Publication details [#61192]

Publication type
Article in book
Publication language
Place, Publisher
John Benjamins


This paper discusses how life stories are situated in, and oriented to, the here and now of storytelling (dealing with a) the double arrow of time; b) the good self and master narratives and c) the continuity of the self); how a life story presents a version of some kind of reality; and how life stories are interactional achievements oriented to a diversity of audiences. From a lay perspective, life stories are typically considered to be windows that offer a unique and highly personalized view into the past, as it was in reality. The past events that are narrated seem to be archived in the memory of the narrator, waiting to be performed. Such an archive approach to memory has been common in work on oral history. As Dudley (1998: 162) points out, in oral history there is often an assumption that “people who tell their life stories provide a description of historical reality that expresses their lived experience in the form of a document, which can be used as a primary source for formal history texts”. However, such an asocial and decontextualized take on life stories is being increasingly criticized. As Kopijn, for example, notes: […] facts do not exist as free standing objects, but are produced through grammar and larger conventions of discourse. As such the creation of life stories reveals an interplay between self and society, the dialectics between the personal and the political/symbolic (Kopijn 1998: 142). Similarly, in other research disciplines, asking an individual to tell his or her life story has been considered to be a privileged way of accessing the subject’s ‘true self’. This ‘true self’ is communicated in an asocial manner and is thus seen to be a reflection of some kind of inner self that is in there somewhere and that is waiting to be revealed. Such an approach to life stories, for example, can be seen in leadership research. However, this essentialist view of identity is untenable from a social constructionist perspective, which is widely shared amongst linguistic researchers who study life stories (see e.g. Bamberg, De Fina and Schiffrin 2007, Georgakopoulou 2007). Analyses from this perspective have de-constructed, piece by piece, the view of life stories as fixed entities that contain truthful renderings of the past experiences of a narrator. By moving away from the analysis of stories per se in the classic Labovian (Labov and Waletzky 1966) paradigm, which places an emphasis on the decontextualized structure of the story, and by zooming in on the act of telling a life story, and the way in which this actually talks into being our social world in the present, these studies have demonstrated the fluidity of life stories and their complex relations with the local and the global contexts in which they are told. This has given rise to an interest in small stories which considers narratives (and life stories) as talk-in-interaction. Consequently, life stories are increasingly being considered as emergent joint ventures, the outcomes of which are co-constructed social achievements (e.g. De Fina and Georgakopoulou 2008a, Georgakopoulou 2007). However, a small stories approach to narrative does not negate big story data (i.e., data that is drawn from more traditional interrogative settings such as interviews and clinical encounters [cf. Freeman 2006]), rather, life stories elicited from such venues are now increasingly being studied in terms of their interactional situatedness. Following these recent trends and using data from the authors’ own work on narrative, notably the life stories of former slaves (Clifton and Van De Mieroop 2016) and a Second World War SS Leibstandarte veteran (Van De Mieroop 2009a), we aim to elucidate this social constructionist view on life stories, (1) by drawing attention to the situatedness of stories in the storytelling context, (2) by deconstructing their relation to ‘the truth’, and (3) by emphasizing that they are interactional accomplishments oriented to a variety of audiences. Commensurate with the shift away from considering narratives as texts to viewing them as practices (De Fina and Georgakopoulou 2008b), life stories can be re-defined as “socioculturally shaped practices, interactionally drafted in specific local contexts” (De Fina and Georgakopoulou 2015: 2). Moreover, these practices are also embedded within larger sociocultural contexts (De Fina and Georgakopoulou 2008a) with which they interact in a myriad of complex – and sometimes even contradictory – ways. Due to the often significant temporal distance between the narrated events (the storyworld) and the act of narrating (the storytelling world), this highly complex juxtapositioning of the storyworld and the storytelling world is a particularly typical feature of life stories. This is because, sociocultural contexts not only evolve, but the narrators themselves – and their reflexive awareness – also change during their lifetime and this – often extensive – time lapse between “living and telling” (cf Georgakopoulou 2006) generates an exponentially growing number of factors that have the potential to influence the way these life stories are designed, formulated, and interactionally negotiated. More specifically, as discussed in this paper, life stories are subject to the double arrow of time (Mishler 2006) whereby stories, since they are always retrospective accounts of events situated in the here and now of the storytelling world are as much about the present as the past. Consequently, the teller is prone to talk into being a ‘good self’ that is appropriate to the zeitgeist of the telling. A further consequence of this observation is that life stories do not, as with the archive metaphor, display an unambiguous and direct relation with what ‘actually happened’, rather they are constructed in the present and thus offer a version of reality that aligns with permissible master narratives. Finally, in line with research that places more emphasis on the interactional accomplishment of stories, life stories are necessarily influenced by the context of their production and especially the relation between interviewers, interviewees and the ghostly audience which, wittingly or unwittingly, influences the telling so that it aligns with acceptable master narratives.