This is a short paper I wrote for a course on Women in Modern Africa. I think there are some interesting debates on how life histories should be interpreted and analyzed here, so I’m posting it on my website hoping that it might be of interest to young scholars and researchers who are are doing or thinking about doing ethnographic work in Africa.
How “we”, Western scholars, relate to “them”, African subjects, in an attempt to accurately depict their realities in ways that would be beneficial to a more comprehensive understanding of African affairs, is a contentious issue. In Whose Life is it, anyway? Issues of Representation Life Narrative Texts of African Women, Kirk Hoppe argues that the life narratives gathered by a Western researcher are not actually “true” stories of these women. The stories an ethnographer has access to only represent the unfolding history of the relationship between Africans and their Western counterparts and how the West analyzes Africa in order to redefine its own identity. Consequently, to him, life histories are not useful resources for determining the historical truth with respect to African women’s lives. In Truth Telling and the Politics of Women’s Life History Research in Africa: A Reply to Kirk Hoppe, Haidi Gengenbach argues that Hoppe’s analysis is inaccurate because African women use and reaffirm their agency in ways that Hoppe is incapable of understanding or incorporating in this article. After giving various examples of African women’s agency, Gengenbach concludes that life history research is in fact a valuable methodology which can help us better understand African (women’s) realities.
In this essay I will analyze the main arguments brought up by the two scholars and argue that both their analyses are, in fact, incomplete. In determining what ethnographic data is historically accurate, one should definitely look at how various power relations unfold in real life and to what extent the “unseen” and “untold” daily events and rituals can complicate the narrative and the data a scholar in studying (as Gengenbach suggests). However, this is not the only factor that shapes the accuracy or the value of an ethnographic account. Those of us interested in ethnographic research are not only responsible for recording what people say to us but also for accurately analyzing and explaining the context in which our respondents make a statement. What both Hoppe and Gengenbach come short to conceptualize (though Gengenbach gets very close to it) is that a scholar should never accept and report the surface narrative presented by his/her subjects. Doing ethnographic work is not only about asking questions but also about paying close attention to what people say, when they make a statement and under what circumstances they do it. After all, I argue, a scholar should not extract specific episodes from life history narratives as a mechanism designed to achieve accurate forms of truths. Instead, the ethnographer is supposed to understand those episodes, and the experiences they are referring to within the narrative created, including the specific context in which those experiences occurred and when the narratives were retold.
In his analysis of the encounter between the Western ethnographer and the African respondent, Kirk Hoppe is dubious of both the scholar’s goals and expectations (Hoppe, p. 624) and of the African women’s agendas in relation to the researcher. (Hoppe, p. 625-626) Consequently, he argues that “[t]he spoken narrative is informed by motives and by understanding and misunderstandings or intentions.” (Hoppe, 628) In doing so, he underestimates the context in which an ethnographic research is conducted and he, perhaps, confuses an ethnographer for a journalist. A news reporter goes to Africa with the intention to cover a particular topic that would cater specifically to the audience he is writing for. The journalist will, most likely, not have formed a relationship of trust and mutual friendship with his respondents and s/he would spend relatively little time among the people required for his research. In that context, I believe Hoppe’s analysis would be correct: in a short period of time it is quite likely that the outcome of the investigative research would be severely altered by the goals and expectations of the two actors involved (journalists versus the subjects interviewed). But ethnographers do not fall in the same category. Many of them spend extensive periods of time among the people they study. In some cases, they progressively become members of those communities or at least people acknowledged by the locals as being something more than a journalist looking for a sensationalist story. In the process, Africans and Western scholars interact on a daily basis, share intimate stories and forge different types of personal relations with each other. Hoppe does not account for the striking difference between “unknown” and “familiar” given by the fact that, in time, a scholar becomes more than a simple stranger to the people he observes and interacts with.
