Self-Reflexivity: A Complex Process

By Linda Fitzgibbon

Who is the intended audience for our audio walk? What is our message? What story of Pointe Saint-Charles do we want to convey? I know that we have all been thinking about these questions. We are also in the process of working out the “where,” “when,” “why,” and “how,” details of what we will include in our final audio walk. It is this process that I would like to think about in this blog.

 All of the research and contributions made by the three classes involved in the process will shape the final outcome. Each of us will play a vital role in crafting the final product. The course description clearly states that “students enrolled in the class will collaboratively produce a deeply researched downloadable walk and an accompanying booklet.” However, now that it is down to the crunch, we are all realizing that this is not a task to be taken lightly.

Our next steps in which we decide what details to include, what to leave out, and how to integrate the oral interviews into the audio walk will be crucial to determining the final product. We will have to be careful not to force a number of disparate elements into any particular preconceived framework.

It is important for us to remain aware of our role in the construction of the audio walk and that this role builds upon work that has already been completed by those involved in conducting the oral interviews that were available for us to use. In “Listening in the Cold,” Daniel James draws attention to how interview texts are “not only structured by cultural convention . . . [but are a] social construction, permeated by an interviewer and her subject and also permeated by other communal and national narratives.” James’ warning to remain aware of the “authorial shaping of ethnographic narratives . . . used to construct an apparently objective and authoritative account of another’s life and society” is especially relevant for our particular project. In fact, our process adds yet another layer of complexity to James’ description of how postmodernist anthropology emphasizes the “complex authority relations involved in the production of an oral text”(125).

As we move forward, I think it might be worthwhile to keep in mind that the interviews that we are using have already been shaped by the dynamics of the interview process and by the questions asked by the interviewers. The interview that I tagged for our “Stories Matter” assignment did not have a transcript, so I didn’t have an opportunity to scan a written document to get an idea of what the interview was going to be about. Instead, I silently followed the interviewer and the interviewee as they walked around the neighbourhood where the interviewee had grown up and listened as they discussed the various streets, parks and landmarks.

As the interview unfolded, I began to notice that the interviewer repeated a couple of questions such as: “where did you hang out?” or “did you have a gang?”  At first the interviewee tended to ignore these questions or just to answer “No.” I began to wonder why these questions were relevant because they didn’t seem to be related to any particular story that the interviewee was telling. When they paused at a corner of a park, the interviewer asked “did your gang hang out here?” When the interviewee again replied “No,” the interviewer mentioned that one of the goals of the project was to gather “stories” about growing up in Pointe Saint-Charles. The interviewee laughed and said “Oh stories, I have loads of those” and then proceeded to return to what he had been describing before the question had been asked.

In reflecting upon my own reaction to listening to this interchange, I could relate to the interviewer wanting to retrieve certain pieces of information that would fit into a particular framework. The interviewer had already conducted a number of interviews with people who lived in the area, and I noticed a tendency to ask questions to confirm previous interviewee’s stories. However, listening to these questions, I instinctively knew that they would be counterproductive. The interviewee had his own story to tell and wanted to tell it. I realized that it is way easier to see these dynamics as an outsider sitting comfortably with my coffee and headphones and listening to the interview than it is to be the person on the ground, engaged in the interview process and asking the questions.

However, the exchange highlights the role that this interviewer has played in our present project. His questions shaped the recorded interview. To be honest, if I hadn’t noticed this particular exchange, I do not know if I would have thought much at all about his role in the interview process. It stands to reason that if we are listening to a number of interviews that someone would have had to actually do the interviewing or the transcribing.  It has made me aware of how important it is to take note of how many different elements are coming together to allow us to produce this particular audio walk.

I know that we are all aware of the responsibility of being involved in producing an audio walk that will (hopefully) be used by many people.  That is why I think we have to continue to think deeply about each step and to stress the importance of each of us being self-reflexive of our role in this collaborative process. The fact that it has been truly collaborative has been exciting. It was interesting to note that although we have now divided into smaller groups, we still seem to be on the same page and the teams are developing similar frameworks.

No matter which choices we make, we will only be giving those who participate in our audio walk a glimpse of Pointe Saint Charles. Hopefully this glimpse will allow them to share in the information that we have collected and to, in turn, create their own memories as they walk around the area guided by the voices that we choose to include.  As Portelli points out in his “Afterward“ to Oral History Off The Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice “Oral history deals with stories, and stories cannot be reduced to any single meaning.” However, Portelli also notes: “Good oral history has a purpose . . . . It does not end with the turning off of the recorder . . . . to quote Emily Dickinson, “it just / Begins to live / That day’” (284).


James, Daniel. Doña María’s Story: Life, History, Memory, and Political Identity. Durham and London: Duke University Press. 2000.

Portelli, Alessandro. “Afterward.” Oral History Off The Record: Toward an Ethnography of Practice. Sheltel, Anna and Stacey Zembrzycki. Eds., New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 2013.