Exploring history

Marv Dunphy’s thesis on John Wooden explores historical methodology in the unfolding of a biography (link). In his introduction, Marv looks at the ‘great man theory of history’. Marv supported the ‘great man’ theory.

Marv noted that one of the limitations of his study was that of impartiality in historical accounts. He added “even though the writer and the coach conversed at great length, the time was limited by the living circumstances of each” (1981:6). In the justification of his thesis, Marv observed “without history we have no knowledge of who we are or how we came to be” (my emphasis) (1981:6). He notes too the importnace of preserving historical data.

In addition to his conversations with John, Marv accessed primary and secondary sources. His use of the historical method:

  • selects an appropriate topic
  • tracks down relevant evidence
  • takes notes
  • critically evaluates the evidence collected
  • arranges material into a meaningful pattern
  • presents it in a manner that will command intent

Chapter Two of the thesis extends Marv’s discussion of the historical method. He quotes Thomas Carlyle and writes “history never gets very far away from biography” (1981:12). To inform his writing, Marv looked carefully at ten biographies of sport people. Two of these were about John Wooden: John’s own They Call Me Coach (link); and Dwight Chaplin’s The Wizard of Westwood (link). Marv concluded that John Robert Wooden’s contributions should be “interpreted and preserved”. Sharing his life would give all of us an opportunity to learn (1981:18).

I do think Marv did this with his synthesis of information from primary and secondary sources. His use of verbatim interview material was especially valuable in what Marv called the critical evaluation of evidence.

Marv’s thesis was published at a time when educational researchers were starting to use qualitative research methods in life history. Much earlier, John Dollard (1935) (link) observed:

Despite the effort expended so far, the life history remains a much suspected tool of research and no comfortable certainty exists as to what an adequate life history document will eventually look like.

One of the founders of the life history movement, Ivor Goodson (1980) (link), has noted “life narratives and small-scale narratives” are now becoming very important (2016) (link). What attracted me to Ivor’s account of history was the observation “the life history is congruent with the main theoretical assumption of interactionism that the individual life is not as clear ordered as many social science accounts … would have us believe” (1980:66).

I took the essence of Marv’s account and all attempts at biographical study to be this exploration of interaction. I do share Ivor’s view “the greatest strength of the life history lies in its penetration of the subjective reality of the individual: it allows the subject to speak for herself or himself”.

As we explore our history as analysts, it seems to me that this voice is vital to who we are or how we came to be.

Tour de France 1903.

Photo Credits

Tour de France (Netherlands National Archive (Nationaal Archief))

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