ASA2016: Footprints and futures: the time of anthropology

(P43)
From words to lifeworlds: re-assessing the role of narratives in the context of crisis
Location Science Site/Maths CM221
Date and Start Time 04 July, 2016 at 14:00
Sessions 2

Convenors

  • Annika Lems (University of Bern) email
  • Christine Moderbacher (University of Aberdeen) email
  • Darcy Alexandra (University of Bern ) email

Mail All Convenors

Short Abstract

In this panel we will take the often under-theorised presumptions about narratives as a means of accessing lived experiences a starting point to re-assess the merits and limitations of working with narrative approaches in the context of crisis.

Long Abstract

Narratives are commonly described as a quintessential ingredient of social life: Through telling stories we create meaning of our experiences of the world, and through hearing stories we gain a sense of what it means to be in the world in relation to others. Located at the intersection between private and public life, storytelling is a productive means of creating and conveying anthropological knowledge (Jackson, 2002). Throughout the last decades narrative approaches have become quintessential tools for understanding crisis. The underlying incentive propelling this move towards storytelling is a desire to communicate our research participants' own thoughts and experiences in direct and powerful ways. Yet, while the increasing importance of narrative methodologies in the last decade formed an essential step in creating a deeper understanding for the complexity and multidimensionality of crisis, debates on the hidden assumptions about the links between narratives, crisis and everyday experience have been surprisingly scarce. In this panel we will take these under-theorised presumptions as a starting point to re-assess the merits and limitations of working with narrative approaches in the context of uncertainty and crisis. We encourage ethnographically dense papers based on different mediums of storytelling (e.g. visual, narrative, poetic, autobiographical, etc.) that critically engage with notions such as "experience", "subjectivity", "dialogue", "voice", "life story", or "silence". We particularly welcome papers that address questions, such as: To what extend do narratives relate to experience? What is the relationship between teller and listener? What role does silence play in everyday acts of meaning-making?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

'No space for a story?' Complexities, contestations and the use of oral narrative methodologies in contemporary disaster response and mitigation research

Author: Irena Leisbet Ceridwen Connon (University of Dundee )  email

Short Abstract

This paper provides a critical ethnographic exploration of the significance and challenges involved in utilising oral narrative methodologies in contemporary disaster-response and policy-impact research in a UK context.

Long Abstract

Although anthropology fully recognises the significance and limitations of personal oral narrative methodologies in the post environmental disaster context, much less attention has been given to examining the complexities involved in the use of oral narratives within the emerging growth of applied projects in climate change adaptation and disaster-mitigation research. Furthermore, as anthropological research in local experiences of disasters has gradually become more policy-driven and impact-based, researchers working within this field have been increasingly engaged in interdisciplinary and inter-institutional research that has placed new demands on data-collection and knowledge transfer processes. With this increasing emphasis on policy-driven research, oral narrative methodologies of local experiences of disasters can be regarded to have become increasingly neglected as a tool for data-collection and analysis. Yet, the production of oral narratives in the post-disaster context retains its value in providing insights about the generation and transmission of local forms of meaning, as well as for communicating local voices. This paper provides a critical ethnographic exploration of the significance and challenges of utilising personal oral narratives of local experiences of extreme weather events in Scotland and England, as part of a broader inter-organisational, cross-sectorial, impact-based environmental crisis mitigation project. Drawing attention to how oral narratives can transcend trajectories of invisible power that operate at the collective level in UK communities, I argue that they can capture insights into personal ways of attributing meaning to extreme weather events and enhance trust in policy-driven research in ways that collective-based public-participatory approaches favoured by UK policy makers cannot.

Telling families, telling AIDS: kinship and narratives of crisis in Botswana

Author: Koreen Reece (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

This paper examines the ways families manage narratives of illness and death in Botswana’s time of AIDS. It argues that the process of telling AIDS produces and negotiates crisis – and thereby reproduces kinship; and it questions how the retellings of NGOs and anthropologists affect this process.

Long Abstract

Botswana has sustained one of the world's worst AIDS epidemics - a long-standing public health crisis, 'orphan crisis', and 'crisis of care'. Catastrophic family breakdown is taken as both cause and effect of these crises. In this paper, I seek to reframe such 'crises' in terms of intersecting narratives and narrative strategies. By telling the story of one woman's HIV-infection, illness, and death from AIDS - told to me, in fragments and speculations, by several family members over several years - I trace patterns of sharing and silence, intimacy and distance, memory and forgetting, which shape the everyday, lived experience of family. I suggest that these tellings map intergenerational roles and relationships, and intersect critically with questions of care and personhood. They also produce, contain, and negotiate the crisis that AIDS represents for the family - and in doing so, reproduce the family itself. In this telling, I argue, family narratives have something unexpected to tell us about what crisis is, how it is lived, and what it creates.

The same story is told in sharply divergent terms, to different audiences and ends, by local orphan care NGOs. What are the implications of these retellings for family narratives, and the kinship dynamics they underpin? My telling of the story, too, is very different from the way it was told to me. I explore the consequences of the radical retellings that ethnographic writing requires, and compare both retellings to assess the suitability of ethnographic research and writing to the telling of crisis tales.

