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SAMISEBE: Our lives as database

Preface to the volume Our Lives As database

Zdeněk Konopásek

KONOPÁSEK, Z. (2000): SAMISEBE: Our lives as database (preface). In: Z. Konopásek, editor: Our lives as database: Doing a sociology of ourselves - Czech social transitions in autobiographical research dialogues. Praha: Karolinum (Charles University Press). 302 p. ISBN 80-246-0120-6

Contents of the entire volume is bellow.

The interpretation of biographical narratives has become a common sociological approach. Although the specific research design and the character of the interpretive work often differ from case to case, there is a general similarity. What brings all these cases of (auto)biographical approach together is a revolt against standard survey sociology. Here, the sociologist does not ask questions (beforehand), nor does the respondent answer (afterwards), according to a stimulus-response model. Instead, the researcher often (first) listens at length, so as to (only afterwards) look for the questions that the narrator tried to answer with his/her life story. This situational transfer of authority, or inversion of power relations, between the two sides - so well described by Burgos (1989) - is closely related to the following characteristic feature of biographical research: sociological texts tend not to be authoritative monologues of disinterested researchers, but rather polyvocal dialogues, with the researcher acting only as a more or less sensitive orchestrator, conductor, and commentator.

The particular value of this feature is especially clear when one gives the voice to those who have not yet said much about themselves and their worlds to sociology/sociologists. "Autobiography [...] gives voice to people long denied access," writes Smith (1994: 288). This is the reason for the popularity of the biographical approach in studies on ethnic minorities and migrants, homosexuals, delinquents, women, poor people - in short on all kinds of socially and culturally marginalised groups. Sociologists-biographers thus give voice to the weak and powerless. Basically for the same reason, the biographical approach is also ever increasingly discussed in the context of studies on social actors and their networks at opposite end of the power relationship: I mean the marginalising, strong and powerful. These actors are - if only because of their position of power - voiceless, quite in the same way as their "victims". They cannot have their own voice, because their voice is primarily reserved for all that they represent and that speaks through them as a result of their position. In public discourse, they are the authorized spokespersons of Truth, Political Will, and so forth. Their personal, biographical experience is repressed and played down. A significant part of their world is, in fact, socially invisible. And, as with the "weak and powerless", many aspects of their world are barely socially visible even to themselves.

It is precisely this group of "mutes" that the biographical research project contained in this volume proposes to scrutinize from an unusual angle. Word is given here to the life stories, not of the powerless and weak, but, on the contrary, of the rather prominent and quietly dominant participants in modern power relation-ships. The researchers that participate in this project work with the biographical texts of such social actors that usually doubt and belittle the voice of others, while considering their own voices as naturally legitimate and beyond doubt. Indeed, the participating researchers interpret their own life narratives. Their own biographies.(1)

The project

The idea of this unusual sociological project is quite straightforward. The whole thing is contained in a few simple rules. However, or perhaps because of this, it is extremely difficult to explain the idea in a few words.

A few Czech sociologists, for four years running, have been writing, according to a system that they agreed upon, their own autobiographies. Sometime at the beginning of all this, an adventurous methodological experiment took place: a group of researchers resolved to try out a biographical method on themselves. The participants in the experiment composed their own biographies, passed them to one another, and then conducted a shared sociological reflection. During the discussion that followed, it was decided that this autobiographical produc-tion should not cease, but on the contrary be continued with more and more extensions, which would be progressively determined by some sort of thematic assignment - by now, an extensive series of autobiographical texts from each participant are available for the members of the group. Thus was born the project that we, who are involved in it, call SAMISEBE (ourselves' selves).(2)

The exchange inside the group is not limited to the fact that all the participants use the single shared "database". Some interpretive work is being done together as well. From time to time, the members of the group discuss and analyze their gradually expanded narratives at working sessions. This does not mean, however, that all work together on a single theme or sociological text. Within the framework of solid rules of mutual coordination and protection, SAMISEBE participants have significant individual freedom. Not only can each participant keep to different methodological pref-erences, but also he/she even formulates his/her own research topic or problem and concentrates on it at length. The interactive regime of analysis therefore means that the individual members of the team make use, in their interpretations, of "biographical" and "sociol-ogical" feedback from all the other participants. The project can be considered, in this sense, as composed of several partial thematic sub-projects, connected mainly (though not only) by the commonly produced, shared and refined database.

The group

The SAMISEBE group is highly diverse. It includes men and women of various ages (born between 1924 and 1963). These people occupy various positions in the formal hierarchy. They differ significantly in terms of professional ex-perience and methodological preferences. The political inclinations, both past and present, vary greatly from member to member. Quite naturally, our expectations of the SAMISEBE project also differ and evolve. What unites us despite everything, however, is the adventure in which we need each other; and, with the passage of time, a certain measure of peculiar intimacy, which is due to the fact that we know so much about each other. (Not that we tell each other sensitive things, not at all. Something entirely different is at play. We see each other - we who know each other from many situations, outside the project as well - in actual biographical action. In autobiographical process. And that is what counts most of all. In other words, the fact that the entire project is "a kind of infidelity" is simply not due to us making accounts of private details. Rather, it is due to, for instance, the fact that we discuss some events, places and persons in our narratives several times, and therefore we see very clearly how our perception itself, our narrative style and approaches to topics have changed during the last few yearsĽ precisely this type of knowledge of each other is much more intimate than anything else.)

