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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.

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A biographical approach for social work l.jpg

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

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Biographical narratives in social work

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

  • as tools for change (life story)

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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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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.

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    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).


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    CONCEPTS (2)


    results in a storyaboutoneorseveralthemes


    results in a usuallyquite long life story

    • A biographicalinterviewis usuallynarrativebut

    • A narrativeinterviewis notalwaysbiographical

      (Riessman 2001)


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    CONCEPTS (3)Biographicalidentity

    • is the relationshipbetweenidentitydevelopmentand life historyasbuiltupover a long time

    • flowsfromtwosources:

      a) socio-biographicalprocesses

      b) agency for constructingindividualuniqueness

      (Betts et al 2007)

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    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.jpg

    • 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

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    2. The BiographicalInterview as Intervention

    • Just tellingyour life story to someonecanhavepsychologicaleffects

    • Helpsintegrating and makingsense

    • Furthersself-understandingwithoutmuchinterpretation

    • Givesideas for planning the future

      (Rosenthal 2003)

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    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?

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    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

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    What What??The biographical approach in social work...

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


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




    Chronicillness, disabilities




    Käytännön opettaja sosiaalityön kehittäjänä -koulutus


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    Psychosocial What?assessments

    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)


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    Vocational What? 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)


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    Substance What?misuse

    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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    Chronic What?illness, 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)


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    Elderly What? and dyingpeople…

    usuallywant to talk abouttheir life…

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

    (Molander 1999)


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    Bereavement What?

    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 What?groups

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


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    Documenting life stories What?

    • 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 What?about the biographical interview?

    • For whatpurpose?

    • When and whennot?

    • Raisesexpectations of help thatcannotbemet?

    • Analysis and interpretation – bywhom?

    • Howwillitbeused? By whom?

    • Confidentiality?

    • Informedconsent?

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    Conclusions What?

    • 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

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    *** What?Thankyou!***

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    References What? (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. http://www.biographicalcounselling.com

    • 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]

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    References What? (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. http://www.dulwichecentre.com.au

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    References (3) What?

    • 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: http://www.qualitative-research.net/fqs-texte/3-03/3-03hrsg-e.htm [Date of access: November 1, 2006]

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    References What? (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.