ANTH 250(2): Methods in Anthropology:

Life Histories/Self Narratives


Professor LeeRay M. Costa                                        SPRING 2002
Office: 324 Pleasants Hall                                           Hollins University
Office Hours:  M/W 3:00-4:00 pm                                Tu/Thu 2:40-4:10   
Contact Info: 
x6254,                       Pleasants 107

Return to class website


Course Description:

What is a life history?  What is a self narrative?  What can they tell us about individuals and the social and cultural groups of which they are a part?  How have theories of life history evolved over time and how has theory been shaped by various academic disciplines and their intersections?  How does a researcher go about practically conducting a life history/self narrative, analyzing and presenting it?  As both a method and a window onto humanity and culture, how might life history/self narrative be applied more broadly and used more effectively by people other than scholars? 

These are just some of the questions explored in this course.  Through a critical examination of concepts of life history and self narrative, we will discuss their pros and cons, and their various applications in academic and non-academic contexts.  Readings, drawn from diverse cultural (Africa, Pacific islands, Puerto Rico, United States and Europe) and historical contexts (throughout the twentieth century), will expose students to a variety of ways that life history has been utilized within social science and the humanities.  We will explore how life history/self narrative might be used as one method for recording the experiences of both individuals and communities.  Thus we will look at how categories of difference (e.g. race, ethnicity, class, gender, sexuality, age, religion, geographic location) are experienced and reflected on by the narrators of life histories.

The course is aimed to acquaint students with both theory and method. Therefore a significant part of the course will focus on teaching students to use the method of life history/self narrative. Students will learn to organize and conduct life story interviews, to transcribe them and finally, to present them in written form.  As a result, the course will demand a significant time investment outside of class meetings. Please be sure that you can meet the course requirements before committing to the course. 

As part of the course final project, we will create a website where all of the narratives will be posted along with photos and comments by students.

NOTE: This course fulfills the Applied Research Techniques requirement and Cultural Diversities requirement under ESP.

Course Objectives:

1.     To develop an understanding of the research method known as life history/self narrative and its pros and cons in diverse social and cultural contexts.

2.     To explore theories of life history/self narrative and their application in culturally diverse settings.

3.     To use the life history/self narrative method as a way of better understanding social categories of race, ethnicity, class, age, sexuality, etc., how they are experienced, and their relevance to personal identity.

4.     To apply the life history/self-narrative method through a series of exercises.

5.     To assess the difficulties and benefits, strategies and various approaches to the life history/self narrative method.

Required Texts:

Ruth Behar (1994) Translated Woman: Crossing the Border with Esperanza’s Story. Boston: Beacon Press.

·      Faye D. Ginsburg (1998) Contested Lives: The Abortion Debate in an American Community.  Berkeley: University of California Press.

·       Andrew Matzner (2001) ‘O Au No Keia: Voices from Hawai’i’s Mahu and Transgendered Communities. Xlibris.

Sidney M. Mintz (1974) Worker in the Cane: A Puerto Rican Life History. New York: WW Norton and Company.

Catherine Kohler Riessman (1993) Narrative Analysis. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

A series of articles listed at the end of syllabus.


Course Requirements

For this course to be successful and mutually beneficial to all, it requires the full participation of all members of the class.  It is essential that students come to class prepared, having completed ALL the required readings and any written assignments due.  Students should arrive ready to thoughtfully discuss, analyze and share their insights into/confusions about the material. If for any reason you believe you will be unable to fulfill these course requirements, see the professor immediately.

·       Attendance is required. Excessive absences will result in a grade reduction. Regular attendance and participation in course discussions are critical to your learning. On the first day of class we will collaboratively create an attendance policy that outlines grade reductions for number of absences.

·       Class participation is required and is part of your final grade.

·       Reading assignments are required.  Readings should be read BEFORE the class period in which they will be discussed.  Make sure to read the endnotes/footnotes as well.  Please come prepared with questions.

