Participation Narratives

Andy Miles talks about UEP interviewing and participation narratives

What does it mean to participate? How, where and why does participation happen and with what consequences – for individuals, families, communities and places? UEP is combining a suite of methods in each of its six case study locations (cultural ecosystems) in order to probe such questions. These include cultural assets mapping – using both official data and vernacular accounts – community and stakeholder focus groups, local histories of participation, in-depth interviews, ethnography and social network analysis.

The in-depth interviews constitute the one approach that is held constant across the project. So that while ethnographies, for example, are focusing variously on different spaces, groups or institutions, interviewees are everywhere sampled to reflect the demographic profile of the local population and the same topic guide is used in each case study area.

The idea of the interviews is to draw out what can broadly be thought of as ‘participation narratives’. In the first interview, we explore with people how their participation is shaped by feelings of belonging and attachment to place, how day-to-day concerns and responsibilities impact on different types of ‘time’ – work, family, leisure and so on –  the influences which account for their preferred tastes and activities, and how their participation practices impact on their sense of personal and social identity. These initial conversations are then followed up a few months later when we talk to the same people about changes in their lives and communities, building up a more detailed picture of how their participation is mediated by social and civic networks in the context of local political and cultural economies.

This key component around which this process revolves is the telling of a life history in the first interview, when we ask people to ‘tell us your life story as you see it’. Predictably, this question is usually greeted with surprise, varying degrees of hesitation, and a request from the interviewee for guidance about how this ‘should’ be done. Here though, at least initially, the interviewer does not prompt or offer any structure because we are interested in how people construct their own response  – not only what they choose to tell us about their lives but how they go about putting their stories together.

This particular approach builds on several previous and ongoing projects based at CRESC (e.g. Elliot et al 2010, Miles, 2013) and for UEP it continues to generate rich accounts of participation in context that are simultaneously fascinating and telling. Thinking about how to analyse the resulting texts, we are interested not just in content of stories but in the form that personal narratives take and in their interactional contexts as ‘situated performances’ (Mishler 1995, McAdams 2008). By reading and comparing texts both vertically (from start to finish) and horizontally (in cross-section by question or particular themes and phrases), we can examine their ‘configurational’ as well as episodic dimensions (Elliot 2005), to distill both the ways in which the dynamics of change are remembered and understood and the types or ‘genres’ of stories that are being told.

Not surprisingly, we are finding that participation narratives are often strongly influenced by gender, age, ethnicity and class. These structures and relationships not only shape people’s tastes, activities and habits but also affect the kinds of hooks they choose and the anchors that are available to them when narrating their experiences (Miles, Savage and Bühlmann 2011). Equally, we are also coming across considerable biographical diversity and many everyday lives that are marked by sudden changes and contingencies. One notable feature of the life stories of middle-aged and older people, for example, is that they often organized around episodes of crisis or trauma, such as illness, relationship break-up, or the loss of a family member, causing ‘multiple occasions of maladjustment’ (Lahire 2010).

One crucial interactional context bearing upon the construction of life stories from in-depth interviews is, of course, the relationship between interviewer and interviewee. This is an encounter charged with power and uncertainty, which is negotiated across and ‘performed’ on both sides of the microphone (Goffman 1959). It puts an onus of responsibility on the researcher to work reflexively and to exercise care and consideration when engaging with people’s stories. Accounts of turbulent lives and personal crisis can often reflect the playing out of wider societal and cultural inequalities. As such, they are narratives of ‘social suffering’ (Bourdieu et al 1999) that require not only empathy but the art of listening sociologically (Back 2007, Gunaratnam 2012).


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