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Autobiography in Anthropology, Then and Now

in Anthropological Journal of European Cultures
Author:
Helena Wulff Dept. of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University, Sweden Helena.Wulff@socant.su.se

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Celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the first publication of the volume Anthropology and Autobiography (1992) edited by Judith Okely and Helen Callaway, AJEC 31(1) features an inspiring special issue devoted to this topic, then and now. Starting from the beginning, we learn about the appalling resistance Judith Okely faced when she suggested Anthropology and Autobiography as a theme for the 1989 ASA (Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK) Conference. The idea to include the experience of the fieldworker, his or her emotional reactions, and issues related to gender, age and race – in the research and later even the use of “I” in the writing – came from the ‘writing culture’ movement in the United States. This early resistance against reflexivity and autobiography in British anthropology can be understood as a generational intolerance of American intellectual influence. As Ernest Gellner (1988: 26) suggested in a review of Clifford Geertz’ Works and Lives:

My own advice to anthropology departments is that this volume be kept in a locked cupboard, with the key in the possession of the head of department, and that students be lent it only when a strong case is made out by their tutors.

Celebrating the thirtieth anniversary of the first publication of the volume Anthropology and Autobiography (1992) edited by Judith Okely and Helen Callaway, AJEC 31(1) features an inspiring special issue devoted to this topic, then and now. Starting from the beginning, we learn about the appalling resistance Judith Okely faced when she suggested Anthropology and Autobiography as a theme for the 1989 ASA (Association of Social Anthropologists of the UK) Conference. The idea to include the experience of the fieldworker, his or her emotional reactions, and issues related to gender, age and race – in the research and later even the use of “I” in the writing – came from the ‘writing culture’ movement in the United States. This early resistance against reflexivity and autobiography in British anthropology can be understood as a generational intolerance of American intellectual influence. As Ernest Gellner (1988: 26) suggested in a review of Clifford Geertz’ Works and Lives:

My own advice to anthropology departments is that this volume be kept in a locked cupboard, with the key in the possession of the head of department, and that students be lent it only when a strong case is made out by their tutors.

But it was a losing battle. Now we are most grateful that Judith Okely and her co-editor, the late Helen Callaway, paved the way for an awareness of the importance of autobiographical aspects in anthropology. This is important because in many instances, autobiographical background is what makes anthropological texts – even those that focus on something else or are written in a different perspective – accurate.

It is interesting to note that Okely and Callaway had a stellar cast of contributors for this ground-breaking volume, at least that is what they all would become with time. Looking back at how the volume came about, Okely (2022: 1) in her contribution to AJEC's retrospective issue, comments dryly:

It has an extended early history before its completion, drawing on what was once declared highly controversial, indeed unpublishable. Decades later, many aspects of the volume are taken for granted and younger generations, if not my own, are bewildered by and incredulous at the 1980s opposition to confronting the specificity of the fieldworker, the effects of her/his interaction and the varying accessibility of indigenous allies in the field.

As the editors of AJEC, Patrick Laviolette and Aleksandar Bošković aptly note in their editorial to this issue, ‘Autobiography in Anthropology’ (2022: v) ‘has had far reaching influences, anchoring a legacy that few such conference collections can imagine for themselves’. They go on to identify the volume in terms of a ‘classic reference work’ that acknowledges the reflexive turn and personal encounters in the field as well as ‘the literary influence of the biographical on ethnography’. In addition, Laviolette and Bošković emphasise that autobiography is often connected to an anthropology at home perspective.

This is especially obvious in the special issue's interesting article which follows a young adult woman, Jadranka, in post-transitional Zagreb, Croatia, written by Lana Peternel and Ana Maskalan. In line with Robert Levy's person-centred ethnographic approach, Peternel and Maskalan conducted a number of intensive interviews over the course of three years with Jadranka. They were thereby able to put together her autobiography which proved to be driven by her ambitions to live an independent life formed by feminist values while balancing traditional family roles. In an emancipatory spirit, she went to university, established a relationship with a partner she was in love with, and found a job. While Peternel and Maskalan conclude that this life trajectory indicates a changing Croatian society, they are aware that there are still traditional forces at play.

