Playing Past is delighted to be publishing on Open Access –Sports and Coaching: Pasts and Futures [ISBN 978-1-905476-77-0]  – This wide-ranging collection of papers, which highlight the richness and diversity of studies into sport and coaching, has its origins in a symposium hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University’s Institute for Performance Research in June 2011. The contributors come from different disciplines and include some of Britain’s leading scholars together with a number of early career researchers.


Please cite this article as:

Oldfield, S. J. Narrative, Biography, Prosopography and the Sport Historian: Historical Method and its Implications , In Day, D. (ed), Sport and Coaching: Pasts and Futures (Manchester: MMU Sport and Leisure History, 2012), 35-60.





Narrative, Biography, Prosopography and the Sport Historian: Historical Method and its Implications

Samantha-Jayne Oldfield




All historians, throughout their careers, confront the ways in which the history of their particular era and region is written…Methodologies, approaches to the sources, even the kinds of sources privileged have changed over time, compelling us to reassess how we think about the past, how and what we read as sources, and where we locate our scholarship in the historiographical and methodological continuum (Mitchell, 2010: 1).

History is a social science which considers ‘events’ and ‘facts’ of the past in the present, and does so through constantly evolving theories and methodologies (White, 1984; Carr, 2001). Historical research is a contested arena, as historical knowledge is continually developing and there is no set structure to the way it should be recorded (Fullbrook, 2002). Historians examine and contest issues such as how war was fought, what Ancient Rome looked like, and who were the true heroes/villains by exposing cracks in the literature but they themselves are reporting from a particular perspective which further fuels these disputes (Mitchell, 2010). The growth of higher education in the twentieth century has acted as a catalyst, encouraging the emergence of a diverse range of historical perspectives, approaches and understandings which deviate from traditional historical narratives (Iggers, 2005), causing a conflict in the historical pursuit for truth (Fullbrook, 2002).

There are different types of historian, each adopting diverse perspectives, strategies and theories within the social science domain (Duff and Johnson, 2002), however Roberts (2006: 704) argues that narrative is ‘the central defining practice of History as a discipline’, linking historians together through the construction of story. In narrative research, there are several viewpoints that the historian needs to consider, with the empirical-postmodern debate fuelling the majority of philosophical disputes. Empirical researchers suggest that surviving sources of the past are interrogated, pieced together systematically and presented to form a well-rounded explanation which can be tested (Feverabend, 1995), being a cumulative process which is revised and enriched over generations (Hutton, 2009), whereas the interpretation of ‘facts’ is central to postmodernist debate, many whom deny the existence of truth and explain reality as an interpretation of what the world means to each individual (Jenkins, 2002). This perspective is sceptical of science and epistemological justifications, suggesting that every historian’s experience of society will come before the evidence, and as a result, history is fictional and, therefore, cannot be trusted. Narrative approaches have struggled to gain acceptance with empirical traditionalists who believe that the interaction of the scholar with the sources causes a distorted history (Alvermann, 2002) and postmodern theorists propose that historians, through their narratives, impose history, producing verbal fictions that even the most empirical chronicler employs to structure their research (Munslow, 1997a; 1997b; 2006; Jenkins, 2003). The traditional empiricist would argue that, in relation to narrative, history is based on physical evidence which has been collected and objectively discussed (Mandelbaum, 2001), whereas the modern empiricist, who is more sensitive to the postmodern stance, would suggest that, while there is a need to engage and identify with the information, imagination and inventiveness are crucial to creating a solid narrative (Elton, 2002; Fullbrook, 2002). Although postmodernists believe that this identification with the evidence encourages a modified and idealistic historical undercurrent, turning fact into fiction (Lustick, 1996), the interpretive-empirical approach is defended by Evans (2000) and Stone (1983) who insist that theoretical models can be used to recreate a ‘real past’ and guide narratives towards the truth, even though truth itself is subjective.

