“Biography and Identity: Dilemmas and Opportunities”

4th Annual Graduate Conference in European History

6-9 May, 2010 – Budapest, Central European University

Organizer: The Central European University, Budapest. In co-operation with the European University Institute, Florence.

Think that biography is an outmoded genre that should be relegated to the fringes of historical research? Think again. John Donne wrote, “No man is an island,” and in recent scholarship, historians have reflected on biography as a sophisticated genre capable of making broader theoretical contributions (e.g. AHR and Ab Imperio forums in 2009). Scholars can interpret and employ biography in innovative ways. Yet, one of the challenges facing biographers is the revision of some of the notions central to the genre – such as ‘identity’, ‘subjectivity’ or ‘agency’ – brought about by the linguistic turn and other theoretical developments in human sciences. The 2010 Graduate Conference in European History (GRACEH) seeks submissions that use biography to interrogate the concept of identity, as well as papers addressing methodological and epistemological issues regarding the genre. Case studies exemplifying the wider theoretical discussion will also be considered.

Given the ambiguity of many historians towards biography, this conference is organized around the assumption that there are important issues raised by the entanglements between biography and theoretical conceptualizations of identity. In current scholarship, an essentialist notion of identity has made way for a constructivist idea–identities as multiple, fluid, in constant flux–which challenges the usefulness of the term “identity”, and makes way for other clusters of analytical concepts. But, can biographical research absorb these theoretical and methodological contributions? Can it interrogate and refine analytical categories such as race, class and gender, and reflect on older questions of agency and social structure? Can there be “biography” beyond “identity”? And if so, which are the epistemological and methodological issues, the challenges and traps of biography?

Furthermore, there is debate on what defines biography. Some historians adapted a key-notion–the life cycle– to non-human subjects, while others have “redefined” the “bio” element of “biography” in convergence with studies on “bio-politics”. Others have used non-textual sources to make insights into the lives of people who left little textual evidence. There are also those who have taken a broader view on the genesis of western conceptualizations of history, identifying biography as the main source behind the development of the notion of homogeneous time. All these have found their echo in a wide-range of methodologies and approaches including, but not limited to oral history, psycho-history, archeology, comparison, trans-national history, micro-history, and histoire croisée. We welcome papers on all of these topics, as well as reflections on theoretical framings of biography in other fields, like feminist theory, gender studies, post-colonial studies, and other disciplines such as sociology, anthropology, and literature.

The conference focuses on the wider European space from the Medieval to the Contemporary historical period. We take a broad thematic focus, inviting contributions that integrate biography into debates about identity, as well as case studies that utilize novel approaches to biography. Contributions on shared biographies and ego-history–opportunities for wider discussions of identity of both the subject and scholar– are also encouraged. We welcome submissions that probe the boundaries of discipline and methodology, but also question the very definition of the genre. Please see the Proposed Topics of this year’s conference, as well as the Keynotes page.

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