·       The class field trip is required. During the course we will take a two-day field trip to the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington DC together with Professor Darla Schumm’s class in Jewish Traditions.  A Hobbie Trust Grant has been awarded to us for this specific purpose so that all students will be able to attend.  Students will be responsible for their meals during the trip, but all other expenses will be paid for by Hollins University. The field trip is an integral component of the course and provides students an opportunity for experiential learning. Hence, if you think you will be unable to attend the field trip, please notify the professor immediately.

·       Assignments must be turned in on-time. No late assignments will be accepted.

·       Applied Research Techniques assignments are required.  Because this course fulfills the ESP requirement for research techniques, you will be assigned a series of activities by Beth Harris, the Special Collections Librarian at Hollins. These activities will be conducted via Blackboard and will be referred to during class meetings. These assignments will make up 5% of your final grade.

·       Assignments and Grading:

1.  Self-narrative (student)                                          10%

2.  Developing a short list of questions                          5%

3.  Bibliography                                                           5%

4.  One short life story                                                10%

5.  Developing a longer list of questions                          5%

6.  One long life story                                                  10%

7.  Final project: one life story with a 5-7 page analysis  20%

8.  Applied Research Techniques Assignments                5%

9.  Website                                                                  20%

10.  Attendance & Participation                                      10%

NOTE: Blackboard will be used occasionally for turning in assignments and sharing information with the class. Please make sure you can use Blackboard. A handout will be provided in class.

·       Style Guide for Written Assignments:

1.     All papers should be typed, using 12 pt font only (12 pt Times is the preferable font), double spaced, with one-inch (1”) margins on all sides.

2.     Please DO NOT USE COVER SHEETS. I consider this a waste of precious resources. Type your name, course number, paper title and any other identifying information at the top of the first page (single spaced). If you can print your paper front to back (using both sides of the paper) I and the trees will appreciate it.  STAPLE YOUR PAPER. (Please, no paperclips or folders.)

3.     Remember to always KEEP A COPY of your paper in case of an emergency!

4.     Please NUMBER ALL PAGES and using the footer, place your name at the bottom of every page.

5.     USE THE SPELL CHECKER ON YOUR COMPUTER.  Excessive and needless misspelling will result in a reduction of your paper grade.

6.     For citing material in your paper and in the references, please use the Chicago style. Guidelines are available at the campus writing center.

If you have any questions re: this style, please ask!

Class Policies & Expectations

By enrolling in this course, you agree to adhere to the following policies and expectations in addition to those cited above and those outlined in the Hollins Honor Code.

1.     You will participate in the course in a manner that is open, honest and respectful of other people’s opinions, ideas and beliefs.  This means allowing others the space to assert their views. Although you may not always agree, there is much to learn by listening to and considering viewpoints different from your own. 

2.     Issues and personal experiences discussed in the course may often be personal.  Therefore, you agree to respect your classmates’ privacy and to keep discussions confidential.

3.     There is no such thing as a “stupid” or “silly” question.  All questions and ideas will be addressed thoughtfully and respectfully.

4.     The syllabus is subject to change.  Thus, if you choose to be absent from class it is your responsibility to find out if any changes have been made.

5.     Your suggestions and interests are valued.  Therefore, if you have any ideas for videos, readings or specific authors you would like to see included in the class, please discuss them with me during office hours and we will consider adding them to the course materials.

6.     Cheating and plagiarism--including the use of work submitted to another course at Hollins without the consent of both instructors, the use of work by another person, or the use of someone else's words, ideas, or arrangement of ideas without giving proper reference to the author--is a severe violation of the Hollins Honor Code. This applies to all electronic sources found on the Internet (including term papers for purchase), to all on-line databases, and to all other published materials. Cheating or plagiarism will result in automatic failure of the course. Thus, please be very careful about your research and citation practices.  If you are ever in doubt, please ask!