According to Okely (2018: 1) in an encyclopaedia entry on autobiography, there are two types: written ‘either by the researcher/outsider or by an individual member of a group studied by an anthropologist’. The article on Jadranka is the only article in the special AJEC issue which is composed by anthropologists studying an individual's trajectory. Articles by Gareth Hamilton (2022) and Paolo Favero (2022) both explore the respective author's own autobiography; in Favero's case, we get a visual autobiography through images. Hamilton's autobiography details his experience of quite arduous long-distance travel for conference participation and family visits, on the ground via bus and train. An avid non-flyer since almost twenty years, he prefers carbon-free travel even though he admits it is at the expense of cost and time. While Hamilton tells the impressive tale of this choice, the article also becomes a story of European anthropology's centre and peripheries as he travels from Latvia, where he teaches, to EASA conferences in Milan, Lisbon, and Stockholm. He even planned to go to Belfast, located in Northern Ireland where his parents incidentally live. (It goes without saying that travelling to the American Anthropological Association's annual conference from Europe across land only would be even more arduous, time-consuming and expensive not to say a nightmare logistically, which some of us have had reason to explain to conference funders).

Written before the pandemic and even more momentously before the war in Ukraine erupted – remember that Latvia borders Russia – Hamilton's article still anticipates some change in travel patterns. There is no doubt that train travel for work, as well as leisure, has become much more common, even expected in many instances. And when airports across Europe in the summer of 2022 had serious problems with long lines, delays and cancellations as well as strikes, travellers were advised to take the train instead of flying. Autobiography is by definition a report on the past, but Hamilton takes this opportunity to envision future improvements in travel infrastructure, especially a high-speed railway which would be a way to cut the extra time that train travel usually entails.

Marta Kempny's fine contribution to the special issue was written during the pandemic and explores migrant women's (im)mobilities in Northern Ireland during lockdown, through her own experience of being a Polish migrant woman there. By applying the notion of autoethnography (Reed-Danahay 1997) and discussing it critically (Reed-Danahay 2017), Kempny was able to understand her interlocutors’ experience of prejudice, economic hardship and (im)mobility as she knew something about it from her own experience, if not to the same extent as these migrant women of colour. This evokes questions of intersectionality and insider versus outsider in pandemic research. As Kempny (2022: 58) rightly points out, ‘the auto-ethnographic genre has boomed during COVID-19 times’ and it is likely to keep generating much recollection still to come. Yet ‘the authors of auto-ethnographic texts usually focus on their own experiences of the pandemic, engaging in an evocative style of writing’, Kempny continues. Still, her take is different as she focusses on the migrant women rather than herself, but she would not have been able to reach her insights about them without her own similar experience of being a Polish migrant woman in Northern Ireland.

In her retrospective article, Judith Okely (2022: 9) mentions the role of photographs, selected by the contributors to Anthropology and Autobiography, as they ‘reveal the personal identity of the specific researcher’ contextualised in their various fields. Two articles in the special issue are devoted to visual storytelling. In Paolo Favero's case, it is a reflection on life and death through autobiographical images. As he convincingly argues, ‘it begins and it ends with an image’. It is true that images imbue our lives: from the moment of birth there are photographs taken of us. This is a beautiful but sad visual story where Favero (2022: 73–74) recalls the death of his father and his own grief afterwards. It builds on the idea that photographs are more than just representation, more than objects displaying things past. Instead photographs ‘are living things, presences capable of exercising their agency upon us’, as they keep us company through our lives, and significantly that photographs are ‘tools for connecting the living with the dead’, as Favero concludes.