Seen from a different perspective, some scholars might share the same hesitant view on historical accuracy when it comes to the type of information transmitted by the informers of an ethnographic research, as Hoppe does. I myself, doing research on the informal sector in Uganda, have struggled with the inconsistencies in the data reported by those I was studying. For example, in 2008, I was gathering data with respect to an informal, inter-connected economic network that made the supply and distribution of tourist crafts possible in Kampala. By the end of my initial stay in Uganda, I hired Hassan, a local young man to serve as my research assistant. Three weeks after my departure, I asked Hassan to go back to the same shop sellers and ask them exactly the same questions I used in my questionnaire. Whereas he received mostly the same answers that I had recorded, two questions generated different data. As Hassan used to be one of the shop sellers on site, the other entrepreneurs gave them different prices for the crafts they were selling in their shops. The prices reported to Hassan were generally 40 to 50 percent smaller than the once I was told would be paid for a craft. Yet when it came to a question regarding shop sellers’ monthly wages, the vast majority of them inflated the figures reported, thus claiming they were making more money than what they previously told me. To me, the discrepancies in the data were not the consequence of being lied to. I interpreted it in the light of where I, as an ethnographer, was positioned in relation to those whose lives I was observing. And, indeed, six months later, when I returned to the research site, some of the local entrepreneurs were able to comprehensively explain those inconsistencies. As some of them argued, telling me that a commodity is more expensive than it actually is was the result of the fact that I was initially seen as a foreigner and as a potential buyer for the crafts sold in those shops. Consequently, shop sellers expected that I would eventually buy some products from their shops and wanted to maximize their share of profit when the time came for me to buy crafts. On the other hand, these entrepreneurs had no reason to hide the salaries they were receiving from the shop owners as that would not have altered the way they saw me. Yet when Hassan asked them about their salaries, given the fact that he used to be a shop seller, his peers wanted to overplay both their status in the community and the salary they received at the end of the month. This episode is indicative of a social phenomenon that is completely neglected by Hoppe. Since I eventually turned out to be more than a simple tourist on site, I had to constantly negotiate and renegotiate my position in that community through numerous interactions with various local actors in different moments in time and in various social contexts. The result of my research was not the same as the research itself. In addition, despite the fact that the local shop sellers knew exactly what I was after they did not actually shared the information that was key to my research until I became what one of the sellers called “a legitimate partner for discussion.” In the process, in search for a more accurate understanding of the informal sector I was analyzing, both I and the people I was interacting with exercised our agency as we saw fit. Furthermore, on my end, I did not simply take their declarations for granted, but I tried to see beyond the initial surface narrative I was provided with.
As Heidi Gengenbach correctly suggested, Hoppe is also mistaken when it comes to African agency (Gengenbach, p. 623-624). Power relations are expressed both between Westerners and Africans but also within African communities. Consequently, Gengenbach is right to argue that there are other factors that affect women’s interaction with the ethnographer, such as the gender divisions between men and women, and the cultural background in which an interview is conducted. In addition, I also side with Gengenbach’s astute observation that “all knowledge is socially situated.” (Gengenbach, p. 627) Yet I would have perhaps wanted a more thorough analysis of how this particular observation practically changes the way ethnographers analyze or should analyze the narratives they are recording. In fact, the limitation of Gengenbach’s article ultimately comes from the fact that she is arguing against Hoppe, and thus for African women’s agency and the important of life history research, instead of looking at the broader picture of the scholar – informant relation, its consequences and contradictions.
In his discussion of “the telling” Hoppe argues that the researcher’s behavior, questions and facial expressions transmit a clear message to the respondent with respect to the type of information the researcher is looking for. Yet that somehow contradicts his later argument that the narrator will only answer based on her understanding of what the scholar means (Hoppe 630). In the first case, we are being told that a respondent will give her answer knowing what the scholar is after, yet in the second case it appears that the narrator might misinterpret the scholar’s questions intentions and expectations, thus not following the path imagined by the researcher. So which one is it? Hoppe never bothers to clarify his position on this issue.
