Gunilla Bjerén, Professor emeritus, Department of Social Anthropology, Stockholm University

”Studying up”: From life history to History. Interpreting the lives of the Wolaita in Shashemene, Ethiopia

At their best life histories are fascinating documents. The main difficulty lies in what to do with them. (Barnouw 1963:198)

In 1973 I collected household survey data and migration histories from a random sample of households in the town of Shashemene in southern Ethiopia, reported in Migration to Shashemene. Ethnicity, gender, and occupation in urban Ethiopia.

In 2008, I returned to Shashemene to study the consequences of the monumental historical events in Ethiopia 1974-2008 for today’s inhabitants of the town. Other scholars who have studied rural communities with the same aim have started by from major events (the fall of the Emperor, land reform, Eritrean liberation war etc.) and traced the effects of macro-events in the local communities. I begin from the opposite starting point, in the analysis of life histories. My questions are: how are the narrators’ lives conditioned by historical events in the country? In which way? And which events?  In the final analysis I will move on from individual life stories, to a review of the town (survey data) and then the urban sector of the region (census data).

In this paper I will deal with aspect of studying “social change” through life event histories and life stories, using the accounts of two Wolaita women and one man. I will touch upon some helpful software.

I welcome a discussion of how to present life story material in a way the preserves the voice of the narrator while at the same time making the story comprehensible for someone who is not familiar with the cultural context. How much explanation? In footnotes or insertions? How long verbatim quotes or rewriting? Making the soundtrack available or not? Familiar issues, but different in each particular case.

The text will be available in a dropbox folder a week before the seminar. I will e-mail the link to the department members; others can contact me directly (

All seminars in the series.