According to Lustick (1996), history should aptly be renamed histories, as it is a collection of different interpretations on the same topic, and Fulbrook (2002: 18) concurs, revealing ‘history is about imposition of interpretations, the construction of meanings: endowing and investing selected remnants of the past with meanings in the present, not reconstructing it “as it actually was”’. The conclusion drawn is that history will never really be known, but can be reconstructed in a variety of ways through a range of sources, as Carr (2001: 3) observes;

History consists of facts…the facts are available to the historian in documents, inscriptions and so on, like fish on the fish monger’s slab.  The historian collects them, takes them home, and cooks and serves them in whatever style appeals to him.

In the construction of historical knowledge, subject specific historians work within the empirical-postmodern framework to present narratives in their respective disciplines, validating their methods not only within the confines of their sub-groups but also in the humanities space. According to Roberts (2006: 703), historical narrative has become fashionable within the academic and public sphere, contributing towards a ‘“narrative turn” across the human sciences’, although there is still reluctance to accept such work in the academic field (Roth, 1988; Donnelly and Norton, 2011). Within economic history, Kadish (2010) presents a fact-based, continuous narrative that avoids lengthy discussion of perspectives and generally agreed events, ensuring the reader fully understands where his narrative sits within the historical context of the topic.  Furthermore, social historians create narratives surrounding human experience which move beyond a visual representation of past, generating a sensory experience which is also systematic in approach (Roeder, 1994; Phinney, 2000; Smith, 2003) whilst being flexible in reporting complex matters (Daiute and Lightfoot, 2004). Narrative is justified as a ‘powerful stimuli to the imagination, and to the mind’s effort to learn and explore’ (Lyons, Williamson and Cain, 2008: 190), with each author identifying source material to validate their structure, developing a ‘narrative truth’ which presents an honest re-enactment through story (Carroll, 2001). Although ‘true’ history is a romanticised concept (White, 1973a; 1973b; 2001; Burke, 2001; Elton, 2002), ‘narrative truth’ finds the balance between empiricism and postmodernity by utilising historical facts to construct an accurate representation of the past while creating a story which is open to a degree of interpretation (Marwick, 2001).

Sport history and narrative truth

The evolution of sports history has seen the use of narrative transformed. In 1990, Riess wrote that sport history had well documented the period 1850-1920 through empirical study but new methods of interpreting the modernisation of sport were emerging, focusing on the narrative of the city. By taking an interdisciplinary approach, the principles of urbanisation could be applied to the organisation of the city, attributing economic development, formations of class, social reform, and demographic growth to the advancement of organised sport in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Hardy, 1982; Kirsch, 1989; Reiss, 1989) providing social meaning and moving beyond timelines of dates and events. Hill (2010) attributes Hobsbawm’s ideologies in social history to the development of the sport history field during the 1980s, enabling scholars to analyse the broader impact of sport in society through construction of historical narratives, although Munslow (1997b) argues that these narratives are fictional text devoid of any academic worth. In 1999, Nauright announced the end of sport history, stating that the second generation of sports historians had blurred the lines between sociology, sport and cultural history, but Polley (2008) argues that this only cements its place within the broader historical framework, causing authors to be critical in their approach and, therefore, improving the quality of sports specific research. Holt’s (1989) Sport and the British moved away from the traditional chronological narrative in exchange for a thematic approach, ‘deliberately interpretive, not encyclopaedic’ (10) in structure, a method shared by Brailsford (1991) in Sport, Time and Society, presenting a sequential narrative enriched with historical sources. Later work by Holt and Mason (2000) reaffirms this process, applying sport to the wider social context through a reconstructed past which utilises ordinary individuals and empirical study. Being impartial is sometime difficult for historians, especially when reviewing developments which have occurred during their lifetime (Polley, 2008), but the modern sport historian has never claimed to present the only true answer, instead constructing sporting narratives which are an interpretation of the past and not an explanation of the present (Holt, 1989).