7.     If you have any special learning needs, please notify the professor immediately. It is your responsibility to discuss special learning needs with the professor. Every attempt will be made to address your needs accordingly and all discussions will remain confidential.  You should discuss your needs with the professor no later than the first two weeks of class.

8.     If you are having any problems in the course, please come and discuss them with the professor after class, during office hours or by making an appointment. Problems should be addressed right away, and not put off until after exams or until the end of the semester.

Schedule of Classes, Topics and Readings:

Jan. 31                   Introduction: course objectives, Applied Research assignments, anthropology and important concepts.

Ø     Discuss website & blackboard

PART 1:  “Life History”: Historical Perspectives, Theoretical Approaches
and  Methodologies


Feb. 5                    “Life History” in Anthropology: Why use the narrative method?

Langness & Frank: p. 9-29; Personal Narratives Group: p. 261-264; Matzner: introduction, p. 13-20, Kaua’I Iki, p. 22-49                    

Feb. 7                    Narratives of “self” and culture

Riessman: introduction p. 1-7; Peacock & Holland: p. 367-377; suggested: Caplan: p. 26-58                             

Feb. 12                   Key concepts and Methods

Ø     DUE: Assignment 1, Your own self-narrative (post to Blackboard)

Ø     Select our interview community

                              Langness & Frank: p. 31-61

Feb. 14                   Methods and Ethics

Riessman: Ch. 3, p. 54-63; Langness & Frank: Ch. 5, p. 117-143 (skim p. 143-155)

Feb. 19                   Workshop 1: Developing Questions, Making Contact, Establishing Rapport, Transcribing Interviews

Ø     DUE: Assignment 2, Short question list

                              Gluck (1977): p. 110-118; Anderson & Jack: p. 11-26;
                                 Linde: p. xi-xiv; review US Holocaust Museum Oral History Guidelines

Part 2: Critical Issues in Narrative Methodology and Analysis


Feb. 21                   Representing Experience: Form and Content

Riessman: Ch. 1, p. 8-21; Mintz:  ix-xiii; 1 – 34; skim p. 35-98                              

Feb. 26                   Life Stories and Histories

Ø     DUE:  Assignment 3, Bibliography

                              Mintz: p.  99 - 209  

Feb. 28                   Life Stories as Advocacy and Memorial

Gluck (1991): p. 205-219; Peruse US Holocaust Memorial Museum Website; read some of the personal histories. (   Optional: for background reading on Holocaust, see Niewyk (1998) Introduction.                             

Mar. 1 – 2              FIELD TRIP TO HOLOCAUST MUSEUM, Washington DC

                              Note: Date subject to change.

Mar. 5                    Life Stories and/in/as Historical Change

                              Mintz: p. 210-277

Mar. 7                    Narrating “self” and identity

                              Ochs & Capps: p. 19-37; Matzner: Raquel & Cheryl, p. 51-89.

Mar. 12                  Narrating “self” and identity

Ø     DUE: Assignment 4, Short life story

                                    Rosenwald & Ochberg: p.1-18; Linde: p. 12-19; Matzner: Kaui, p. 91-113.

Mar. 14                  Workshop 2: Asking Questions & Conducting the interview

Ø     DUE: Assignment 5, Long question list

Matzner: LiAnne, p. 115-136; review Holocaust Museum Oral History Guidelines  

Mar. 18 – 22           NO CLASS, spring break  

Mar. 26                  Self-Narratives for understanding and social change

                              Matzner: p. 136-287

                              Guest Speaker: Andrew Matzner

Mar. 28                  Self-Narratives: Encounter, Process & Dialogue

Personal Narratives Group: p. 201-203; Behar: p. xi-xii, 1-52

Apr. 2                     Workshop 3: Presenting the self-narratives & life stories

