Such accounts, while generally devalued as tools of inquiry during the decades of the 1960s, 1970s, and early 1980s, emerged in the mid-80s along with ethnomethodologies in resistance to what was perceived as the overly narrow and decontextualized approaches of social science methods informed by positivism (cf. Spigelman, 2001; Bishop, 1993; Newkirk, 1991; North, 1987). By 1983, Shirley Brice Heath’s Ways with Words, a study of children’s literacy both inside and outside of school settings, had established ethnography as a valued approach to literacy studies. In 1987, Linda Brodkey’s “Writing Ethnographic Narratives” argued for the usefulness of narratives as evidence within rhetoric and composition.

Literacy narratives have also become increasingly popular among teachers for their potential to introduce issues of race, class, and gender into composition classrooms, as well as to study the “cultural influences that shape…students’ identities as literacy learners” (Corkery, 2004) or to examine the literate lives of individuals who are not students.

Such investigations, in many instances, fall under the larger umbrella term of “narrative inquiry,” what Brett Smith (2008) describes as a “mosaic of research efforts, with diverse theoretical musings, methods, empirical groundings, and/or significance all revolving around an interest in narrative” (p. 392). In the last two to three decades, particularly, autobiographical narratives have gained increasing currency in the social sciences and humanities as an emergent site of inquiry (Hesse-Biber and Leavy, 2008) that provides researchers insights into human behavior, psychology, and cultural understandings, as well as literacy practices, values, acquisition, and development (cf. Lieblich et al., 1998; Grubrium and Holstein, 2008; Brandt et al., 2001).

By foregrounding their acquisition and use of language as a strange and not a natural process, authors of literacy narratives have the opportunity to explore the profound cultural force language exerts in their everyday lives. When they are able to evaluate their experiences from an interpretive perspective, authors achieve narrative agency by discovering that their experience is, in fact, interpretable… [T]hrough their stories they can engage in a broader critical dialogue with each other… Reading and writing literacy stories can enable students to ponder the conflicts attendant upon crossing language worlds and to reflect upon the choices that speakers of minority dialects and languages must make. 

(Soliday, 1984, p. 511-512)