Essays > Coping with Communal Life > Ethnography and life history
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A few words on ethnographic methods and analysis of the stories people tell about their lives and their world.
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As can be seen throughout the video Tours on this site, people guide the ethnographer through their residential spaces, pointing out or talking about what is important about the apartments and how they live within them. An experienced ethnographer poses opening and follow-up questions which spur people to take conversations in their own directions. Often they tell long stories about their lives or others' lives and histories, with the apartment as a central "stage" of interesting and intensive social life.

The recording of life histories and ethnographic interviewing is a methodology long established across scholarly disciplines as a critical mode for understanding historical, cultural, and individual experience. There is an enormous body of theoretical work by philosophers, historians, anthropologists, linguists, literary scholars, and psychologists, arguing the merits and problems entailed by utilizing people's stories about events and lives as information about society, history, or selfhood. Ultimately, most scholars agree, whether in autobiography or in more casual talk about themselves, people cast their lives in culturally structured narrative forms and frames (Mitchell 1981 is a touchstone volume revealing the scope and significance of work in this field; see other work listed in For Further Study). Whether talking about plumbing or family photographs, about the sharing of space or the conflicts that arise in a communal apartment, the people who appear in Tours and other materials on this site create themselves as particular kinds of personages within a collectively constructed cultural frame. So, we are left with the question: do the materials here represent "data" or are they "just stories"? By what means might we judge the difference? Is it possible that social reality is nothing more than an organized intersection of narratives?

An excellent discussion of these issues can be found in Charles Tilly's 2002 book Stories, Identities, and Political Change. In his chapter "The Trouble with Stories," Tilly discusses various terrains of storytelling—the story-making of respondents and the social scientists who study them alike—and identifies some ways in which the "data" presented in human narrative accounts might be validated and generalized. Like most scholars of narrative, however, he emphasizes that descriptions of social life come pre-packaged in story form. Tilly writes that "the social scientific technique of interviewing (especially in the forms we call life histories or oral histories) benefits from the readiness of humans to package memory in standard stories. Although all of us have recollections we would rather not share with interviewers, in my own interviewing I have generally found people delighted to talk about past experiences and adept at placing those experiences in coherent sequences. Indeed, humans are so good at making sense of social processes after the fact by means of standard stories that skilled interviewers must spend much of their energy probing, checking, looking for discrepancies, and then reconstructing the accounts their respondents offer them" (Tilly 2002, 27-28).

Tilly goes on to question acts of "checking" and "reconstructing," and he makes the important, if ironic, observation that as scholars and students of others' lives, we ourselves are as dependent on structured story-telling as the people we may interview. In other words, there is no escaping the story-making—whether in seemingly original narratives, like those presented in filmed interviews in the Tours on this site, or in the overall "meta-narrative" of the site itself.

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Comparative and Theoretical Works

Mitchell, W.J.T., ed. (1981). On Narrative. Chicago, University of Chicago Press

Tilly, Charles (2002). Stories, Identity, and Political Change. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

Works on Russia/USSR

Paxson, Margaret (2005). Solovyovo: The Story of Memory in a Russian Village. Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Pesmen, Dale (2000). Russia and Soul: An Exploration. Cornell University Press.

Ries, Nancy (1997). Russian Talk: Culture and Conversation during Perestroika. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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