According to Phillips (2006: 3), as a separate sub-discipline, sport history fails to develop its own ‘methodological, epistemological and ontological premises’, raising questions about the practice of sports history in the twenty-first century, however several models of historical method are present, but the empirical, traditional narrative is a prominent paradigm in sport research (Booth, 2004; 2005a).  Applying Munslow’s (1997b) historical model, Booth (2005a) argues that there are three distinct approaches to sports history; reconstructionism, constructionism and deconstructionism.  Reconstructionists believe that there is an ‘absolute truth’ and argue that narratives are enriched with primary materials which provide the only account of the period in question (Jenkins and Munslow, 2004; Booth, 2005b); conversely deconstructionists disregard these grand narratives and suggest there can be no objectivity in academic research (Munslow, 2006; Phillips, 2006; Jamieson, 2007), whereas the constructionist look to both theory and evidence to legitimise their narratives (Burr, 2003; Booth, 2005b). According to Booth (2005a: 7) ‘reconstructionism and constructionism dominate sport history’ using empirical methods to recover the past with little objectivity to the results (Pringle, 2010). As a relatively new debate, few have questioned Booth and Phillips, although Guttmann (2008: 102) challenges the ‘dim-witted’ perception of sport historians, suggesting that the re/constructionist is enlightened, understands the need for theory in academic research, and moves beyond presenting what happened to reporting the why and how, an approach prevalent in current sports academia.  In searching for truth, the modern reconstructionist accepts the relativist approach, using an anti-theoretical model which guides them toward a truth not the truth, with more historians embracing a modified reconstructionism rather than a deconstructionist methodology (Tripp, 2009). Each term can be attributed to the opposing views in the empirical-postmodern continuum; reconstructionist approaches selected by the traditional empiricist, deconstructionism the practice of postmodernists, and the modern empiricist following a constructionist/modified reconstructionist theory, with table 1 (over page) further detailing each concept.

From documenting the origins of modern sport to developing intricate case studies of cities, towns, groups and people, sport history has used archives, interviews and oral testimonies as a means of reconstructing the past, with an increased number of biographical text being produced (see Bale, Christensen and Pfister, 2004; Day, 2011a).    Explanation of macro-level processes through micro-level enquiry have been popular in sport literature, creating biographical articles which help to inform social concepts; King (2005) uses a social constructionist framework to build contextual biographies of natives in sport, Kennett (2003) and O’Shea (2005) use detailed biography to help explain motives in professional race cycling in New Zealand, and Williams (2010; 2011) presents narratives of female athletes in an Olympic context. Empirical biographical research has expanded and further areas of critical study have been identified (Osborne and Skillen, 2010), with previously unchallenged narratives being reconstructed as access to new historical sources is gained (Rosenthal, 2004; Roberts, 2006). Academic support for more collective studies to be realised and increased public interest in sporting biography and genealogical inquiry has caused the historical community to reassess the value of life history in sport (Bouchier and Cruikshank, 1998; Kupisz, 2010), but with only a small percentage of sport biographies academically constructed and celebrity culture encouraging distorted hagiographies rather than well-rounded narratives (Whannel, 2002), these life histories often suffer methodologically (Crick, 2002), though epistemological justification can be achieved through narrative paradigms (Bale, Christensen and Pfister, 2004). Forming a sub-strand within narrative research and entangled in empirical-postmodern discourse (Dhunpath, 2000; Roberts, 2002; Delemont, 2012), biography, or life history, explains larger social and cultural concepts (Hatch and Wisniewski, 1995), ‘paralleling multiple individual stories against an overarching narrative’ (Job, 2004: 147).

