Life Stories as Empowerment: A Project Description
By Stan BH Tan-Tangbau
This is republished from my project blog on Tumblr (http://inthefieldsafterclass.tumblr.com/). We just returned to Kyoto from a week long working trip in Chiang Mai, Thailand, so I could not quite finish the original article slated for publication here. Anyhow I feel this is a worthy piece of writing for your pleasure reading!
Life Stories as Empowerment seeks to produce a large-scale public database of qualitative narrative of the Kachin through the universalization of a scientific model of Life Stories as a Method of Inquiry. (Please note that I am using the term ‘Kachin’ loosely to encompass the different groups categorized as Kachin in Myanmar, Singpho in India, and Jingpo [景颇] in China.) I attempt this by mobilizing pre-existing and evolving practices of remembering and recording of the past and present, i.e., everyday auto-ethnography. This model of inquiry necessarily prescribes for multiple auto-analyses by the ethnographed, thus rescuing scientific knowledge from the dogmatic grips of codified technologies of knowledge production.
This is the age of auto-ethnography and auto-analyses. In cyberspace, Social Media platforms and online ‘E-paedias’ revolutionized connectivity, knowledge production, and knowledge dissemination. On the ground, complex and intense flows of people, commodities, and information across physical space redefined the idea of out-of-the-way margins, and revolutionized knowledge awareness across different corners of the land. Explanation and theorization of social phenomena are no longer the monopolies of codified technologies of knowledge productions perched upon the pedestals of Academic Paradigms, Social Activisms, and State Schemes. With a tweaking of pre-existing and evolving social practices of remembering, Ordinary Folks can produce Scientific Knowledge of our changing world. Using a particular model of Life Stories as a Method of Inquiry, this project seeks to plant the seeds of an ambitious paradigmatic shift in the inscription-explanation-theorization of social phenomena that essentially empowers the ordinary and liberates wisdom from codified knowledge. Specifically, I use the case of the ‘Kachin/Jingpo/Singpho’ people, or simply ‘Kachin’, generally found in the adjacent border region of Myanmar/China/India to show how it is being done and the effects of this shift in knowledge production.
Life Stories as a Method of Inquiry [LSMI] is no ‘rocket science’; anyone can adopt and apply the method. It is simply a method of inscribing, through a variety of mediums, one’s remembrance of passages of life, episodes of life, experiences of the mundane or extraordinary. The chief difficulty is recording these remembrances as they were. On an everyday basis, memories are not stored in an analytically indexed fashion such as found in research proposals or reports. Rather than be driven by a specific analytical concern, a particular set of formulaic framework of analysis, and a premised set of assumptions that produced a predetermined number of ‘Ns’ (variables), or in other words the ‘why’ and ‘how’ questions, LSMI is simply concerned with ‘what’ questions. In the current state of social sciences, traditionally speaking, ethnography is simply treated as some form of ‘qualitative narrative’, and scientific conclusiveness could only be arrived with some form of ‘quantitative analysis’ through the rigor of impersonal, artificial, and reified statistical analyses. This is simply because it is impossible to produce such a massive database of qualitative data by a single person or even a team of researchers. Not to mention the practicality of analyzing this mass of a mess of thick descriptions. We have arrived at a critical turning point to seriously rethink the scientific credentials of the social sciences. I shall use the case of the Kachin to illustrate this.
Mention the word Kachin and even the initiated would think of them as hill-tribes, ethnic minorities, the marginalized, the dispossessed, backwards, target group for aid, etc depending which corner of the trinity of codified knowledge you are more persuaded by. For decades, the Kachin have been living either in the context of conflict or in ‘relative peace’. Civil wars, secessionist movements, social upheavals, illicit and criminal activities (namely, drugs production), border conflict, and more recently, severe threats to the environmental integrity, pulled in the focus of academics, social activists, and the State(s). In the reifications of Academic Paradigms, Social Activisms, and State Schemes, the world of the Kachin is dichotomized into a combative oppositional binary of domination and resistance between the Kachin and the State, the Kachin and the majority, or the Kachin and the excesses of capitalism. This binary representation hardly reflects the complex, varied, and multiple experiences, recollections, and lives of the everyday Kachin. I started collecting Kachin Life Stories in 2010 and even from my very small sample such reifications hardly illustrate the world of the Kachin.
This project seeks to construct a massive public database of Kachin Life Stories such as inscribed by the Kachin themselves. Kachin themselves can individually tell the world their stories much better than be filtered through the agenda of Academic Paradigms, the normative idealisms of Social Activism, or authoritarian fancies of the State. Their individual stories are inscribed or hidden in clan genealogies, photographs, video-graphs, family heirlooms, family tales, songs and sounds, relationships, scars, and nightmares, etc. For some, these stories are actually inscribed in diaries or memoirs. Among the diasporic Kachin and those temporarily located overseas, many inscribed their remembrances, ongoing life, and wishes through social media platforms such as Facebook, Youtube, and individual blogs. The Kachin are no longer, if they ever were, the isolated, state-evading highlanders painted by academics. They have been recording their own stories. LSMI helps the Kachin people to extract these inscriptions, hence auto-ethnography.
A public database of Kachin Life Stories naturally induces analyses. Using a simple Method of Agreement/Difference Indexing, LSMI reveals often disparate and sometimes contradicting patterns of ‘Wants and Unwants’ of ordinary folks through their multiple and varied life experiences in a turbulent land. At the same time, any individual can develop a different set of Generic Index based on his/her own reading of the same set of Life Stories database. Different sets of Generic Indices may concur, inter-lap, overlap, or even contradict! These multiple patterns pieced together from the mess that is Life Stories essentially bring to light the voices of ordinary Kachin people as to how they experience, wish for and work towards Freedom (in pursuance of life), Peace (in contrast to persistence of conflict), and Harmony (with nature) in their turbulent lifetime. In other words, Life Stories as a Method of Inquiry necessarily allows the Kachin themselves to analyze their collective Life Stories in a varied fashion, hence auto-analyses.
This project is thus marked by three key scientific characteristics, namely 1) a massive quantity of qualitative narrative; 2) a principle of auto-ethnography inscribed by the ethnographed themselves; 3) multiple auto-analyses. To date, I am aware of two major attempts at collecting a massive quantity of qualitative narrative. The largest was the large-scale study of society and history of the ethnic minorities regions carried out by the People’s Republic of China from the early 1950s through to the early 1960s. A second was the detailed recording of oral epics among the Central Highlanders of Vietnam from the late 1990s through to the first decade of the 21st century. Both were carried out mainly by dedicated ethnographers in collaboration with local representatives. Regarding auto-ethnography, beginning in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, the College of Ethnology at Yunnan University carried out an ambitious multi-sited project where ethnologists selected and trained local farmers to record individual events diary in order to produce a genuine form of auto-ethnography. Life Stories as Empowerment combines the ambitions of the above-mentioned projects to develop a massive quantity of qualitative narrative through auto-ethnography. The open and multiple auto-analyses to be derived from the massive Life Stories database is where I depart from the fore-mentioned projects. LSMI is driven neither by a singular analytical objective nor merely to produce a comparative angle from the ethnographed. Instead, these multiple analyses are calls for a more modest science of the social.
1 I will discuss about this separately in a future post here.
2 See for example, 何明 & 仇学琴 (编者), 《花腰大沐浴》, 北京：中国社会科学出版社，2008.