Ethnographic biography? What can oral history contribute?

I just read an interesting conference call for papers that centres on ethnography and biography, very much what we deal with in our oral history project work:

In the ORHELIA project, we are all confronted as anthropologists with the methodological challenge of doing a sort of data collection based on interviews, be they audio, video or taken notes from on the one side, and our aspiration to do proper anthropological fieldwork participating in our research partners’ lives on the other side.

Is what Hertzfeld calls ethnographic biography a way to marry these two methods of enquiry, and is this anthropology’s unique contribution to oral history as a field?

If this marriage is fruitful, then it would probably mean the overcoming of a tension between the individual and the social (or collective) as units of analysis. Because ethnography is about societies, whereas there could be nothing more individual than a biography, right? So obviously, this ethnographic biography would be about extrapolating and intrapolating between society and individual. Ethnographic biography should enable us to find out more about the influence of the individual on the practice, conscience and memory of the collective, and the influence of the collective to individual experience and biography.

How does Yambone Vengo’s biography matter for his grandchildren? Ethnographic biography might find out

Here is the call for proposals, if somebody is interested and can afford to go there:

Ethnography and Biography: the Practice and Product of Writing Lives
An Interdisciplinary Graduate Student Conference
Call for Papers

September 28-29, 2012 at the University of Colorado at Boulder
Deadline for paper abstract submission: June 15, 2012

Ethnography and Biography is a two-day interdisciplinary conference
organized by graduate students in the Department of Anthropology at the
University of Colorado, Boulder.

Ethnography and biography constitute distinct yet overlapping modes of
representation and analysis. Despite their differing emphases, however,
both share a concern with communicating lived experience by writing,
narrating, and representing lives. Across the social sciences and
humanities, scholars continue to look for new and better ways to write
about, understand, and situate the people they study within specific
social, historical, political, and economic contexts. At the same time,
these scholars seek to better understand and elucidate their own
intentions and positions. If, as Michael Herzfeld has argued, the
combination of these two genres as ‘ethnographic biography’ promises to
overcome the vexing and ultimately specious divide between individual,
socio-cultural and historical domains of experience, how might scholars
across diverse fields take advantage of this potential?

Following Herzfeld’s lead, this interdisciplinary conference seeks to
address such questions as: How do we as researchers and writers conceive
of and plot the relationships between the personal, interpersonal, and the
social? What are the ways in which the biographical/ethnographic mode
complicates our methods of narration and representation? In what
innovative or unfamiliar ways can the (auto)biographical portrait be put
to work? What might ethnographic biography or biographical ethnography
contribute to the task of writing lives under conditions of extreme
cruelty, duress, and suffering? What can these writing genres add to
discussions of the complex and intertwined dimensions of race, gender,
space and place, religious and political affiliations? How do ethnography
and biography engage with embodiment, sensory
experience, materiality, material remains, and the understanding of
societies past and present?

We invite submissions from across fields of research that explore any of
the issues above and the disciplinary forces that inform them, as well as
presentations of experimental writing and other media. We encourage
scholars to apply from disciplines such as anthropology, geography,
sociology, history, religious studies, comparative literature,
linguistics, and any other relevant intellectual studies.

The conference will be held Friday, September 28 and Saturday, September
29 and will include panels moderated by University of Colorado faculty.

We invite participants to send a 250 word abstract by Friday, June 15,
2012 to

For further information, please see the Ethnography Biography Conference
website, or
contact us as