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Unveiling the unspoken in life story interviews

The dynamics of storytelling in the Lutheran congregation in Belfast
Christian Ritter
p. 103-113


Based on an ethnographic investigation into the German-speaking Lutheran congregation in Belfast, this paper explores how members of this community experienced the life story interview. Despite an ongoing need for emotional support for victims of past conflicts, the use of the autobiographical research method in post-conflict societies has not been sufficiently addressed in the literature on sensitive ethnographic fieldwork. In this paper, I seek to understand the role of the life story interview during my fieldwork in Northern Ireland. The study of the faith-based community brought to light a social taboo in the Lutheran circle. The daunting past of the Belfast congregation was barely mentioned in the get-togethers following the church service. Moments of silence frequently occurred during the interview sessions when questions about the past congregational life were raised. Since the life story interview was based on an open-ended questioning style, the risk of upsetting traumatised interviewees could be mitigated by a sensitive conduct of the interview session, i.e. giving interviewees the opportunity to interrupt the recording at any time. Furthermore, the qualitative study unveiled that the autobiographical method initiated storytelling and biographical work, which are widely considered crucial first steps towards the healing of traumatised persons.

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Gaining access to fieldsites
The quest for ethical integrity in a difficult context
How the life story interview can facilitate healing in post-conflict settings

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On 22 May 1998, the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), which resulted from long-standing negotiations between the political parties of Northern Ireland, was approved in referenda in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. This event heralded a new era of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. In this paper, I reflect on using the life story interview during ethnographic fieldwork in the German-speaking Lutheran congregation in Belfast. Biographical research is conducted by various social science disciplines and numerous autobiographical interview techniques were developed to analyse personal trajectories (e.g. Atkinson, 2002 ; Bertaux, 2003 and Wengraf, 2001). The use of autobiographical interviews in anthropological research can be traced back to the late 19th century (Langness, 1965 : 5). The research technique was variously refined in the course of the 20th century. Despite a myriad of textbooks on biographical research in the social sciences, the use of ...

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Bibliographical reference

Christian Ritter, « Unveiling the unspoken in life story interviews », Civilisations, 64 | 2015, 103-113.

Electronic reference

Christian Ritter, « Unveiling the unspoken in life story interviews », Civilisations [Online], 64 | 2015, Online since 30 December 2018, connection on 19 July 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/civilisations.3897

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About the author

Christian Ritter

received a PhD in Sociology from Ulster University, UK. He also holds a Master’s degree from Albert-Ludwigs-University, Germany. In 2014, he became a postdoctoral research fellow at the Istanbul Studies Center, Kadir Has University. His research interests revolve around urban development, border-crossing mobilities, religious communities and digital change. [Istanbul Studies Center, Kadir Has University, Kadir Has Caddesi, Cibali, 34083 İstanbul, Turkey –]

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