Rehabilitative Vocational Training – Further Education Curriculum.

    • Elder, Glen & Rockwell, RC (1979) The Life Course and Human Development: An Ecological Perspective. International Journal of Behavioral Development: 2:1-21.

    • Jeppsson Grassman, Eva (2001) Tid, tillhörighetochanpassning. Kronisksjukdomochfunktionshinderurettlivsloppsperspektiv. SVT 8 (4), 306-32. [Time, belonging, adaptation. Chronic illness and handicap from a lifecycle perspective]

    References 2 l.jpgSlide 32

    References (2)

    • Levälahti, Johanna (2005) ) ”Egen vilja och andras hjälp. Om sociala nätverk och socialt stöd i förändringsprocessen från alkoholmissbruk till nykterhet.” Master’ thesis of SW. University of Helsinki.

    • Lopata, Helena Z & Levy, Judith A (2003) The Construction of Social Problems across the Life Course. In Lopata & Levy (eds): Social Problems across the Life Course. Lanham, Boulder, NY, Toronto, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.

    • Mann, Sue (2001) Collaborative representation: Narrative ideas in practice. Dulwich Centre Publications.

    References 3 l.jpgSlide 33

    References (3)

    • Milner, Judith & O’Byrne, Patrick (2002) Assessment in Social Work. Second edition. New York: PalgraveMacmillan.

    • Molander, Gustaf (1999) Askellyhenee, maakutsuu. Yli 80-vuotiaiden kuolema eletyn elämän valossa. SuomenMielenterveysseura.

    • Riemann, Gerhard (2003, September) A Joint Project Against the Backdrop of a Research Tradition: An Introduction to ”DoingBiographicalResearch” [36 paragraphs]. Forum QualitativeSozialforschung / Forum: Qualitative Social Research [On-Line Journal, 4(3). Available at: [Date of access: November 1, 2006]

    References 4 l.jpgSlide 34

    References (4)

    Riessman, Catherine Kohler (2001) Personal Troubles as Social Issues: A Narrative of Infertility in Context. In Shaw, Ian & Gould, Nick (2001) Qualitative Research in Social Work. London/Thousand Oaks/New Delhi: Sage.

    Rosenthal, Gabriele (2003) The HealingEffects of Storytelling: On the Conditions of CurativeStorytelling in the Context of Research and Counseling. QualitativeInquiry. Vol 9(6), 915-933.

    Saarenheimo, Marja (1997) Jos etsit kadonnutta aikaa. Vanhuus ja oman elämän muisteleminen. Univeristy of Tampere.

    Valkonen, Jukka (2004) Kuntoutus tarinoina. In Karjalainen, Vappu & Vilkkumaa, Ilpo (eds.) Kuntoutuskanssamme. Ihmisentoimijuudentukeminen. Stakes.

    Walter, Tony (1996) A new model of grief: bereavement and biography. Mortality, Vol. 1, No. 1, 7-25.

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