My friend Sarah commented on my last post which got me thinking:
‘WOW, this initial stage sounds very hard work. Interesting to reflect that we all need allies – but to be effective, allies do need to know who they are – as well as being willing and able to try to do what we ask of them.’
Life history research is a collaborative partnership between the interviewer and the narrator. It’s success depends on lots of variables including relationship, preconceptions, perceived audience and agenda. The process becomes potentially even more complex when an intermediary is introduced.
By calling intermediaries ‘allies’ I inferred that the effect was always positive, but that’s not always the case. It’s important to think about the balance of power in a relationship involving an intermediary. Someone who is already challenged because of their cognitive impairment is unlikely to challenge a version of their story given by a parent or carer who remains a powerful influence in their life. The narrator may feel unable to communicate facts or experience about their lives because of potential conflicts of interest. For the same reasons an intermediary may choose to tell a version of the narrator’s life that puts them, as parent or carer, in a positive light.
All this considered I continue to invite parents and carers to contribute to the life stories of the learning disabled people in the group, because without their support it would be impossible, but at regular intervals I stop and reflect on how the unique voice of each participant is emerging and how authentic their stories may be.