Table 1. Models of History (Booth, 2005a) – Part 1

Table 1. Models of History (Booth, 2005a) – Part 2

The propensity to develop narratives of successful stars has given way to the documenting of average individuals whose athletic endeavours are relatively modest (Bale, Christensen and Pfister, 2004), enabling the author to place the narrative in the larger context of sport history, and further knowledge of the anonymous population who historians deem crucial in the development of modern sport (Holt, 2011; Collins, 2011).  Deconstructionism is, again, sceptical of biographical investigation as the narratives tend towards a reconstructionist approach (Weinberg, 2008; Podnieks, 2009), but all perspectives agree that consideration needs to be given to the sources to ensure that true biographical representations are reported (Booth, 2003; 2005a; Phillips, 2006).  Additionally, although they may lack evidence in parts this does not invalidate the research as these narratives do not need to be ‘“stuffed with truth”: extreme detail does not necessarily reveal “the essence of the real man”’ (Bale, 2004:  26).

New media and biographical research

The relationship between history and the archive has been closely linked, with the historian being the main consumer of such sources (Cook, 1985), and although the archive can be daunting to the historian (Duff and Johnson, 2002) without the archivists care in providing these historical remnants the discipline would lack academic viability (Taylor, 1984). Looking to surviving sources of the past has been common practice of empiricists in the reconstruction of historical narrative, using a scientific archival paradigm in the interpretation of historical topics (Ridener, 2008), but as new historical disciplines emerged in the latter half of the twentieth-century the archive also evolved, encouraging access to a wide range of sources which have benefitted from technological reproduction (Ibsen and Brunsden, 1996; Doolittle and Hicks, 2003; Goldenberg, 2005). As the historical genre has developed, so has archival theory, with Hixson (2008: 4) arguing the ‘preoccupation with archival sources…crowds out critical thinking’ although many would dispute such views as postmodern deconstructions lacking epistemological neutrality (Stoler, 2002; Craven, 2008; Geiger, Moore & Savage, 2010; Ketelaar, 2010) and the archive as a historical tool has yet to be discouraged; ‘all studies of history are driven by the discovery of evidence from the period being studied, and its analysis and interpretation’ (Polley, 2008: 58). Since the 1980s, access has transformed from an arduous library-based search of protected materials to facile digital systems of internationally shared sources with detailed online finding aids and electronic copies of original transcripts (Anderson, 2004; Huvila, 2008), rendering the traditional archive less significant in twenty-first century research (Huvila, 2012). Since 2000, the increased importance of the internet as a repository for historical sources has uncovered unique research topics and sources (Burton, 2005) and in an output driven climate academics ‘are not likely to remain tolerant of archival services that do not perform in a comparable manner’ (Anderson, 2004: 83-84).  Reconstructing memory through digital archives has been a popular development in current literature, with multi-organisational archives, such as the British Library (2012), partnered by Gale (2012), online newspaper databases, the University of Sussex (2012) mass observation repository, and smaller academic collections, including the voices of post-war England forum (Todd and Young, 2012), contributing to the solidification of biographical narrative in social and culture history communities, although not all sources have gained academic endorsement (Higgs, 2004; Morris, 2005). According to Dalton and Charnigo (2004) of 278 academic historians, 94% considered the archives, manuscripts and special collections as important sources when conducting research, compared to only 23% who valued genealogical resources, reaffirming Pope’s (1998) argument that ‘non-academic’ literature, such as documentaries, museum artefacts and genealogical societies, are often marginalised within the scholarly community.  However, the use of census material, birth, marriage and death records (BMD), and other genealogical documents have proved critical in supplying, and verifying, biographical information about the individual including name, age, address, family, and profession (Day, 2008; 2010), with the digital age making access easier and encouraging their use in sport research (Inwood and Reid, 1995; McDowell, 2002; Day, 2011a). In 1997, Cox suggested that the internet had little to offer the sports historian beyond a starting point for scholarly research, but now with dedicated websites, collections and databases for sport-specific inquiry sporting narratives can be constructed in partnership with academic provision (Adair, 2011).