The final article is also a visual story which most interestingly takes the concept of autobiography further into that of duobiography as it features a recollection of a dialogue between the authors, Art Leete and Patrick Laviolette (2022: 88). The dialogue is unfolding at the interactive exhibition ‘Echo of the Urals’ in the Estonian National Museum in the city of Tartu. The exhibition evokes the politics of ethnographic curating and issues of ‘the Urals ecumene’ against a backdrop of ‘post-Soviet socio-cultural change’ while creating a sense of being somewhere else, even transported to the past. As Leete and Laviolette are aware, the fact that biographies are not only the work of one or two people, but occasionally of a number of people, they also introduce briefly the concept of multibiography. This might be quite useful in light of the ubiquity of collaboration in today's academia.

Before wrapping up, let us go back to the role of autobiography in anthropology, to the one-person story. To this belongs the comprehensive interview of Ulf Hannerz by Marek Jakoubek and Lenka Budilová (2022: 106). To this also belongs a way of writing accessibly – even about complicated matters – which is one characteristic of autobiography, as is an experimental mode of writing (Wulff 2021). Some of the articles in the special issue are indeed written in an experimental mode, especially Favero's visual story, which is presented in three acts.

Although it is a well-known fact in history and memory studies, it is easy to forget that autobiography, like any recollection that goes back over a long period of time, tends to have been reconsidered again and again at different junctures according to conditions and contexts at those particular points in time. This is likely to lead to changes, minor or major, in how an autobiography is remembered and presented, and to different version of it. Perhaps as we rewrite old autobiographies, we will include hitherto untold stories from the field, those we have not told anyone before, except one or two close friends or family members. This was the topic of Judith Okely's (2012) Anthropological Practice which she mentions in her article to the special issue. As I was one of her interviewees, I know that as long as such stories adhere to ethics, they can reveal key aspects of how fieldwork is actually conducted, and that when untold stories are told, they can, finally, constitute turning points in an autobiography.

Autobiographical Acknowledgements

With her choice of topics ranging from anthropology at home especially in Europe and flexible forms of fieldwork to writing anthropology in a literary mode and a feminist approach, Judith Okely has been a guiding light for me for many years. As a young doctoral student, I was emboldened by being treated by her, and by Helen Callaway, on separate occasions, as a colleague. This has stayed with me.

References

  • Favero, P. S. H. (2022), ‘It Begins and Ends with an Image: Reflections on Life/Death across Autobiography and Visual Culture’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, no. 1: 7287, doi:10.3167/ajec.2022.310106.

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  • Gellner, E. (1988), ‘Conscious Confusion’, Review of Works and Lives by Clifford Geertz. Times Educational Supplement, 22 April, 26.

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  • Hamilton, G. E. (2022), ‘Ground-Level Travel for a Non-Flying Baltic States Anthropologist from Northern Ireland’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, no. 1: 3357, doi:10.3167/ajec.2022.310104.

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  • Jakoubek, M. and L. J. Budilová (2022), ‘Ethnicity Past and Present: A Transnational Virtual COVID-19 Interview with Ulf Hannerz’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, no. 1: 7287, doi.org/10.3167/ajec.2022.310108.

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  • Kempny, M. (2022), ‘Towards Critical Analytical Auto-Ethnography: Global Pandemic and Migrant Women (Im)mobilities in Northern Ireland’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, no. 1: 5871, doi:10.3167/ajec.2022.310105.

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  • Laviolette, P. and A. Bošković (2022), ‘Editorial. Autobiography in Anthropology: A Thirty Year Retrospective’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, no. 1: vviii, doi: 10.3167/ajec.2022.310101a.

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  • Leete, A. and P. Laviolette (2022), ‘Echo and the Ecumene: Grasping the Estonian National Museum’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, no. 1: 88105, doi:10.3167/ajec.2022.310107.

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  • Okely, J. (2012), Anthropological Practice: Fieldwork and the Ethnographic Method (London: Bloomsbury).

  • Okely, J. (2018). ‘Autobiography, Anthropology and’, in H. Callan (ed) The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology (London: John Wiley & Sons), doi:10.1002/9781118924396.wbiea2277.

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  • Okely, J. (2022), ‘Autobiography, Anthropology: A Personal Historical Recollection’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, no. 1: 111, doi:10.3167/ajec.2022.310102.

