Ethnographic Biography: Tracing Paths across Multipole Times and Spaces Abstract for the World Conference on Qualitative Research (WCQR)

  • Yosepha Tabib-Calif
  • Edna Lomsky-Feder


The aim of this paper is to present a research strategy called 'ethnographic biography', which combines longitudinal biographical interviews, focused observations of social events, and ongoing online interactions. In itself, the use of multiple methodologies is not new in qualitative research. However, our aim is to conceptualize the combination of these various research tactics and to show how each connects differently dimensions of space and time.

By interweaving ethnographic elements in-between the biographical interviews, this strategy allows the researcher to move across various spaces and different temporal experiences. These movements bring the researcher closer to the subjects’ daily lives, expands the lens with which she observes the personal-cultural nexus, and refines her ability to detect changes over time. We argue that this approach is particularly effective in cases where subjects are not confined to a specific place, but rather move across geographic spaces and frequently change their activity spheres, roles and pursuits. This research strategy grew out of a study that followed the paths of young adults from different ethno-class groups in Israeli society. More particularly, the research examined whether and how young adults mobilize their ethno-class identity in the various social spheres and with time.

We met the subjects for the first time while conducting an ethnographic study in an integrative public high school located in central Israel. The research focus was how students perceived, interpreted and acted upon their ethno-class identity in school' daily reality (Tabib-Calif & Lomsky-Feder, 2014). In the next phase, we wanted to understand the meanings of this identity outside school and in later life stages. The desire to follow the subjects after graduation as they grew into adults met with difficulties. Traditional ethnography, which had been highly effective in exploring their ethno-class identity at school, was unsuitable as the young adults were in constant movement in geosocial space and regularly changed occupations and social roles. In their effort to pave their path to adulthood they were drafted and discharged from military service, travelled around the globe, moved from one temporary job to another, entered and left various institutes of higher education, changed apartments frequently, and spent long periods in remote locations, often abroad. Due to the spatial mobility of these young people, no single (or several) distinctive fields were available to us for observing them and learning how they managed their ethno-class identity in everyday life. We turned to the most common and accessible research tactic used in these cases: the open-ended interview, to learn from their perspectives how ethno-class identity changes with the life course and how it gives meaning to trends of change and continuity.

We interviewed 12 young women and men from two distinct ethno-class groups: Mizrahi Jews of Middle-Eastern or North-African origins (Mizrahim) who grew up in families of low socioeconomic status (SES), and Ashkenazi Jews of European or American origins (Ashkenazim) from medium-high SES families, who had all graduated from a uniquely integrative high school. Over a ten-year period, we interviewed them five times: while they were still in high school (at age 16-17); some four years later (20-21); and from then on three more times at approximately one-year intervals. By the time the study ended, some were in higher education, others began establishing themselves in the labor market, and many had already married.

The repeated interviews formed significant and ongoing relations between the researcher and the subjects. The researcher’s curiosity to be updated about the subject's lives between the intervals of the interviews and the latter’s desire to share significant experiences in real time encouraged interactions beyond the interview setting. These included mainly virtual encounters through emails, phone calls and social media contacts and actual meetings in social events to which the researcher was invited, such as weddings. Based on the methodological pragmatism approach (Lamont & Swidler, 2014), we realized that what grew spontaneously should be adopted systematically as part of our working methods. Thus, the biographical follow-up interviews – that had formed the main methodological tool – were combined with ethnographic elements that brought together the researcher and the subjects in shared temporary spaces, whether concrete or virtual.

Ethnographic biography is a research strategy designed to address the temporal and spatial discontinuities involved in long-term studies about a group whose members are not confined to a clearly defined space for the duration of the study. Together with longitudinal biographical interviews – the commonly acceptable approach to resolving this issue – we propose combining two more methods: focused observations of social events and ongoing virtual contacts with the subjects. We believe the power of that set of methods lies in that each locates the encounter between the researcher and the subjects in a different space, and extracts a different temporal dimension. The varying combinations of space and time allow the researcher to learn about the subjects out of various social contexts, further bolstering the study’s temporal aspect.

Longitudinal biographical interviews are the main method used to follow up on the subjects over time. The integration of more ethnographic research tactics is designed to compensate for the dominance and implications of the research time and space, and allow the researcher to meet the participants in-between the scheduled interviews in spaces integral to their "real" lives – in virtual space and in social events. These meetings maintain continuity in the relationship with the participants, ensuring their ongoing commitment to the research. Unlike an interview, the virtual and social meetings are not regular or regulated, but dictated by biographical events in the subjects’ lives. Therefore, leaving the interview space to venture into others helped us become exposed to “rawer” experiences as they occur, enabling us to observe behavior rather than just receive reports about it, and to attend to the “minor” and banal events that tend to become engulfed in the retrospective nature of the narrative interview.