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Thinking big with small stories in narrative and identity analysis - page 2 / 9

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Stories in narrative and identity

fleeting moments of narrative orientation to the world (Hymes, 1996) can be easily missed out on by an analytical lens which only looks out for fully-fledged stories.

To return to my story of small stories, the prototypical narrative data I started out with (Georgakopoulou, 1997) had actually occurred in ordinary conversational contexts (where I was a participant-observer) and not elicited in research interviews. They still however resonated both with the influential Labovian (1972) paradigm and with the key-events research interview narratives. They were thus well met even if often seen by colleagues as exotic data: the point was that in many respects, be they in terms of how they were structured or of how they signalled their tellability,- both focal concerns at the time -, they could be viewed as tokens of a type, a case-study of how people in Greece in ordinary conversations get to tell personal past events experience studies. In this respect, they could easily be placed within the framework of contextual research, partly post-Labovian in spirit, partly drawing on ethnography of communication, which dominated the 80s and much of the 90s in sociocultural linguistic approaches to narrative. With hindsight, this kind of research feels as the second wave of narrative analysis: it had definitively moved from the study of narrative as text (first wave) to the study of narrative-in-context, but there was still something neat about the conceptualisation of both text and context: the former was still defined typologically and on the basis of abstract, formal criteria (minimal narrative definitions were undeniably influential); the latter was often seen as a surrounding frame, something to be contained and tamed by the analysis. Culture, community and comparable notions that informed the analysis of context (then often called variables) were still defined in somewhat homogenizing terms (for a critique, see chapters in Duranti & Goodwin, 1992), and certainly, the ideas of multiplicity, fragmentation and irreducible contingency that have now been embraced by sociolinguistics (e.g., Rampton, 2001) were far less mainstream.

The increasing realization from a number of conversational studies that things looked different on the ground, that the stories told there did not quite fit the bill, never resulted in a productive dialogue between two parallel traditions: somewhat crudely speaking, the sociolinguistic, post-Labovian tradition on one hand, and the interactional paradigms on the other hand that – crucially- did not see themselves as doing narrative analysis but as doing conversation analysis that looks at narrative (if and when it occurs) as another format of telling. In this respect, Schegloff’s aporia is understandable as voiced in the Special Issue of the then Journal of Narrative & Life History (1997) that reflected on thirty years of narrative analysis post-Labov:

“it is striking to what degree features of the 1967 paper have remained characteristic of treatments of narrative” (1997, p. 101). Four years later, Ochs and Capps (2001) convincingly argued for a lingering bias in conventional narrative analysis for narratives with the following qualities: “A coherent temporal progression of events that may be reordered for rhetorical purposes and that is typically located in some past time and place. A plotline that encompasses a beginning, a middle, and an end, conveys a particular perspective and is designed for a particular audience who apprehend and shape its meaning” (p. 57).

In my view, the plea in Ochs’ and Capps’ important study for a departure from the narrative canon can be restated and emphasized anew as two questions that still beg systematic research:

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