The archive, by definition, is simply ‘a place in which public records are kept’ (Velody, 1998: 1) and the number of primary materials available online is astounding, with over forty databases dedicated to soccer history alone (Nannestad, 2007). However, the sources entrusted by the sporting community are relatively modest, but as historical knowledge continues to evolve, so does attitudes towards the archive materials. Newspapers are highly regarded within sports history, alongside other written text such as minutes, monographs, manuals, magazines and sporting programmes (Johnes, 2004a), with narratives often academically judged based on the number of primary sources located. Vella (2009) notes that newspapers have featured less heavily in modern research due to the struggles of accessing materials, however as digitisation projects are completed the social and cultural importance of these documents is being realised (Bingham, 2010; Guallar and Abadal, 2010). Lacking neutrality, the historian should be aware that the newspaper reports from a particular political and social perspective, consisting of filtered ideas that academics are quick to apply (Bingham, 2010) but further analysis ensures viability of the content in a scholarly capacity (Vella, 2009). Biographers can trace individuals through the sporting press whilst consulting additional titles to contextualise the practices of these characters in wider society (O’Neill, 2011), drawing upon periodicals such as the Sporting Gazette, Sporting Life, Illustrated Sporting and Theatrical Review, and Bell’s Life in London and Sporting Chronicle, and popular papers such as The Times, The Guardian and the Daily Express in aggregate. Consulting additional sources, attitudes can be accurately reinterpreted through newspaper analysis (Dobson and Ziemann, 2009).

Photographs and drawings are supplementary sources used in sport, confronting the viewer with history itself, though interpreted differently to biographical text. Showing competitors, stadiums, equipment, etc., the photograph is a muted source which creates an immediate impression of society without descriptive characters (Osmond, 2011). Appreciated by reconstructionist philosophers, images are respectable, legitimate documents which depict the true experience of the individual in question (Wood, 1990; Wiggins and Miller, 2003; Booth, 2005b) although Phillips, O’Neill and Osmond (2007) argue that the language of the photo requires development and they should not be taken at face value due to their staged nature, with rigorous deconstruction needed to comprehend their truth (Bale, 2006).  In contrast, film and historical sporting documentary are marginalised due to their perceived lack of academic quality, although Phillips (2006; 2008) champions the use these sources in sporting narrative.  According to Daniels (2005) film presents a world rooted in masculine culture and absent of female athleticism, which is not an accurate representation of the contemporary sporting climate, suggesting that women are not equal, therefore, their sporting endeavours and success are not important. Jones (2005) questions the value of fictional sporting feature film, analysing social and cultural impressions of sport through movies such as Raging Bull (1980), Rocky (1976) and Chariots of Fire (1981), concluding that these sources are beneficial to the historical commentator but, similarly to Booth (1996), they need to be interrogated to be academically viable. Contributing to a visual turn in sport history (Huggins, 2008), the exploitation of visual sources such as photography, film, television, and other digital media is inescapable (Johnes, 2007), but with theoretical underpinning, the cinematic representation of sport can be embraced by the modern historian (Rose, 2012).

