Dr Marta Eichsteller reflects on the challenges of biographical narratives in ethnographic research on civil society.
Doing biographical narrative research as part of an ethnographic project is becoming established research practice. The method’s place in social research is to give context and meaning to what can be observed in the field and establish historical background to the events under investigation. In practice, however, biographical narrative methods present some challenges: how to summarise, portray and relate individual biographies to the body of evidence, reconcile the biographical and historical dimensions of time, verify personal accounts and generalise across the wider population. All of these issues lie at the heart of advanced theoretical and methodological debates, most of which are not suitable for a blog discussion. The source of my frustration and the reason why I have decided to write this text lies in the preconceived ideas among the academic-non-biographical community. There is an unquestioned confidence stemming from the fact that ‘…everybody has a biography, ergo knows exactly what it is and how it works’. I am sure that doctors often struggle with the same type of situation, since we all have bodies as well.
To understand the contribution of biographical narratives to ethnographic work we need to address these common assumptions. Firstly, biographical narratives are not about history, or about the past, they are about the present (or possibly the past in the present). They reflect the life story of the individual, but told from the narrator’s point of view in the space and at the time of the interview. A life story told at a different time and in a different space would very likely be a different narrative. Young mothers tell the story via lenses of past maternal relationships, community leaders stress their relationships with community, etc. Every biography is about the person who is telling it. The analysis of the story is not about accurate and objective historical contexts but about the individual’s perception of the turning points and the sequence of events leading up to this moment in time.
Secondly, biographical narratives are a repository of knowledge about the world, both in explicit and tacit form. Sometimes, it is not about the simple content of the biography, but about its form, the way people chose to tell it, or not to tell it. This may be as important to the research as the actual sequence of events. In analysis we focus on how the story is told, whether it uses argumentative or descriptive patterns, whether it flows in a linear fashion or diverts to previous events. The analysis needs to acknowledge that individuals do not always understand why they made a certain decision and what wider social aspects may have interfered with their life story. It is the job of the biographical researcher to map the narrated elements against the theoretical framework of identities, practices or capitals.
Finally, a biographical narrative is not a story about the individual. It is more the story of the circumstances encountered by the individual. The biographical narrative is an account of the struggles and negotiations between individual agency and social structures. It deals with the subjective perceptions of individual circumstances, reproduction of traditional social structures as well as the spaces where they have had to make choices, be creative or take a leap of faith. People tell us about historical events, such as national strikes, through their own experiences. They explain how they found themselves to be on a particular side of these events, and how the wider community, employers and families were influenced by these choices.
With that in mind, the role of biographical narrative research in ethnographic work goes beyond simply providing historical context. It informs us about continuity and change across social institutions, such as family, employment relations and religion. Narratives reveal the mechanisms of social reproduction and social innovation within communities through the practices and actions of the individual agent across time. Biographical narrative methods broaden our understanding not only of the current events but also the way they have unfolded and imprinted into the life stories of the individuals. They are ‘democratic’, giving a voice to individual, not in the form of an argument but in the form of narration. Biographical narratives are not about the opinions and justifications; they are about persistence, struggle and choices in the face of both social change and social stability. In the proverbial sense, it is about the journey, not the destination.
This type of data has high value for ethnographic research but requires gentle handling and careful consideration of where the data fits into the overall study design. In our WISERD Civil Society project, we are using this type of data to understand in-depth how the local aspects of civil society have been changing. We are focusing on two particular localities, which we are studying over time. We aim to see them not just as they are now, but rather how they have come to be, exploring the levels of local meanings of places and people; loyalties spread across families, chapels, miners’ communities, and choirs; and the dilemmas arising with the wider changes to these localities both threatening the old ways of life and introducing new types of social relations.