Accepted paper:

Biographical Lessons: Life Stories, Sex, and Culture in Bushbuckridge, South Africa

Author:

Isak Niehaus (Brunel University)

Paper short abstract:

This paper argues, with reference to the life story of one man, that biographies contain valuable lessons for understanding men’s sexuality, particularly of masculine promiscuity, at a more a general theoretical level. Whilst biography has all the drawbacks of a one-person survey, the paper demonstrates that it also offers several theoretical advantages.

Paper long abstract:

This paper asks, with reference to the life story of one man, called Ace Ubisi, whether biographies contain any valuable lessons for understanding men's sexuality, particularly of masculine promiscuity, at a more a general theoretical level. Ace Ubisi is one of the thirty-six men from Impalahoek, a village in the Bushbuckridge magisterial district of the South African lowveld, whose life stories I recorded over the past two years. My account of Ace's sexual biography is based on six unstructured interviews and it falls somewhere between a life story and life history. Whilst biography has all the drawbacks of a one-person survey, I suggest that it also offers several theoretical advantages. The biographical narrative is widely credited with its syncretism and with its capacity to foreground personal subjective experience and historicity. Moreover, life stories work better than survey data to get to the core of sociological objects, i.e., social relationships. Hence, C. Wright Mills characterises the sociological imagination as the ability to grasp the interplay of society, history and biography. Ace Usisi's biography points to several limitations in the capacity of existing models of sexual culture to explain men's actual conduct. These include their failure to capture the interplay of diverse discourses about sexuality, recognise the importance of social institutions such as labour compounds in shaping sexual behaviour, and distinguish between cultural models and social action.

panel P07
Biography and the ethnographic interview