Reading a life: Interpreting life-history transcripts honestly
“Life history research brings us to the level of personal experience. Where you are not just dealing with figures, abstractions or cultural categories, we are dealing with real living breathing people and their experiences.” Raewyn Connell
“I must confess that I found the analysis of my data intensely problematic. I wanted to be faithful to the methodological approach I had decided upon and to treat the interview data simply as discursive artefacts, but this was complicated by the fact that I was analysing texts that I had created through an encounter with another person. I breathed the same air as these people, they welcomed me into their offices, and we talked beyond the research, sharing small details of our lives. Deconstructing their words… felt decidedly wrong, as though I were trying to catch them out, trip them up, or twist their words. As I made notes, I could hear them in my head: “That’s not what I meant!”
Laura Shepherd (2016) Gender, UN peacebuilding, and the politics of space: Locating legitimacy, Oxford University Press, New York. p.29.
In 2012 I was given the opportunity to travel to Bangkok to take part in a clinic organised by Partners for Prevention (P4P) on the life-history research. The clinic, which was run by Raewyn Connell, went through the basics of conducting life history research and how to read life-history transcripts. In the clinic, we were trained in how to conduct biographical interviews, and how to interpret interviews which narrate individuals lives through a critical feminist lens. In the coming year, I had the opportunity to work on some life-history research with P4P which explored men’s relationship with gender-equality after the Aceh conflict. These transcripts were the result of interviews conducted by UN Women Indonesia that had been transcribed and translated into English.
I found working with these transcripts difficult. Based on reading the record of a few interviews I began to try and interpret the trajectory of 12 men’s lives, as a way to explore their pathways towards and away from violent practice. Reading the transcripts, I tried to become familiar with these men’s lives, where they were born, what they valued, how they had lived and whom they loved. With more than 140,000 words of interview transcript, the stories they told were complex, contradictory and often difficult to interpret. While I was happy with the research chapter that came from this work (exploring anti-colonial politics and men’s support for gender equality), I felt awkward about trying to write the lives of men I hadn’t met.
The most recent life-history research I have conducted, on men’s pathways out of jihadi networks in Indonesia, presented a very different challenge. This research, conducted with Noor Huda Ismail, was conducted in person, with multiple interview sessions, long periods of hanging out, eating, talking about politics and the news, smoking clove cigarettes, and with a few former fighters driving around Central Java. This research did include discrete periods of interviewing but was surrounded by far longer periods where we chatted about unrelated topics, such as their thoughts on Donald Trump (not positive), their favourite rapper (Tupac over Biggie), or the traffic in Jakarta (hellish).
This research has presented a very different challenge to the research with P4P. This time the struggle was more a process of trying to disentangle my own experiences, attachments, and thoughts about someone from what the transcript actually said. Laura Shepherd discusses the difficulty of interpreting the words of participants with whom she had met in person and spent time with. She makes the case that for her own purposes, interviews can still be used as part of discourse analysis because:
“an interview is a limited encounter. Even loosely structured interviews, such as those I conducted, have a beginning, a middle, and an end, at which point the research participant is thanked for their time and the researcher leaves the building. The boundaries around the research encounter, therefore, produce a text that is also bounded, which lends itself well to discourse analysis.”
Laura Shepherd (2016) Gender, UN peacebuilding, and the politics of space: Locating legitimacy, Oxford University Press, New York. p.27.
While the research I have been conducting is quite different in approach and assumptions from Shepherd’s (being life-history work rather than discourse analysis), the difficulty of disentangling the personal encounters and the transcripts is consistent. Her comments on the uncomfortable feeling that the research process was intended to “catch them out, trip them up, or twist their words” is something I continue to struggle with.
Reading gender into transcripts involves looking at comments, stories and experiences which the interviewee doesn’t take to be primarily about gender, and interpreting them through a feminist lens. For both projects where I have used life-history methods, this has involved drawing on historical information, social theory and feminist knowledge to chart gender relations as the “linking thread… along which violence runs.”
Charting these relations is likely to go beyond, or even in contrast to, how an individual thinks about their own experience. To draw out the gendered experience this relies on reinterpreting individuals’ stories through frameworks which are likely to feel very alien to the person who has opened up to narrate their life to you. Or as Raewyn Connell puts it, “life history data doesn’t stand alone, we need to compare it to all kinds of other sources as aids to interpretation for the information we have.” Drawing on these sources to interpret the transcript in ways the participant might not expect does feel uncomfortable within the research relationship.
This results in treating the interview transcript as an authority in recording the biography of an individual which is then employed to make broader social or political claims about their milieu which they are likely to disagree with. This creates a tension between reading transcripts as a freestanding record and viewing them as recordings of a particular conversation within a broader relationship. Interpreting the social significance of transcripts honestly relies on comparisons which fit uncomfortably with the messy and complex lives of people you have come to know.
David Duriesmith is a UQ Fellow at the School of Political Science and International Studies within the University of Queensland. His research interests are on pro-feminism, masculinities, the transformation of war, and peacebuilding. His current research looks at attempts to transform masculinities after large-scale violence through peacebuilding programs. He is the author of Masculinity and new war: The gendered dynamics of contemporary armed conflict.