Introduction: (Re-)Inserting the Producer and Process Into the Research Equation

Introduction: (Re-)Inserting the Producer and Process Into the Research Equation

Copyright: © 2020 |Pages: 26
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-7998-3420-5.ch001


The individualistic orientation of life histories has long been hailed as an antidote to the generalizing tendencies of ethnographic research. However, the life history method is not without problems of its own, as the author explains by referencing some of the most well celebrated life histories and so-called “autobiographies” in the anthropological corpus. The traditional method of composing the life history as a flowing narrative is not only morally dishonest but also intellectually inadequate because it conveys the false impression of a chronologically timeless and uninterrupted soliloquy. By focusing only on the final product, life histories ignore the other two components in the communicative process. In this opening chapter, the author emphasizes the need to (re-)insert the producer and process into the research equation.
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Oral History As Problematic Method

All of this promotion should not suggest that the oral history method is not without its problems. Although oral histories provide the illusion of an unmediated relationship between narrator and audience and of an authentic voice speaking to one reader at a time, they should not be viewed purely as vehicles for the delivery of uncontaminated facts about the past (Browder, 2000). The key here is that the voice invariably belongs to a member of a minority group and the intended reading audience is composed primarily of middle-class white people. There is an implicit understanding that the narrator is not telling his or her own story as much as the story of a people. Expected to serve as the representative voice of their people, narrators (and, more importantly, their editors) must often conform to their audience’s stereotypes about their ethnicity.

Indeed, most oral histories permeate with the distinctive air of a travelogue. Always told in the first person, they are usually as much about the journey of the writer/collaborator as they are about the natives’ experiences. By becoming a part of the narrative, the author operates as a kind of proxy for the race and class biases of the reader. Elizabeth Cook-Lynn (1998), a Native American scholar, criticizes the oral history method for being essentially anti-intellectual. She asserts that “the writer almost always takes sides with the ‘informant,’” with the result being “a manuscript that will satisfy any voyeur’s curiosity” (p. 123).2

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