The interconnections experienced by individuals in the past can help to understand people’s contemporary practices (Donnelly and Norton, 2011). In constructing collective lives, non-academic databases, such as Ancestry and Find My Past are regularly utilised, contributing to the narrative turn in twenty-first century research (Evans, 2011). As previously suggested, the sources affiliated to family historians are now transcending into the sports domain, with BMD, census and other personal information of both elite and average individuals uncovered (Day, 2011b; Oldfield, 2011). Postmodern scholars have also embraced these records with Osmond (2011) presenting biographies including census, family papers and BMD records to underpin the narrative, although Morris (2005: 3) states that these type of sources are a ‘prison as much as a guide to the historian’ as records found are not always correct. Problems surrounding these documents include illegible handwriting, incomplete entries, changing marital statuses and names, and unreliable reporting of addresses and birthplaces, causing doubt for the researcher and the need to triangulate the sources (Higgs, 1996).  For post-war biography, oral testimony is vital in the construction of life histories (Cahn, 1994; Torikai, 2009; Kelly, 2009) and whilst new sources of inquiry are being made in sport (Hill and Williams, 2010), interview and oral evidence are largely ignored from a historical perspective (Polley, 2008). A recently accepted practice among sports historians (Brivati, Buxton and Seldon, 1996), the use of present actors to explain past events requires prompting and probing with  semi-structured interview the preferred method (Essers, 2009), but the topic is not adverse to other approaches, with blogs, forums and social media accepted forms of data collection (see Mills, 2010; Pattison, 2011). Constructing or reaffirming narrative through oral history relies on memory of the participants, but as with other personal records, these are open to interpretation, falsification and distortion from both the actor and the writer (Taylor, 2008). Nevertheless, the practice of oral history in sport has escaped its empirical-postmodern confines, placing itself within the public sphere where increased autobiographical works, television documentaries, podcasts and other multimedia narratives are the historian’s alternative outputs (Donnelly and Norton, 2011). These resources facilitate robust and comprehensive narratives that provide a sensory experience of the sport (Rowe, 2009; Woodward and Goldblatt, 2011), and by combining a multitude of these biographies, surviving sources can be shared and interrogated collectively to further understand the impact of society in differing communities (Hill and William, 2010).

Prosopography and collective biography

If we are to assemble the wider collective biography that academic history seeks then we should not be afraid of telling the stories of individuals and specific clubs and places. Only by doing so, can we start to even remotely see our past in the terms of those who actually lived it (Johnes, 2004b: 149).

The combination of case studies and biographical narratives in a collective form cements their use as a methodological tool in historical research, helping to build knowledge of society within a real-life context and identifying innovative topics for examination (Yin, 1981a, 1981b, 2006). Berridge (2008: 318) notes, ‘there are problems with history – there are a multitude of opinions…however, two legal opinions are better than one’, and through detailed individual studies, these opinions can be validated and triangulated, developing historical understanding of social phenomena (Eisenhardt, 1989; Gibbert and Ruigrok, 2010). Adopting a constructionist perspective, tending towards the empirical rather than the postmodern, biographical narrative can be used to gain legitimate knowledge of society, moving away from simply reporting observations to applying them to broader social and cultural theories (Erben, 1998; Goldthorpe, 2000), a method called prosopography. Prosopography, or collective biography, describes ‘external features of a population group that the researcher has determined has something in common’ (Verboven, Carlier and Dumolyn, 2007: 39), following the creation and/or interrogation of, individual biographies through archival research and the analysis of that data to contextualise historical processes in a specific situ (Keats-Rohan, 2003). According to Stone (2000: 46);

Prosopography is the investigation of the common background characteristics of a group of actors in history by means of a collective study of their lives.  The method employed is to establish a universe to be studied, and then ask a set of uniform questions – about birth and death, marriage and family, social origins and inherited economic position, place of residence, education, amount and source of wealth, occupation, religion, experience of office and so on.

The term prosopography has been used since the 1920’s although the method itself originated in the early nineteenth century (Verboven, Carlier and Dumolyn, 2007). Traditionally, prosopographical studies have been focused on the Medieval, Roman and Byzantine communities due to the plethora of information surrounding these eras and the ability to collect this work and develop it into large-scale databases (see Martindale, 1994; PBW, 2010; Lewis, 2007), explaining political motives through family, work, events and ideas of the ruling society (Sturges, 1983).  More recently the changing nature of historical thinking has enabled a ‘new’ prosopography to emerge which still discusses persons according to name, establishing the social context of groups such as ethnic and regional origin, family connections and careers, but ‘is equally concerned with the networks of which each individual forms a part’ (Keats-Rohan, 2007: 13). This new prosopography benefits from the technological revolution and the computer age, utilising new techniques and advancements such as online archives, and validating their importance and significance in the historical world (Smythe, 2000; Keats-Rohan, 2003; Bradley and Short, 2005).  Access to modern information has seen prosopography begin to interrogate nineteenth century inhabitants (Erben, 1996; Kennedy, 2003), but this is in its early stages and there is a need for more complex prosopographical studies in many historical periods and subject specific areas such as sport (Hardy, 1986; Vamplew, 1989).

