'An eye open in the dark' : Life story ethnography and the future of social-ecological systems

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I argue in this thesis that the past which is materialized in real time at the site of ‘a life’ has particular significance for social-ecological systems. This past is different from that recorded in histories, socio-economic trends or the causal explanations of science. It differs particularly in revealing the accretiveness of an individual’s experience as a force in the present – in system precariousness for example – and in revealing those false starts and ‘futures denied’ which are potentialities for renewal in the future. The site of a life was explored through my fieldwork in Aceh, Indonesia, a place where material experience and culture are very different from those which are the subject of Western theorizing on memory, ageing, and recollection. This doctoral project is a response to the following question: • Can the life stories of old people be a source of understanding the past which can inform planning for sustainability in the future? I develop a particular additive approach to transdisciplinary research in addressing this question, in which discipline-based theory from a number of fields is used to jointly illuminate a potential kinship between old people and sustainability, specifically between the remembering of the old and the remembering used in adaptive cycles of social-ecological systems. As a result of my review of theory on memory, recollection and ageing, and my fieldwork interviews with old people in Aceh, Indonesia, I conclude that recollection in such circumstances is not the construction of identity or meaning discussed by many Western theorists of memory, but more akin to the remembering discussed by trauma theorists, where the storytelling process and the engagement of the listener are as important as the story. These life stories materialize the past as accretive at the site of the individual’s life, and in their a-chronologic, non-narrative style give prominence to particular events in a very different landscape of the past from that provided by historical narratives. They also constitute an implicit critique of Western discourses about development and progress which underlie theories of adaptation and sustainability. I conclude that beyond culture and discourse, history and scientific explanation, life story ethnography offers a unique contribution to the intelligence gathering, assessment and predictive functions of social-ecological systems. The richest source of life stories is the old; in the face of current culture and discourses of ageing, this thesis is an essay in enabling those voices to be heard.
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