The last two decades have witnessed a huge expansion in academic research into biography, as reflected in:
the proliferation of international and interdisciplinary conferences on the subject, most recently the ambitious summer 2010 meeting in the UK of the International Auto/Biography Association;
the growing body of scholarly literature re biography, whether specialist books or journals;
the establishment of research institutes dedicated to the field, witness The Centre for Life-Writing Research at King’s College, London, and the University of Sussex’s Centre for Life History & Life Writing Research.
One of the great strengths of this burgeoning research culture is its interdisciplinary nature, with researchers from a wide range of disciplines; not only in the humanities, but also in the social sciences, and even in the natural sciences – together with freelance biographers unattached to any academic institution. Yet what constitutes a real strength is also an obvious weakness, in that the diverse backgrounds of scholars engaged in this research means communication across the disciplines can often prove difficult. Clearly academic biographers from different disciplines, freelance biographers, and theorists of biography can and do meet – but too often their engagement with each other is haphazard. A research network can consolidate fragile lines of communication across disciplines, between practitioners and theorists, and between scholars and non-academic writers. The research institutes in the UK and abroad fulfil an invaluable role, but the AHRC – in conjunction with the University of Southampton and its partner institutions – is now establishing a research network that will be interdisciplinary, international, and inclusive. Inclusive in that an initiative rooted in academia will also embrace freelance writers, their agents, and their publishers.
The research network’s aims:
To provide a forum for vigorous debate, cutting across disciplinary boundaries, with regard to the very nature of biography in the early 21st century.
To create an additional forum for exploring biography’s function and purpose within contemporary society, specifically addressing its future direction, composition, and status.
To establish a facility by which theoretical discussion complements, informs, and enhances fruitful interaction between academy-based and independent biographers; and between these practitioners and the various agencies that provide an outlet for their work.
The research network’s key elements:
A network that will survive and prosper beyond the AHRC’s two-year funding period, providing an umbrella beneath which a diversity of related activities can be initiated and sustained.
Two symposia and an international conference.
Speakers and active participants at all three events who can generate a healthy and inclusive discourse re: biography in the 21st century; which is then maintained via various channels, not least a network website.
A genuinely interactive website, based at the University of Southampton, which utilises the latest digital technology; and gains recognition in the UK and beyond as a conduit for theoretical discussion, an interface between readers and writers, and a noticeboard that facilitates the exchange of good practice and practical advice.