While classical historians use prosopography, collective biography has been adopted by historians of later periods (Smythe, 2000). Both share the same meaning, but the association with biography introduces this method to a new concern. Biography, by definition, is a collection of life documents ‘which describe turning-point moments in individuals’ lives’ (Denzin, 1989: 7), but collective, or group biography, is not the biography of groups, ‘but rather the study of biographical details about individuals in aggregate’, analysing the connections between individuals, not the specifics which make their lives unique (Smythe, 2000: 85). Both are related, but as Magdalino (2003: 42) notes, ‘the primary concern of one [is] the secondary concern of the other’.  Biography has long been a respected source for historical research but group biography has been judged as a lesser instrument due to its ambiguous nature and lack of socio-historic use, causing those who use it to have to justify its power as an analytical tool (Erben, 1998; Shapin and Thackray, 1974; Jones, 2001). Tilly (1987) suggests that collective biography is open to various interpretations and, as a methodology, it exposes connections that lead to false correlations, although Kantor (1976) insists that biography is also open to falsification, and that by cross-correlating data a historical truth can be found through prosopographical analysis.

Historians face many issues surrounding the validity of sources, and this methodology attempts to overcome this by subjecting a population to a standardised set of questions in order to expose shared qualities (Verboven, Carlier and Dumolyn, 2007). Mommsen’s (1880) seminal work on the history of Rome moved beyond traditional narrative as a reliable source and used epigraphy, numismatics and comparative linguistics, ‘enabling the reconstruction of families and social groups in the ancient world’ (Cunningham, 2001: 436), and guiding historians towards a broader spectrum of primary materials in order to increase the dependability of their research (Barber and Peniston-Bird, 2009). Keats-Rohan (2007) believes prosopographers should allow their sources to be made public, reducing the chance of falsification and ensuring an empirical structure. There is need for the researcher to be careful of generalising too broadly and to ensure that the sample is representative (Cohen, Flinn and Morgan, 2007). The individuals selected should be common to the populace, as the unique are of no importance and the average represents the collective, enabling common characteristics and distinctive traits of the group to be established in relation to the historical situ, a defining feature of mass prosopography (Stone, 1971). This type of prosopography, which examines social ties and connections between people, helps to explain ideological or cultural change by examining surviving evidence and documentation relating to persons of lower social status who are common to all historical periods (Tinti, 2007).

Decisions about how to apply prosopography will be different in every case because sources differ from period to period, the questions of interest differ from historian to historian, and the available methods, or techniques, for data analysis continue to evolve (Keats-Rohan, 2007: 20).

