Accepted Paper:

Misunderstanding in the ethnographic politics of hearing  


Spela Drnovsek Zorko (University of Warwick)

Paper short abstract:

Moments of misunderstanding are crucial for resisting simplified frameworks of approaching narrative and memory. Misalignments in ethnographers’ and informants’ perceptions of a subject can highlight unexamined assumptions, and are inseparable from the intersection of private and public narrative.

Paper long abstract:

What are the implicit expectations that frame ethnographic encounters on the part of the anthropologist and on the part of the informant? How does the fieldwork conversation intersect with other genres of communication? And what happens when people realise they have been misunderstood? While the phrase "cultural misunderstanding" tends to evoke either phenomenal flaws in shared cosmologies or amusing social gaffes from the anthropologist's notebook, I am more interested in how the expectations of hearing and saying shape the way that research topics change and mutate. With reference to a small-scale study on family narratives among young British-Yugoslav immigrants, I discuss the ways in which the concept of narrative came to be inextricably bound up in my personal framing of the project as well as that of my participants. Asking how children of ex-Yugoslav refugees receive, interpret, and discuss parental narratives of Yugoslavia, its break-up, and the family's migration, I found that even soliciting stories-as-stories defied any simple division into public or private narrative.

I want to suggest that moments of misunderstanding are crucial for resisting overly simplified frameworks of studying narrative and memory, which have implications for the cultural, political, and personal aspects of the family story. More than just tools in the ethnographer's self-reflexive toolbox, misunderstandings and misalignments between the ways in which ethnographers and informants perceive the subject at hand cannot be predicted - which is what makes them so useful in highlighting unexamined assumptions and implicit claims to knowledge.

Panel IW004
Towards an anthropology of misunderstanding (EN)