The joys of interdisciplinarity: narrative interview impressions

By Anne Van Loon & Sally Rangecroft

CreativeDrought is an interdisciplinary project, which means we need to familiarise ourselves with the methodology of the other discipline. Education theory teaches us that you learn best by explaining others, so we decided to each write a blog about each other’s work in the project. Sally and I are physical geographers and new to the human geography & social science methodology, but we are very eager to learn. We both joined a narrative interview with a group of elderly men and women of Folovhodwe village in South-Africa. In this blog we would like to share our experience.

In the preparation workshop (see previous blog) we learned about the difference between a narrative interview and a normal interview and in the field we could see how this works in practice. A narrative is a story made up of a sequence of events including feelings and opinions. Narrative interviews are used to get these stories to the surface by questioning and using prompts. There is not a fixed interview schedule, questions and prompts can and will differ per session, longer answers are invited, so that through the interaction between the interviewer and the interviewee the story emerges. In the narrative interviews that we sat in Mel asked about the drought events that the participants remembered and then prompted them to talk about the beginning of the drought, what the village was like at that time, how they were affected and how the drought ended. This resulted in some interesting stories, for example about the 1983 drought which was very severe in the region.

These narrative interviews are normally done with individuals, but in CreativeDrought we try to do it with a homogenous group of people from the community to get an idea of their shared experience of drought. Besides the groups of elderly men and women, we have groups with young people (18-34), with livestock farmers, smallholder farmers, single mothers, unemployed youth, previous miners, etc. Doing the narrative process in a group is slightly different than with individuals and Mel often asked the participants whether they agreed with what others said or whether they had anything to add.

Experience Anne: For me it was very special to see how open the participants were in sharing their stories and how open Mel was in listening to these. As interviewer she did only minimal steering and only used prompts to let the story develop. I realised that I would have asked many questions because I was very interested to hear more about the drought event characteristics, its impacts and the community’s responses. But I am sure that by doing that I would have missed the beautiful little anecdotes that these experienced men were able to share because of the narrative approach. For example, I would not have heard about the cows that got arrested because they were grazing on the crops and that their owner had to pay ransom to the owner of the land to get them back. I was also very much impressed how people in the community try to help each other out during a drought, for example by raising money for those in need or by allowing cows to graze on their land. The men had very wise suggestions for their children and I am curious whether the narrative interviews with the younger generation will touch upon following the suggestions of their parents and grandparents to be better prepared for the future.

Experience Sally: Sitting in and scribing for the group narrative interview was a very different experience for me. I am used to asking questions that direct the participant to give me the answer I am searching for, or the facts I need for data analysis. However, with the narrative interview it was obvious from the start that the method was very open, and was just a platform to allow the small group to discuss some of their experiences and tell us about how things were for them during drought, as a group or as individuals. The simultaneous translation helped Mel to offer the participants to expand on certain points, and clarify some aspects. After compiling my scribe notes from the 1.5 hour interview, I was already able to piece together some of the stories the elderly women were telling us about how things were during the 1983 drought, how they were affected, how things have been during recent droughts, and what advice they would give to their grandchildren about coping with future drought events. It was enlightening and the group were so appreciative of our time that it was also a humbling experience to be able to listen to their stories.


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