ACSPRI Conferences, RC33 Eighth International Conference on Social Science Methodology

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Calendar interviewing: enhancing conversation and escaping the “biographical illusion”

Magda Nico

Building: Law Building
Room: Breakout 8 - Law Building, Room 100
Date: 2012-07-11 03:30 PM – 05:00 PM
Last modified: 2012-06-22


The benefits of simultaneously using life calendars and biographical interviews are still underestimated. Although some theoretical perspectives, the life course perspective, for instance, provide a vast collection of methodological choices ranging from life histories, life stories, follow-up studies, historical demography, event history analysis, sequence analysis, etc.., mixed solutions are underdeveloped. That may be due to the methodological “comfort zones” in which researchers position them selves, taking, most of the times in a mutually-excluded way, the quantitative or the qualitative “side” of life and research topics.
The conversation around the fulfillment of the life calendar is usually seen as a way of enhancing the quality and accuracy of the life-grid data collected. In this sense, it has been mainly used in follow-up studies or the ones involving elderly individuals. This beneficial relation has thus been implicitly described as unilateral. In this sense, face-to-face interviews have been said to improve the quality and to increase the consistency of the life-grid information.
It this presentation, it is argued that the benefits of the conjoint use of these two techniques is bilateral. Not only does the conversation around the demographic and critical events of life helps the interviewee to provide more accurate information on them, but the presence of the life grid during the conversation actually invites the interviewee to provide a history of the decisions and subjectivities linked to those events. By doing that, the life calendar actually improves the narrative accounts, by facilitating the relation between events, boosting the dynamic of the interview, stimulating explanations and justifications for past actions, making a connection between individual life and historical context and also by providing an holistic understanding of one’s life.
But this bilateral relation is only possible when the life grid is not seen as an obstacle to conversation, and when the conversation is seen beyond a merely instrument to collect quantitative and chronological information about the life course. In this sense, the life grid must be transparent and interviewee-friendly (although it is the researcher that is registering the information), the registration of the data must be flexible and informal, and confidence should be established before the introduction of the grid in the conversation.
The contribution of the life grid in the narratives accounts can thus be of great importance. In a context of the “narrative turn” in the social sciences, allied to the “interview society” and frequently to a “militant affiliation” to the individualization theory, Bourdieu reminders of the dangers of the “biographical illusion” have been somewhat ignored. The research topic is frequently substituted for the content of the interviews themselves, which are sometimes not more than a pre-fabricated story with pre-organized events.
The life grid provides, especially for the interviewee, new information (or a new overview) about his own life, requiring him to think about it outside the preconceived version he had, previously to the interview. It also provides chronologically organized quantitative and qualitative information that allows us, as researchers, to avoid two problems related to the “biographical illusion”. A “ideological-scientific” problem, in which researchers tend to “give voice” to their interviewees, not always assuring the accuracy of the story told, and to loose their own analytical and interpretative voice; and a more “practical-methodological” problem, in which the illusion of analytical order provided by CAQDAS often invites the researchers, in their presentation of results, to develop a “content” demonstration instead of a “content analysis”.

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