ASA10: The Interview - theory, practice, society

Queen's University, Belfast, 13/04/2010 – 16/04/2010

(P07)

Biography and the ethnographic interview

Location Lecture Theatre LT5
Date and Start Time 15 Apr, 2010 at 14:30

Convenor

James Staples (Brunel University) email
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Short Abstract

Life stories address concerns beyond the individual whose life is studied in ways that are both grounded and accessible. This panel invites papers from those who have used interviews with key informants to construct biographical accounts.

Long Abstract

Life stories have long been recognised as a potentially effective medium for communicating a whole variety of lived experiences. Done well, such accounts enable concerns that stretch well beyond the individual whose life is studied - such as common experiences of AIDS in South Africa, the transition from socialism in Tanzania, or of leprosy in India - to be addressed in ways that are both grounded and accessible. In-depth interviews, often conducted over a lengthy period of time through intimate relationships with key informants also serve to challenge the findings of more straightforward case studies, which, by contrast, often follow particular, conventionalised narrative structures. Case studies can tell us a great deal about what is acceptable or otherwise in a particular social context, but they often tell us very little about the actual experiences of the people they set out to describe. More nuanced biographical accounts, by contrast, draw out that which is often counter-intuitive, and - read against a broader ethnographic grounding - tell us something more generalisable too. This panel invites papers from those who have used interviews with key informants to construct biographical accounts. In particular we wish to consider how such an approach can transcend conventional ethnographic accounts; the difficulties that might be encountered in using interviews to construct biographies; and whether they might provide ways of exploring other aspects of the ethnographic encounter, such as the relationship between the anthropologist and his or her field collaborators.

Chair: James Staples, Isak Niehaus

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Dialogues with Anthropologists

Author: Judith Okely (Oxford University/University of Hull)  email
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Short Abstract

This presentation draws on biographical accounts elicited from anthropologists in informal taped interviews. The fieldwork of some twenty two anthropologists ranges from Afghanistan in the late 1960s to Senegal from 2000. The unexpected outcome was the extraordinary range of commonalities in the anthropologists’ responses and research practices.Interviews were conducted not between strangers, but as trusting exchanges between fellow anthropologists where the interviewer intervened with similarities or contrasts.

Long Abstract

Anthropologists have done brilliant and original fieldwork around the globe. A legacy of positivism has discouraged full exploration of the narratives of experience as individual, positioned researcher. This presentation draws on biographical accounts I elicited from anthropologists in informal taped interviews. The fieldwork of some twenty two anthropologists ranges from Afghanistan in the late 1960s to Senegal from 2000. The anthropologists are of varied nationalities and ages. The fieldwork included localities in South America, India, Europe, South East Asia and Africa. The unexpected outcome was the extraordinary range of commonalities in the anthropologists' responses and research practices. Their experiences challenged the banality of formulaic methods, too often prioritised in other disciplines. The interviews were conducted not between strangers, but as trusting exchanges between fellow anthropologists where the interviewer intervened with similarities or contrasts.

Biographical Lessons: Life Stories, Sex, and Culture in Bushbuckridge, South Africa

Author: Isak Niehaus (Brunel University)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper argues, with reference to the life story of one man, that biographies contain valuable lessons for understanding men’s sexuality, particularly of masculine promiscuity, at a more a general theoretical level. Whilst biography has all the drawbacks of a one-person survey, the paper demonstrates that it also offers several theoretical advantages.

Long Abstract

This paper asks, with reference to the life story of one man, called Ace Ubisi, whether biographies contain any valuable lessons for understanding men's sexuality, particularly of masculine promiscuity, at a more a general theoretical level. Ace Ubisi is one of the thirty-six men from Impalahoek, a village in the Bushbuckridge magisterial district of the South African lowveld, whose life stories I recorded over the past two years. My account of Ace's sexual biography is based on six unstructured interviews and it falls somewhere between a life story and life history. Whilst biography has all the drawbacks of a one-person survey, I suggest that it also offers several theoretical advantages. The biographical narrative is widely credited with its syncretism and with its capacity to foreground personal subjective experience and historicity. Moreover, life stories work better than survey data to get to the core of sociological objects, i.e., social relationships. Hence, C. Wright Mills characterises the sociological imagination as the ability to grasp the interplay of society, history and biography. Ace Usisi's biography points to several limitations in the capacity of existing models of sexual culture to explain men's actual conduct. These include their failure to capture the interplay of diverse discourses about sexuality, recognise the importance of social institutions such as labour compounds in shaping sexual behaviour, and distinguish between cultural models and social action.

The transcendent subject? biography as a medium for writing 'life and times'

Author: Pat Caplan (Goldsmiths College, University of London)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper will explore the extent to which biography can be used as a medium for elucidating both the life of a subject and the times in which s/he lived, as well as the geographical spaces inhabited.

Long Abstract

This paper will explore the extent to which biography can be used as a medium for elucidating both a life and times: the historical trajectories through which a life has been lived and the geographical spaces which the subject inhabited. It focuses upon a man called Juma who was born in 1953 on Mafia Island and died in Dar es Salaam in 2002. The main themes which emerge from his life (which included work as a forestry officer, head of an Islamic school, candidate for the local council, and founder of an NGO, as well as husband and father), include changing Islam in Tanzania, the morality of kinship, the rise of neo-liberalism, and political change, including the growth of a civil society sector. I would see Juma as among those whom Rapport has termed 'transcendent subjects', i.e. those who overcome at least some of the limits of their own socialization and make themselves 'ex nihilo and in an originary fashion' (2003:1) albeit in conditions not always of their own choosing. In this paper I attempt to show both the agency of people like Juma, who struggled for a livelihood, education and political representation, as well as the enormous constraints under which they labour: poverty, lack of suitable work, and of educational and health facilities, the last of which accounted for his untimely death at the age of 49.

Lives told through leprosy in India

Author: James Staples (Brunel University)  email
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Short Abstract

This paper explores how intensive biographical interviews with a single informant, a leprosy-affected man I have known and worked with for nearly 25 years, might be used to offer more nuanced accounts of the experience of leprosy than conventional forms of anthropological participant observation.

Long Abstract

Synoptic life history accounts of people with leprosy tend to follow conventionalised narrative forms, with the onset of leprosy causing a violent rupture in otherwise positively construed life courses. My informants - well-practiced in telling their stories to donor agencies - were also well aware of the power of such narratives to obtain access to funding. While these stories are in themselves informative about the politics of representation, they often obscured more than they revealed about the experiences of those I worked with. In this paper, I explore how more nuanced accounts might be achieved through intensive biographical interviews carried out over time, and - in documenting how I conducted a series of such interviews with one person, a leprosy-affected man I have known and worked with for nearly 25 years - explore both the distinctiveness of such a research methodology, and its fit with conventional forms of participant observation.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.