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The purpose of this exercise is to produce a 5 page “life history” of one individual. Why? It is important for anthropologists to see how individual people’s lives are shaped by the cultural practices of the communities they grew up in. One method we have for capturing this important information in a formal way is by conducting ‘life history’ interviews in which we encourage people to tell the story of their lives in their own way. We write such an interviews up as an ethnographic “life history” (or ethnographic biography).The purpose here, as in ethnography in general, is to capture not just the raw facts of a person’s life but the culturally structured point of view they bring to their understanding of it. This assignment will allow you an opportunity to conduct a small-scale a ‘life history’ interview too. You should come out of this understanding more about how interviewing another person about their life can be a window into their culture or subculture.
GETTING STARTED: Arrange your “life history” interview in advance with someone who feels comfortable with the idea of being interviewed. Explain that you are doing a project for your anthropology class, and that you will use a pseudonym for the person interviewed when you write your paper.
WHOM TO INTERVIEW: It would be best if you could avoid interviewing your friends or other people with exactly the same social background as yourself. Find someone who can tell you about a cultural, sub-cultural, or temporal perspective different from your own – for example, someone from a different age, occupational, religious, ethnic or “racial” group than your own.
HOW TO INTERVIEW: Anthropologists mix three kinds of interviewing: structured interviewing (for example, using a questionnaire), in which we ask only prepared questions; unstructured interviewing, in which we just let the conversation go where it will; and semi-structured interviewing, which is a combination of techniques that involves using questions prepared ahead of time to guide the interview, especially at first, but which allows the informant to introduce topics at will. This is the best method for our purpose. Realize, however, that if your questions are too frequent or too narrow, you will not elicit very much from the person interviewed that you did not already expect to hear. Hence, ask ‘open ended’ questions, such as ‘What was it like to live there or do that?’ rather than closed questions such as ‘Were you in the Viet Nam War?’ Remember also that an interview is what Schultz and Lavenda call an intersubjective collaboration. Your role is to ask guiding questions to put the other person at ease in talking about his or her life, but allow the informant to structure the interview also. In general, try to collect information about the person’s life cycle (birth, coming of age, marriage, family, etc.), and marked experiences in his or her life: death, moving, war, acculturation, or anything they think formative in their own lives. Do not continue asking questions about a topic if your informant expresses a wish to no longer talk about it. Exercise your sensitivity; there is no need to go into an interview like a reporter for the National Enquirer, not that you would. There is no interview time limit, but do not exhaust the person interviewed, and respect their wishes should they, at any time during the interview, ask you to stop recording or stop the interview. Whether recording or not, write down as accurately both what you asked and what they said. If you think it will clarify things, you could do a ‘kindred chart’ of the family members they mention in their story. To make sure you do this right, be sure to ask about kin in ‘descriptive kin’ mode – i.e., by spelling out all the kin links from ego to the relative being talked about. (E.g., “So when you say your Uncle Joe, do you mean your Mother’s brother?”) But sure to preserve their anonymity. Remember, you should not use the real name either of your life history informant or of family members they include in their story; use pseudonyms instead, perhaps worked out with your informant.WHAT TO WRITE: This paper should be 5 pages in length. It must accomplish three tasks. First, it should provide a description of the person interviewed (age, sex, background, occupation and so forth) and of the circumstances of the interview: when you interviewed them, where, and whether there were others present. Second, it must contain your account of their account of their own life, summarizing where you see fit and including quotes from the person where you think they are important. Obviously, your account of their life should avoid ethnocentrism and provide a culturally relative (i.e., sympathetic) account of their life. Third, your account should make clear what their life history teaches us about the cultural context in which they live or lived – though this last should happen almost automatically if you accomplish task two correctly. Including a very small kinship chart would be a very good idea where appropriate!LAYOUT: Your paper should have a title page, 5 pages of life history, and, if you cite any written sources, a bibliography.
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