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Why narrative and emotion in ethnography? - Ana M. Relaño-Pastor




Why narrative and emotion in ethnography? - Ana M. Relaño-Pastor

By Ana M. Relaño-Pastor
Department of Modern Philology (English Studies)
University of Castilla-La Mancha, Spain

I write this piece after the first weeks of initial fieldwork ‘somewhere in La Mancha’ and I wonder about the power of emotion in narrative as a newcomer breaking the ice to negotiate my own personal stories with the other protagonists of this new ethnographic journey. I have come to the realization that our emotional positionings as researchers in the field of choice is perennially be narrated by others and ourselves, orchestrated by the give and take of the field. 

Emotion, or rather, those affective stances we daily perform in our narratives of personal experiences, is inseparable from our multiple conversations with different interlocutors in the field. In her book chapter, Doing ethnography. The Blackwell guide to research methods in bilingualism and multilingualism (Blackwell, 2008: pp. 248-262), Heller reminds us of the processes involved in the constructed realities of our ethnographies, which far from the common dilemma of whether or not influencing our interlocutors’ behaviors, requires, on the contrary, taking our role as researchers fully into account. Furthermore, when it comes to ethnographies of bi-multilingualism, considered, as she suggests, a particularly charged topic, “transversed by all kinds of ideologies and values”, our daily emotional stances are irremediably at the core of our narrative practices in the field. Narrative as that inner desire to reconstruct our past, to retell what is most important to us, to fix those fractured moments of personal experiences in the here-and-now of our telling, has the power to restore our emotional doings in the field.

My most recent book, Shame and Pride in Narrative: Mexican Women's Language Experiences at the U.S.-Mexico Border (Palgrave, 2014), addresses how a group of Mexican women responds to emotionally charged personal experiences of language in Southern California, and, as such, these responses become co-constructed narratives of language racialization.  Two aspects of this personal journey are relevant for the reflection on the power of emotion in the narratives that emerge in the field. One has to do with how we experience emotions in the field and, therefore, take a particular stance in narrative towards those emotional experiences. We emotionally appropriate the dramatic tension we experience with “unexpected events” in the field in multiple and complex narrative practices, always shaping and being shaped by our interlocutors in the field.

The example of how the group of Mexican women in my book experienced shame for not speaking English “well” while claiming pride in the Spanish they spoke illustrates my point about how particular emotional responses in the field are intrinsic to our narrative practices. Here, I refer to how our own positionings in the field are also mutually transformed by the emotional co-construction of our personal experiences with those who decide to be our interlocutors. The experiences of language as racialization that these Mexican women narrated emerged in a myriad of situated interactions in the field and were articulated emotionally in narrative. Whether each ethnographic journey conveys its own particularities and, as producers and consumers of academic ethnographies, we make choices about how we decide to organize our data or be informed and, eventually, influenced by those ethnographies that speak to us, I am under the impression that we take for granted the power of emotions to shape the narratives that emerge in our ethnographies.

The second aspect of this reflection has to do with what Ochs and Capps call in their book, Living narrative: Creating lives in everyday storytelling (Harvard University Press, 2001), the “moral dimension” of narrative. Our emotional transformations in the field through narrative are imbued with moral meanings in a struggle for authenticity and legitimacy. In the case of the Mexican women in my book, moral stances consisted of evaluative judgments that they displayed regarding the violation and restoration of actions, values, and behaviors related to their personal experiences of language in Southern California. These moral stances were also part and parcel of the exercise on reflexivity that this particular field demanded. My own personal emotional reaction towards the oppressing language experiences these women recounted became an opportunity to re-configure my own self, as Ochs reminds us, and made me question my own moral positioning toward these experiences.

Similarly, the continuous moral query the field opened to me became an occasion for engaging conversationally with these women in the making sense activity that occupied my ethnographic journey, that of how language was experienced in Southern California against the backdrop of dominant social narratives that racialize who Mexican communities are and which linguistic repertoires they speak. My affiliative moral positionings about how these women experienced language and race in the U.S. were shaped by those emotional encounters that mutually transformed my narrative practices in the field. So, in answer to the question I opened this personal essay with, ‘why narrative and emotion in ethnography?’, I believe it is a necessary question in our ethnographic endeavors to grasp deeply the constructed realities we want to comprehend.


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