Escaping time and creating worlds: ethnographic and science fiction narratives

Author: Lisette Josephides (Queen's University Belfast)  email

Short Abstract

This paper compares the role of time and the imagination in science fiction writing and the narratives of ethnographers and their local informants. Both genres create worlds of the imagination on the ruins of ‘real’ worlds, shaping time by attempting to escape its constraints.

Long Abstract

Science fiction writers, similar to ethnographers and the authors of local narratives in times of crisis, create worlds of the imagination on the ruins of ‘real’ worlds, building alien worlds that escape mundane time to replace the familiar. Yet these worlds offer seductive, even comforting spaces to readers and listeners who inhabit them with ease. Fiction writing creates shared social worlds in internal solitary reflection, giving full rein to the imagination. By contrast, ethnographic writing and the narratives of those studied are politically, socially, ethically, methodologically and epistemologically monitored. Yet while the ethnographer’s imagination is kept in check, concentrating instead on the study of the imagination of those studied, ethnographic monographs teeter on the edge of anarchy. They contain worlds whose provenance, construction and temporal space are not clearly laid out, yet they claim legitimacy. The narratives of informants perform a similar role, attempting to shape time by escaping its constraints. This paper will begin to develop an ethnography of the imagination and its use of time in storytelling and narrative by comparing ethnographic writing to science fiction writing. It will examine how people smash and create worlds in their imagination. Two or three science fictions writers will be selected (e.g. China Mieville, Ann Leckie) and compared to the narrative worlds created by ethnographers’ informants, especially in times of change and crisis.

When truth cannot be spoken: a Zimbabwean family's experience of crisis

Author: Jenny Cuffe (University of Southampton)  email

Short Abstract

Crisis has taught Dwana and her Zimbabwean family that words cannot be trusted.

It is only by linking their narratives and seeing them in the context of the family's history and culture that we can make meaning out of their silence.

Long Abstract

"We don't talk about it. We talk about other things but we don't talk about it."

Dwana, a Zimbabwean refugee who fled to the UK in 2003, is a key participant in my research on the impact of the country's 'crisis' on three extended families. As an Ndebele speaker she identifies herself as a victim of discrimination and violence both at the hands of white colonialists and the Shona-speaking majority. History and personal experience have taught her that some truths are better kept hidden. Within her narrative and that of other family members, themes of silence and trust are intertwined while words are regarded with suspicion because they can mislead or betray.

The family's reluctance to talk about the most recent 'crisis' raises fundamental questions about life narratives as a research method. Because I had known Dwana for some time and was able to establish a relationship of friendship and trust, she felt safe enough to 'open up' to me, but other relatives whom I met within the constrained circumstances of a short 'field' trip either refused to tell their stories or gave me redacted versions. As long as people feel vulnerable they will be uncomfortable about exposing themselves and, however hard one listens to the gaps in their stories, the meaning will remain elusive. However, by linking narratives in a family group and seeing an individual life story in the context of the wider culture that has helped shape it, a pattern emerges that reveals as well as conceals a kind of truth.

Who Am I?: the question of narrating one's self in Calais

Author: Alexandra D'Onofrio (University of Manchester)  email

Short Abstract

This presentation looks at how people traveling to Calais in order to seek asylum in the UK, attempted to re-construct their stories, through existential questions, imaginations, memories and silences. A question the paper asks is: how can anthropologists get access and represent these imaginative worlds?

Long Abstract

This paper is based on a journey I took with a group of Ethiopian, Eritrean and Sudanese people who left Italy to reach Calais, and from there the UK in order to ask asylum.

For some days we shared the same roof, the same blankets and the same food. They were there like many others, to cross the Channel to reach the 'promised land' of 'security, freedom, education and labour' and I was there to try to listen to their stories and understand their motivations. What part of that lived life is 'sayable'? If imagination, dreams and hopes may find a language then so must disillusionment, silence and desperation. This paper and the audiovisual documentary I intend to share at the panel, are an attempt to put the unspeakable within the many words that usually find an easier flow in texts, the shadows into the light that is impressed onto photographic images, and the many silences that make up the voices of the people I met on this journey.

A complicated narrative of hardship and happiness in the Gambia

Author: Brianne Wenning (University of Edinburgh)  email

Short Abstract

This paper explores the difficulties in changing the common narrative of refugees from one of hardship to one of happiness and why this focus on thriving may not appeal to the refugees themselves.

Long Abstract

My aim in this research was to critique the popular narrative of refugees: poor, traumatized, broken spirits, unable to defend or stand up for themselves. Instead, I wanted to take the common narrative of refugees and examine the other side of human experience: what makes refugees happy? How do they, rather than just survive, actively thrive in their environment? How do they look after and keep themselves well? It seems like this opportunity to offer this narrative to an outsider would be a welcome break for refugees living in The Gambia. During December 2015 and February 2016, there were no fewer than three focus groups all based on the hardships that refugees face by virtue of their status; this was in addition to individual interviews assessing whether they were worthy of refugee status to begin with and whether their story could warrant a case for resettlement. Over the course of my research, it became clear that I was not easily separated from UNHCR staff; this created a very unequal power relationship between me and the teller. The informal chats were often at odds with the narrative interview; people had a vested interest in telling the popular narrative of hardship and struggle during the interview in the hopes that I could somehow further their case for resettlement. This brings me to my main point: What happens when you are asking for a story that people don't want to tell? How can these narratives still be meaningful?

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.