Collective Biography

By Leni Van Goidsenhoven

Five researchers from several universities, working in different departments and on diverse topics, but all with a tremendous interest in Disability Studies, went to a cozy country house in a remote Belgian village. We would stay there for three days to do a ‘collective biography workshop’ under the supervision of the Australian scholar Bronwyn Davies. Prior to this three-day workshop, the group gathered weekly over the past two months for reading sessions. These reading sessions – which focused mainly on new materialism and included the writings of Karen Barad, Jane Bennett and Kelly Fritsch – would prepare us for the workshop. While reading and discussing the texts, it soon became clear that we wanted to work on disability as a practice and on how we could imagine disability differently. Therefore, we chose to start from Michel Foucault’s text on heterotopia, as well as from Kelly Fritsch’s article on Desiring Disability Differently. Nevertheless, whatever the plans and expectations may be, a ‘collective biography’ is not a practice you can fully delineate in advance.

Collective Biography, a post-qualitative research strategy and diffractive methodology developed mainly by Bronwyn Davies (1994; 2001; 2006), basically works with the telling and sharing of stories in which a theoretical concept is put to the fore. Participants in the collective biography workshop each tell a story based on an initial question or topic. It is not relevant if the story or memory is reliable or not, rather it is about creating knowledge about the construction of people and events. This research strategy assumes that knowledge not only emerge out of ‘data’ but out of the intra-action between the data and the researcher (Davies 2006).

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As a methodology, collective biography is in the first place inspired by the German scholar Rigga Haug’s memory work. Memory-work contains the writing and subsequent analysis of remembered stories that researchers collectively use to generate their own critique of theory. In the wake of Haug’s memory strategies, Davies uses memories and stories to explore the processes of subjectification (Davies et al 2001). Davies methodology, however, differs from Haug’s memory work in the sense that Haug is concerned in working from the point of view of the individualized subject and is interested in ‘therapeutic outcomes’(Haug et al 1987), whereas Davies is not. Collective Biography works with post structural theory (mainly Foucault and Butler) and against the grain of phenomenology’s liberal-humanist subject. After all, the goal has nothing to do with any therapeutic outcomes, but instead is focused on generating thinking in order to know differently. It is important to understand that collective biography works not as a strict method to be followed; instead it could be interpreted as a set of emergent possibilities. In that sense, one could for instance see that during the last decade the methodology has evolved more and more towards what Davies calls a Deleuzian/Baradian approach.

In the three days we were together we began the workshop by talking about the concepts we might draw on to understand or imagine ‘disability differently’ (in this specific case we started from the concepts: heterotopia, intracorporeal, non-antropocentric multiplicity and animacy). Furthermore, in response to the concepts, each of us told a remembered story and was then questioned by the listeners who sometimes needed more details in order to fully enter the story. The listening, of course, takes us always beyond moralistic judgements:

Emergent listening might begin with what is known, but it is open to creatively evolving into something new. Emergent listening opens up the possibility of new ways of knowing and new ways of being, both for who listen and those who are listened to. (Davies, 2014, p. 21)

Instead of sharing a memory, one of us chose to show her animation film, De code van Lode – which is still a work in progress.


The film is part of her auto-ethnographic research and tells the story of her brother’s unique and unusual language, as well as the many different interactions of the other family members with the brother. Ultimately, this showing instead of telling unexpectedly opened up new ways for us to work with the concept of animacy, heterotopic imagination and disability.

After the first telling/showing round, the following step was to write all the stories down and again reread them out loud to the group. Thus, it is a process of (re-)telling, (re-)listening and (re-)writing, it is a process of being modified through what one comes to know. At one point the stories – which were mostly about supporting or living in the presence of people with disabilities – were not individual memories anymore, but became collective stories that demonstrate how the concepts from which we started, work.

After circling around our stories as well as around concepts such as heterotopia, intracorporeal, non-antropocentric multiplicity and animacy, we will now write a co-authored article about imagining disability differently and disability as a practice.