Telling stories

December 29, 2011 § 2 Comments

Those who write publicly almost always have power over those they write about, particularly if they have a wide audience. I do not have a particularly large following, either on this blog or in academic circles, but I nevertheless use the stories that other people share with me in my writing. And many people who I talk to are not in a position where they can easily reply to the arguments I make about their lives and work. I was open about my research and the arguments I was forming when I carried out the interviews used in ‘Framing genetically modified crops‘, but many of those who I interviewed never had a chance to read the final piece, let alone reply to it publicly.

Grafitti reading "Tell your Story"

"Tell Your Story", courtesy of flickr user wadem

There is a tension in the kind of research that I do. If I write about activists who are (relatively) privileged, as I have done in some of my work, it is easy for them to access and respond to my arguments, to call me out if they think I’ve got it wrong. If I write about those who are marginalised–activists who don’t read English, or who aren’t online–then I have the opportunity to make unheard voices heard…but their stories are filtered, retold and reshaped by me, and they have no way to reply.

There are complexities to this, of course. The time I spend talking with people I interview about my own politics, answering questions, occasionally facing vehement disagreement. I try to bear in mind the political effects of what I write, limited though they are. I try to maintain contact with people I have spoken to when I can. When I tell other people’s stories, I try to do so respectfully and ethically.

I’m transcribing interviews from my fieldwork in India at the moment, long after I intended to. (A heavy teaching load and a challenging year in other respects hasn’t left much time for research work.) I’m tremendously grateful to the people who took the time to speak to me. There’s some excellent material there: interesting, important, analysis of activists’ work.

"You will be telling stories about me to your grandson."

Image courtesy of flickr user marie-II

I worry, sometimes, about my ability to do justice to the time that activists have spent with me. Over the last year I’ve been thinking of ways to make their stories more directly accessible. I’d like to share at least part of these interviews on this blog, and potentially even post whole interviews at some point in the future, with activists’ permission.

I expect that this process of figuring out how to use other people’s stories well, as I tell my own, will be a long one. I’ll make mistakes along the way, but hopefully none that are too serious or careless. Maybe, eventually, I will work out how to do it well.

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