Our aim in this article is to look for more diversity within the concept of biographical leaning. As a conceptual tool for investigating learning in life transitions, biographical learning has gained some recognition over recent years. The concept centres on people’s abilities and possibilities to cope with change in a rapidly changing environment. As transitions have become more common, ‘learning processes within transition’ has become an important area for educational research. The development of the concept of biographical learning is related to this trend, since biographical learning processes appear to be more explicitly triggered when a person’s life course is changing and people are faced with transitions in it. In this article, biographical learning will be discussed in relation to research on restructuring, job loss and enforced work transitions. The article will suggest that such transitions may be understood in terms of biographical learning, acknowledging that learning in work transitions is not only about ensuring one’s ‘professional competence’ or ‘employability’ but includes identity issues and decision-making that affect one’s biography.
Alheit and Dausien portray biographical learning as a certain perspective on lifelong learning, suggesting a ‘shift in analytic perspective’ and a departure from the policy-focused view in which lifelong learning is framed by political and economic precepts. Acknowledging the inner tensions between the ‘instrumentalist’ and ‘emancipative’ power of lifelong learning, the authors place some confidence in the latter, calling for an outlook in which the learning individual ‘is taken more seriously’. There are empirical reasons for such a preference. Although traditional lifeworlds are eroding, people’s responses are not inevitably a ‘panic’ reaction. Instead, people cope with changes rather creatively by using different action strategies that affect both their own biography and the social world in which they live.
The concept of biographical learning is regarded as useful in this context, firstly because it takes account both of social structures and of the individual’s subjectivity. Hence, it recognizes people’s sense of being able to control their own lives interacting with biographical and structural conditions. Even though life chances are unequally distributed and agency is always ‘bounded’, when people face transitions decisions must be made and actions taken that are affected by and affect their biography. Secondly, biographical learning could be considered valuable because its scope is wider than predominant lifelong learning policies and because its aim extends beyond instrumental skills and ‘employability’. Thirdly, biographical learning can be regarded as helpful because it includes not only formal and organized aspects of learning, but also ‘cognitive and reflexive dimensions of learning as much as the emotional, embodied, pre-reflexive and non-cognitive aspects of everyday learning processes and practices’.
However, further investigations of the concept are called for, as pointed out by Alheit and Dausien. One possible development concerns challenging its somewhat uniform character. While Alheit has identified three current ‘biographical coping patterns’ (‘patchworking’, ‘networking’ and ‘designing’; Alheit, 1999, p. 75), further analysis will probably reveal new insights and perhaps lead to a more complex description of what biographical learning is. It seems reasonable to assume, for example, that there might be differences between more continuous and more disruptive versions of biographical learning. In order to encompass a wider spectrum of approaches, the aim of this paper is to analyse, explore and expand the notion of biographical learning and to suggest a number of different modes of such learning.
2012. Vol. 44, no 1, 70-84 p.
Biographical learning, biographicity, identity work, work transitions, career change