Although traditional prosopographical work aims to establish large databases (Verboven, Carlier and Dumolyn, 2007) the method is not adverse to a small-scale approach (Poulsen, 2004; Erben, 1996; Van Duinen, 2009). Previous work in this area has focussed on elite individuals, but, as the new forms of collective biography have identified, the anonymous population are also worthy of discussion, and it is these individuals who do not require extensive profiles (Keats-Rohan, 2007). ‘Prosopography is most useful in the study of societies where the number of recorded individuals is relatively modest, and where the records do not lend themselves to the construction of major biographies’ (Magdalino, 2003: 46), although Fleming (2009) disputes that by depriving the study of narrative, these individuals cannot be fully understood, a major flaw of the prosopographical method. In arguing that a small selection of biographies could be used to understand individuals on a collective scale, Cunningham (2001) shows the potential for small-scale prosopography in the development of existing histories and biographies, suggesting that social history should challenge shared ideas through a more rigorous method such as collective biography. Since this plea, education studies have embraced a collective turn, using interview to construct life stories of teachers and identify collective attitudes in the development of the education sector; scholars at the History of Education annual conference explored educational reform through prosopographical inquiry (Martin and Goodman, 2001), Arreman (2007) examined Swedish post-war primary school teachers, and Burke (2010) presented findings from the British Academy funded prosopography project into educational thought and school design in England since WWII. Fuchs (2007) claims that this practice quantifies the experiences of these individuals, measuring networks and social systems and the interrelations between agency and structure, which is historically relevant. Moving beyond education, Poulsen (2004) presents a collective biography of physical education teachers utilising historical archives to analyse female experiences within the profession from 1900-1940, the first modern prosopography in sport history. In response to Poulsen’s (2004) investigation, Erard and Bancel (2007) present a sporting prosopography of French Olympians 1945-1972, attributing the increase in such studies to the support of narrative research in the historical genre. Expanding the use of collective biography to incorporate male attitudes and diverging from the her-story of previous narratives (see Bucher and Manning, 1998; Hillyar, 1999; Pfister, 2004; Booth; 2004; Weiner, 2008), Erard and Bancel (2007) use semi-structured interviews to examine the networks surrounding 40 athletes, analysing collective characteristics and experiences through grounded biographical tables, and attributing class, family life, childhood and sporting opportunities to their success as Olympic athletes. This approach has been adopted by Oldfield and Day (2011) whose collective biography of athletic entrepreneurs has seen the construction of individual biographies followed by application of standardised questioning to draw out themes and defining characteristics of the sporting publican in nineteenth century Manchester. As sport historians look toward the future, the prosopographical method should be more readily employed (Day, 2012), theorising the discipline and furthering the development of the constructionist approach within sport.


Historical methodology, a once uncontested area of study rooted in empirical tradition, has been critiqued in the latter half of the twentieth century (Iggers, 2005; Polley, 2008). This discourse has since forced academics to justify their methodology and carefully position themselves on the empirical-postmodern continuum, with narrative epistemology dividing many scholars (Roberts, 2006; Tripp, 2009; Mitchell, 2010). However, progressing towards a modern ideal, history has moved away from simply reporting a chronology of events and dates to presenting sophisticated narratives, interdisciplinary in nature, and theory driven, with social history crucial in many historical sub-groups (Roeder, 1994; Smith, 2003). In sport, the application of narrative to wider social phenomena has caused a shift from traditional empirical perspectives to a modified constructionist approach whereby life histories are juxtaposed with sporting literature and social paradigms (Guttmann, 2008), and collective identities achieved through a biographical turn, although this is still a relatively new area of investigation. New technology, such as the internet, has compelled historians to reassess their use of sources and access to archives (Anderson, 2004; Burton, 2005; Huvila, 2008; 2012), as Pope (1998: vii) declares, ‘the future of sport history may well depend on the degree to which practitioners engage and help shape these changes within academic and publishing environments’. As contemporary issues emerge and knowledge further develops, the sports historian must draw upon twenty-first century documents, such as film, sporting fiction and online databases, diverging from habitual practices in order to contextualise historical narratives in today’s culture (Booth, 2005; Phillips, O’Neill and Osmond, 2007; Huggins, 2008; Phillips, 2006; 2008). By exploring prosopographical method, common characteristics of a previously anonymous population can be identified, and the interconnections and relationships that form their social networks interrogated in depth (Stone, 2000; Keats-Rohan, 2007).  Although each individual’s sporting experience will differ, their social constraints and interactions can be analysed in aggregate (Erard & Bancel, 2007), encouraging a collective turn in sports history which Hardy (1986), Vamplew (1989) and Day (2012) stress should be embraced in order to fully understand the wider social, political and cultural phenomena surrounding sport.



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