When recording and analyzing a life narrative, it becomes rather obvious that this is not a unidirectional process. Those interviewed for a particular research topic will not simply give an ethnographer the data s/he expects to receive, in the terms prescribed by the scholar. By telling his/her story, the subject will give a nuanced version of the events which might not follow the history, as we know it, ad litteram. But what Hoppe fails to acknowledge is that this is, in fact, one of the most important reasons why life narratives should be used by historians in the first place: by introducing life histories in academic work, historians are able to bring in a new set of data coming from those subjects which are left out of conventional histories. In addition, as Gengenbach was correct to point out, the content of the narrative is also important for the research conducted, yet Hoppe does not seem concerned with this reality, either.
Given the fact that the informants of a research project will interpret the events and episodes in their lives as they sit fit, by exercising their right to choose how and under what circumstances a story is told, the scholar has the mission to find the optimal way to interpret the research material. The narrative shared by the person being interviewed sets out the context in which meaningful stories are shared, yet it is the role of the ethnographer to accurately interpret the events and the experiences told within the narrative of a life history. In that process, the interactions between the two actors become the essential factor that will determine the quality of a research project. It isn’t a matter of true or false stories, as Hoppe wrongly suggested. It is about how a story is interpreted in the light of the role it places in a life history, and in the historical context in which that experience has occurred. The role of the interpreter can be assigned to both the narrator and the researcher, but it the latter’s mission to accurately contextualize the story in such a way that a life narrative can be seen as a contribution to a field of study.
Lastly, by calling African women’s stories false, Hoppe is actually distancing himself from the actual responsibility of an ethnographer, instead of accurately conceptualizing the problem at hand. After all, if life narratives are not actually “true,” and potentially incorrect interpretations are caused by the “disingenuous” stories of the African people. That is a false yet convenient excuse for scholars like Hoppe who frame a problem based solely of their own understanding of African realities, thus failing to adapt to the local realities, narratives and discourses that people in Africa and elsewhere might employ in their lives. Once African agency is acknowledged, it becomes apparent that both scholars and locals are equally engaged in creating and actively nurturing the context in which the ethnographic research is conducted. The communication between the two is in fact the result of an informal partnership and not the consequence of the unfolding history of the Western ethnographer in relation to his African respondents.
To sum up, I agree with Heidi Gengenbach’s argument that Kirk Hoppe ignores African women’s agency and the ways in which African women accomplish their goals without jeopardizing the pre-existing power relations or other socio-cultural norms and understandings of masculinity that often govern the social relations in a local setting. In addition I also believe Kirk Hoppe does not accurately conceptualize the relationship between the scholar and the informant, the context in which it occurs and the types of bonds that are created between the two actors. Furthermore, I argued in this essay that the role of the ethnographer has also been underestimated; that it is the scholars’ mission to read between the lines and form a thorough understanding of the community and the life narrative s/he is studying. Looking for “truths” in ethnographic research might be appealing from a historian’s point of view, but that should not be the primary focus of such a project. Instead, I suggested that interpreting various experiences and episodes within the narrative and the context in which these were produced and recounted would ultimately lead to a much more valuable contribution to how people see, interpret, and position themselves in relation to their individual and communal history. Not employing this method undermines both the agency of the ethnographer and of his/her subjects, how we see the relation between scholars and narrators, and, consequently, the quality of the ethnographic research as a whole.
Hoppe, Kirk, “Whose Life is it, Anyway?: Issues of Representation in Life Narrative Texts of African Women,” International Journal of African Historical Studies, 26:3, 1993
Gengenbach Heidi “Truth-Telling and the Politics of Women’s Life History Research in Africa: A Reply to Kirk Hoppe,” The International Journal of African Historical Studies, Vol. 27, No. 3, 1994
Miescher Stephan, Louise White and David Cohen, eds., African Lives, African Voices: Critical Practices in Oral histories, Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2001.