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  • Okely, J. and H. Callaway (eds) (1992), Anthropology and Autobiography (London: Routledge).

  • Peternel, L. and A. Maskalan (2022), ‘Keeping Up with Myself: Ethnography of a Young Adult Woman in Post-transitional Croatia’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, no. 1: 1232, doi:10.3167/ajec.2022.310103.

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  • Reed-Danahay, D. (ed) (1997), Auto/Ethnography: Rewriting the Self and the Social (Oxford: Berg).

  • Reed-Danahay, D. (2017), ‘Autoethnography’, in J. Jackson (ed), Oxford Bibliographies in Anthropology (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

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  • Wulff, H. (2021), ‘Writing Anthropology’, in F. Stein (ed), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology (ed) Felix Stein, online: https://www.anthroencyclopedia.com/entry/writing-anthropology.

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Contributor Notes

Helena Wulff Dept. of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University E-mail: Helena.Wulff@socant.su.se ORCID: 0000-0002-8200-7980

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Anthropological Journal of European Cultures

(formerly: Anthropological Yearbook of European Cultures)

  • Favero, P. S. H. (2022), ‘It Begins and Ends with an Image: Reflections on Life/Death across Autobiography and Visual Culture’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, no. 1: 7287, doi:10.3167/ajec.2022.310106.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Gellner, E. (1988), ‘Conscious Confusion’, Review of Works and Lives by Clifford Geertz. Times Educational Supplement, 22 April, 26.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Hamilton, G. E. (2022), ‘Ground-Level Travel for a Non-Flying Baltic States Anthropologist from Northern Ireland’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, no. 1: 3357, doi:10.3167/ajec.2022.310104.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Jakoubek, M. and L. J. Budilová (2022), ‘Ethnicity Past and Present: A Transnational Virtual COVID-19 Interview with Ulf Hannerz’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, no. 1: 7287, doi.org/10.3167/ajec.2022.310108.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Kempny, M. (2022), ‘Towards Critical Analytical Auto-Ethnography: Global Pandemic and Migrant Women (Im)mobilities in Northern Ireland’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, no. 1: 5871, doi:10.3167/ajec.2022.310105.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Laviolette, P. and A. Bošković (2022), ‘Editorial. Autobiography in Anthropology: A Thirty Year Retrospective’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, no. 1: vviii, doi: 10.3167/ajec.2022.310101a.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Leete, A. and P. Laviolette (2022), ‘Echo and the Ecumene: Grasping the Estonian National Museum’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, no. 1: 88105, doi:10.3167/ajec.2022.310107.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Okely, J. (2012), Anthropological Practice: Fieldwork and the Ethnographic Method (London: Bloomsbury).

  • Okely, J. (2018). ‘Autobiography, Anthropology and’, in H. Callan (ed) The International Encyclopedia of Anthropology (London: John Wiley & Sons), doi:10.1002/9781118924396.wbiea2277.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Okely, J. (2022), ‘Autobiography, Anthropology: A Personal Historical Recollection’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, no. 1: 111, doi:10.3167/ajec.2022.310102.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Okely, J. and H. Callaway (eds) (1992), Anthropology and Autobiography (London: Routledge).

  • Peternel, L. and A. Maskalan (2022), ‘Keeping Up with Myself: Ethnography of a Young Adult Woman in Post-transitional Croatia’, Anthropological Journal of European Cultures 31, no. 1: 1232, doi:10.3167/ajec.2022.310103.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Reed-Danahay, D. (ed) (1997), Auto/Ethnography: Rewriting the Self and the Social (Oxford: Berg).

  • Reed-Danahay, D. (2017), ‘Autoethnography’, in J. Jackson (ed), Oxford Bibliographies in Anthropology (Oxford: Oxford University Press).

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation
  • Wulff, H. (2021), ‘Writing Anthropology’, in F. Stein (ed), The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Anthropology (ed) Felix Stein, online: https://www.anthroencyclopedia.com/entry/writing-anthropology.

    • Search Google Scholar
    • Export Citation

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