Accepted paper:

Authors in search of a character: ethnography and life writing


Andrew Beatty (Brunel University)

Paper short abstract:

Biography and ethnography are conceptual and methodological opposites; but without biographical depth ethnography risks being untrue to life. Using the examples of Nias and Java, two contrasting Indonesian societies, I argue the case for a rapprochement with biography.

Paper long abstract:

Not parallel but tangential: biography fits awkwardly with ethnography, doing well what ethnography does well to avoid. It cuts history to human shape, insinuates author into subject, reads cause in sequence, and turns the world into background. As 'life writing', biography rarely captures life: ethnography - immersed, immediate - does the job better. Participant observation opens up dimensions of behaviour and experience that the biographer, usually working second-hand, can only dream of. Yet ethnography can benefit from a more concerted biographical approach. Without a grasp of character, history, and circumstance any account of human behaviour is stillborn. The constituents of meaning, the dynamic of emotions, and the unfolding of action are all biographical in shape and import. Without them we have only frames, scripts and abstract forces. The question is how far to mine the biographical seam. Does a mismatch between individuating narrative and self-effacing folk theory disqualify? If the native disclaims a point of view, should the ethnographer construct one on his or her behalf? This paper considers the options in two contrasting Indonesian societies.

panel P07
Reason and passion: the parallel worlds of ethnography and biography