Life history research as emotional labour: power, class and gender in transitional spaces

Irene Malcolm

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    Researchers enter a transitional space when they embark on life history interviewing. However, this space is intersected by social structures and their related norms that have influenced researcher's and participant's identities: we are caught between agency and structure, among social and political boundaries. The role of emotion in life history research is worthy of attention, particularly in view of its contested role in current educational debates that warn of "therapisation" and a trend among educators to become "therapeutic professionals" (Ecclestone et al, 2005, Furedi, 2004). This has been seen in turn to present a danger of diminished selfhood and low educational expectations on the part of learners. Some researchers have identified the increased popularity of life history methodology as a related symptom - part of a trend towards introspection (Ecclestone et al, 2005) that inhibits radical moves toward political and social empowerment through education and learning. Central to such critiques has been a conception of self-esteem that links it, principally, to individual pathology. This paper will a) describe emotion work and some of its implications in life history research and b) challenge some current assumptions by relating emotion to structural positioning and gender. It will draw on the experience of conducting 80 life history interviews, as part of Learning Lives, a UK Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) funded to identify the legacy (Skeggs, 1996) of class attitudes to emotion as part of an individual and group sense of self. The formation of emotional capital is linked to identity, and in this paper the emotional labour connected with such identity work will be described in relation to power and the effects of class and gender (Hey, 2003 and Quinn 2004). It will explore radical understandings of identity in life history and ask whether such formulations may be linked to political understandings, leading beyond the individualisation of experience sometimes associated with the methodology. Life history interviewing may be said to involve "deep gestures of exchange" (Hochschild, 1983). Drawing on empirical data, I will describe the emotional labour involved, with its implications and risks, as well as methodological benefits. The ability of the researcher to engage in emotional labour is central to the success of the method and I realised early in the research project that the recruitment and opening up of interviews with participants depended to some extent on my personal disposition. The outcome of the researcher's emotional labour is a journey undertaken by the interviewee to recount her history – a form of identity work that is also emotional labour. While individual stories speak of power, class and gender, power considerations are mirrored in the situation of the researcher herself who is caught in a transitional space between the interviewee who controls what she reveals and the Principal Investigator who will be "in-charge" of interpreting the meanings that the researcher labours to produce. This seeming lack of control reflects the researcher's position in a research hierarchy, where the ability to exercise agency in a transitional space is vital to influencing the research process
    Original languageEnglish
    Publication statusPublished - 2006


    • Life history


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