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Which terms do you use for ‘first-person accounts’ written by scientists and medical doctors?

Posted Dec 30 2009 12:00am

I think first-person accounts — that is, acccounts about oneself and one’s relation to the world told in ‘I’-form, as opposed to accounts of ‘you’, ’he/she’ or ‘they’ — are fascinating. Such accounts tell something about the people who produce them and they also reveal much about their authors’ relations to others and the culture and environment they live in. In fact, one of my basic historiographical convictions is that even the concepts, theories and objects of science, technology and medicine are, at least to some extent, first-person accounts (’science as autobiography‘).

First-person accounts appear in many forms, which you could call ‘genres’ (or ’sub-genres’), like ‘autobiography’, ’self-portrait’, ‘memoir’, etc. Turns out that the genre specialists Jean-Louis Jeannelle (known for his studies of the (anti)memoirs of André Malraux) and Philippe Lejeune (renown specialist in the study of autobiography) are currently interested in how we define, and in which terms we describe, different kinds of such first-person accounts, especially non-fictional accounts (i.e., excluding novels, short stories etc. in ‘I’-form).

Jeanelle and Lejeune are particularly interested in the linguistic distinctions we make between the different genres in which personal experience can be narrated, and they want us to reflect about the terms we use and to make us question our assumptions about them. They use the term ‘non-fictional first-person accounts’ as though it were a neutral description, but this isn’t true, of course — as they rightly point out in an email message to colleagues, this label “needs to be examined as much as any other label”.

And here are their seven questions they want us to think about:

1. What are the customary generic classifications used in your language to designate the different kinds of personal narratives, such as autobiography, journal, testimony? Can you provide a comprehensive list of these terms, and cite, in each case, a work that could serve as model for that category?

2. Among these various categories, are there any which you perceive as having fallen out of use or having been discarded because they no longer correspond to the texts that are being produced? Have others become more important over time? In both cases, what explains these changes?

3 Are there one or more categories that seem to you to function as overarching categories, under which other forms of life narrative can be classified?

4. What is your own special field of research? What are the principal generic terms that you use in that research? What synonyms do you use to avoid excessive repetition?

5. What sub-genres of non-fictional first-person accounts seem to you to be the most studied in your country? Which ones seems to attract the least attention or to be unduly neglected?

6. What theoretical works have the greatest influence on you and your colleagues?

7. Do you think that these widely read theoretical works have modified the way in which the different sub-genres of non-fictional first-person accounts are classified?

Jeanelle and Lejeune are interested in all kinds of non-fictional ’first-person accounts’ — not just of scientists and medical doctors, of course, that’s just my own special interest — please send your answers to: and

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