Ø     Work on interviews & websites

Behar: p. 53-155                         

Apr. 4                     NO CLASS, AAS meetings

Ø     Work on interviews and websites

                              Behar: p. 156-222

Apr. 9                     Self-Narratives: Encounter, Process & Dialogue

                              Behar : p. 225-302

Apr. 11                   Reflexivity and the Narrative Process

                              Behar: p. 303-342; Crapanzano: p. 953-959

Apr. 16                   Analyzing Self-Narratives & Life Stories

                              Ginsburg: p. ix-xxxii, ch. 1–4, p. 1-75

Ø     DUE: Assignment 6, Long life story

Apr. 18                   Analyzing Self-Narratives & Life Stories

                              Ginsburg: ch. 5-8, p. 76-145

Apr. 23                   Analyzing Self-Narratives & Life Stories

                              Ginsburg: ch. 9-11, p. 146-211

Apr. 25                   Workshop 4: How to analyze self-narratives & life stories

                              Ginsburg: ch. 12 & epilogue, p. 212-226; Riessman: ch 2, 25-53

Part 3: Life Stories & Self-Narratives: Presentation and Reflection


Apr. 30                   Work on Website

May 2                     Work on Website

May 7                     What have we learned? Why use the narrative method?

Ø     Discuss student webpages

May 11                   DUE: Assignment 7, FINAL PAPER AND LIFE STORY

References of additional reading in order assigned:

Langness, L.L. & Gelya Frank. 1985. Historical Review. In Lives: An Anthropological Approach to Biography. Pp. 9-29. Novato, CA: Chandler and Sharp Publishers, Inc..

Personal Narratives Group, ed. 1989. Truths. In Interpreting Women’s Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives. Pp. 261-264.Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Peacock, James L. & Dorothy C. Holland. 1993. The Narrated Self: Life Stories in Process. Ethos 21(4):367-383.  

Caplan, Pat. 1997. Mohammed’s Story. In African Voices, African Lives: Personal Narratives from a Swahili village. Pp. 26-58. London: Routledge.

Langness, L.L. & Gelya Frank. 1985. Methods. In Lives: An Anthropological Approach to Biography. Pp. 31-61. Novato, CA: Chandler and Sharp Publishers, Inc..

Langness, L.L. & Gelya Frank. 1985. Ethical and Moral Concerns. In Lives: An Anthropological Approach to Biography. Pp. 117-155. Novato, CA: Chandler and Sharp Publishers, Inc.

Gluck, Sherna. 1977. Topical Guide for Oral History Interviews with Women. Frontiers 2:110-118.

Anderson, Kathryn & Dana C. Jack. 1991. Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses. In  Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History. Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai, eds. Pp. 11-26. New York, Routledge.

Linde, Charlotte. 1993. A Note on Transcription. In Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence. Pp. xi-xiv. New York: Oxford University Press.

US Holocaust Memorial Museum. 1998. Oral History Interview Guidelines. Washington DC: US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Gluck, Sherna Berger. 1991. Advocacy Oral History: Palestinian Women in Resistance. In Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History. Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai, eds. Pp. 205-219. New York: Routledge.

Ochs, Elinor & Lisa Capps. 1996. Narrating the Self. Annual Review of Anthropology 25:19-43.

Rosenwald, George C. & Richard L. Ochberg, eds. 1992. Introduction. In Storied Lives: The Cultural Politics of Self-Understanding. Pp. ??. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Linde, Charlotte. 1993. What Is Coherence? In Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence. Pp. 12-19. New York: Oxford University Press.

Personal Narratives Group, ed. 1989. Whose Voice? In Interpreting Women’s Lives: Feminist Theory and Personal Narratives. Pp. 201-203. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Behar, Ruth. 1992. ? In Storied Lives: The Cultural Politics of Self-Understanding. George C. Rosenwald and Richard L. Ochberg, eds. Pp. ??. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Crapanzano, Vincent. 1984. Life Histories: A Review Essay. American Anthropologist 86:953-960.

Optional Reading

Niewyk, Donald L., ed. 1998. Fresh Wounds: Early Narratives of Holocaust Survival. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press. (Hollins ebook: D804.I95 F74)


  US Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington DC