The transcendent subject? biography as a medium for writing 'life and times'
(Goldsmiths College, University of London)
Paper short abstract:
This paper will explore the extent to which biography can be used as a medium for elucidating both the life of a subject and the times in which s/he lived, as well as the geographical spaces inhabited.
Paper long abstract:
This paper will explore the extent to which biography can be used as a medium for elucidating both a life and times: the historical trajectories through which a life has been lived and the geographical spaces which the subject inhabited. It focuses upon a man called Juma who was born in 1953 on Mafia Island and died in Dar es Salaam in 2002. The main themes which emerge from his life (which included work as a forestry officer, head of an Islamic school, candidate for the local council, and founder of an NGO, as well as husband and father), include changing Islam in Tanzania, the morality of kinship, the rise of neo-liberalism, and political change, including the growth of a civil society sector. I would see Juma as among those whom Rapport has termed 'transcendent subjects', i.e. those who overcome at least some of the limits of their own socialization and make themselves 'ex nihilo and in an originary fashion' (2003:1) albeit in conditions not always of their own choosing. In this paper I attempt to show both the agency of people like Juma, who struggled for a livelihood, education and political representation, as well as the enormous constraints under which they labour: poverty, lack of suitable work, and of educational and health facilities, the last of which accounted for his untimely death at the age of 49.
Biography and the ethnographic interview