By Sarah Schuster, HI Graduate Research Assistant
Much like the previous week, seminar leader Bartholomew Sparrow began the Faculty Fellows seminar September 5th with a question: what qualities of biography make it most amenable to or consistent with science (specifically social science), and how can biography fit within academic research? Dr. Sparrow, Professor in the Department of Government, discussed the ways in which academic disciplines can determine narrative methodologies in relation to The Strategist: Brent Scowcroft and the Call of National Security, his 2015 biography of the former National Security Advisor of the U.S.
In his 2016 article published in Perspectives on Politics, “Why Would a Political Scientist Write a Biography?” Sparrow interrogated his own desire to write life stories. He in turn invited the seminar to discuss the merits and drawbacks of biography as a form of scholarship. Participants in the seminar pondered the methods that their own disciplines use to posit theories or hypotheses, uncover previously unknown facts, and discuss new approaches to problems. Many noted that the Fellows were discussing different ways of approaching truth, or approaching knowledge as a whole. One participant noted that disciplinarity was similar to upholstery–depending on your discipline, a scholar might be more inclined towards making their reader comfortable and their prose more accessible, but (despite some views to the contrary) “upholstering” one’s facts with more accessible language does not necessarily remove its structural integrity as a piece of scholarship.
The seminar’s conversation turned to academia’s frequent struggles to position researchers in relation to their audience, and to their subject matter. There might be a desire to view certain disciplines as more objective, but as participants noted, acknowledging one’s own position as interpreter, observer, and/or researcher does not necessarily make a work less truthful, or less valuable. Biographies, as some participants noted, are not infrequently sold for either entertainment or for a more political agenda, making their status occasionally uncertain within the academy. However, others noted that elements of biography appear in a variety of fields, from anthropology to psychology, and that certain works of biography occupy areas of heady scholarship. Biography can serve as a potential case study, some suggested, or narration of biographical subjects’ individual agency in the historical periods in which they exist. Humanities might provide a “softer chair,” offering material that general audiences find easier to digest, but using a humanities methodology such as biography can yield potentially significant results.
Sparrow noted his own struggles with such questions, particularly with respect to writing about one specific person whose historical period is only a few decades in the past. His biography owed much to his political science background and grounding scholarship, but it additionally owed thanks to the Scowcroft family, Scowcroft’s colleagues, and Scowcroft himself, all of whom provided interviews. Working with a subject who primarily operated behind the scenes could prove difficult for Sparrow’s research, and his work was further complicated by being first–Scowcroft had not yet had a biography written about him, making Sparrow’s task both more flexible and more linear, or prosaic.
Participants praised Sparrow’s writing style, noting how approachable the chapters they read from the biography are. Many also noted the structures that emerged from Scowcroft’s story, highlighting Sparrow’s work to both uncover the person and the larger system and bureaucracy in which he participated. As seminar participants discussed, biography operates as a means of individualizing history, preserving subjects’ agency while also uncovering facts about the systems in which they participate, or in which they find themselves caught.
Biography might have the added possibility of describing the ways individuals move or are moved through their historical period, providing readers the experience of what a historical period might feel like, rather than what it has wrought. Biography–and narratives in general–might be chronicles of these waves of agency and passivity within an individual life, mirroring, perhaps, the scholar’s own impulse to write. The seminar concluded with the firm affirmation that participants were eager to read more of Sparrow’s biography to find out just what happened next.