The SAMISEBE team, at the time this book took shape, was composed of eight people.(3) This is the right place for us to present ourselves - each in his/her own words.(4) Not only is it polite, but also very helpful for the reader of this book. We represent the researchers-authors and, simultaneously, the "research sample". The reader may soon find it convenient to be able to recognize, at least a bit, the following names and the sketchily, very schematically outlined identities and destinies.

Josef Alan (born 1938): Married, wife translator and publishing house reader, son David (1966 - he is a medical doctor, married, has a daughter Kateřina). Graduated in history of philosophy in Brno (1961), and completed post-graduate studies in aesthetics in Prague. As a teacher, worked in schools at all levels, since 1966 has focused on sociology. At the Institute of Social and Political Sciences at Charles University, Prague, as a member of the research team on social stratification and mobility, worked on the sociology of education and schools (book Society, Education, Individual). Then 8 years in Slovakia, in Bratislava, at the Research Institute of Labor and Social Affairs, where led the prognostics team. After transferring to the Prague office of the same institute, worked on demography, social policy and family research (book The Stages of Life in Sociological Perspective). Since 1990, director of the renewed Institute of Social and Political Science (co-author of the books Our Current Czecho-Slovak Crisis; On Violence; Elections; Sociology, Literature, and Politics; Dialogues on Civic Society). Now professor of sociology at the Institute of Sociological Studies of the Faculty of Social Sciences (Charles University).(5) Founder of the Film and Sociology Foundation (more than 30 film documents broadcast on television), publisher of the sociological quarterly S-Obzor (a continuation of the "samizdat" underground periodical Sociologický Obzor [Sociological Horizon] of 1987-1989), author of the regular radio program Discussions about oneself and others, co-owner of the first Czech nationwide private television channel NOVA.

Miroslav Disman (born 1925)(6): The only latecomer to the group, I joined about a year and a half into its existence. After many detours, I ended up as a professor of sociology, specialized in methodology, at York University, Toronto, Canada. My entire professional life, or, more precisely, the part of my life during which sociology was possible at all, I devoted to research, especially into the methodology of its quantitative version. The more I knew about it, the more skeptical I became, and I attempted to look over the fence at a different lawn. Perhaps the other side, which is not about testing hypotheses, is more about people. Then an unbelievably happy series of events happened in my life: November 1989, my first trip home to Czechoslovakia after more than 25 years. The possibility to write a book on methods, to write in my own language, and to write it for readers with whom I share similar schools, children's and adult's books, dads and great-granddads. It was also a kind of final reckoning, a farewell to sociology as I had practiced it until then. The marvel of my return, the confusion of the foreigner who returns to his country and understands it only partially, all this prepared me for my encounter with the SAMISEBErs. But I will write about this elsewhere. What excites me most about qualitative research is what its biographical version, in particular, does to the researcher, how it opens and transforms him/her. I can see it wonderfully in the children that I teach in Prague, as well as in those that I teach in Toronto. It would make a wonderful comparative study! And what it does to the studied person! Pity, though, that all this came into my life at a time long past retirement age.

Karel Holý (born 1924): 71 years old, married for the second time, father of two sons of my own and two acquired by marriage, ten grandchildren. Throughout my professional life, I worked in universities. I only learned about the existence of sociology and social psychology in 1946, at the university. After that, I read everything in the field I could put my hands on. Following Karel Čapek's model, I wanted to be a journalist. I had the opportunity to work as a journalist from 1948 to 1951. In the army, I sobered up quite a bit from my communist youth organization enthusiasm. After my military service, I began teaching Marxism at the Philosophical Faculty of Charles University. I became a supporter of Scientific Communism, which, as a new discipline, came into existence precisely there. In 1965, I received my Ph.D. In 1971, I was expelled from the Communist Party, but sur-prisingly not from the Institute for Polytechnics, where I led a small research group that studied university teachers. During the 1970s and 1980s, within the context of research on universities, I carried out many mass surveys. After I retired (in 1990), I became a member of the SAMISEBE team - biography and autobiography had always attracted me. I am interested, above all, in the problem of generations.

Jiří Kabele (born 1946): I lived in Prague - Dejvice. I went to the schools in the neighborhood, but I graduated from the Nusle secondary school. At Charles University, I first graduated from the Faculty of Mathematics and Physics (in mathematical statistics) and then from the Philosophical Faculty (in aesthetics-sociology). Throughout my student years, I mainly painted pictures. It was my work in sociology and occasionally in social prognosis, which provided for my family with three children. I changed jobs every two years. Before the revolution, I spent some time in two hospitals. Some friends and I founded the Civic Democratic Alliance, now a ruling right-wing party. I began teaching at the Department of Sociology of the Charles University's Faculty of Social Sciences, which I headed for three years. I am now finishing a book, and I have begun working on another. In the first book, I would like to reformulate the principles of social constructionism so that they capture the behavior of people at turning points and in crises. In the second, I use this theory of transitions for the reconstruction of the Czech Republic's transformation after 1989. At the department, I lecture on the theory of transitions, and on general, clinical, and economic sociology. My interpretation of the principle of social construction provides a bridge between the classical sociological paradigm of institutionalization and the narrative paradigm. Now my big theme is "the dynamics of individual and collective subjects". I am not interested so much any more in how people construct their social worlds, but rather in what "forces and counterforces" are at play, and where they come from. My main influences are Berger, Luckmann, Ricouer, Levi-Strauss, Saussure, Mead, Popper, Garfinkel, Hayek, Menger, and Coase.

Jaroslav Kapr (born 1934): Sixty-two years old, married, wife Pavla; adult and independent daughter Tereza, twenty six, graduated in education science and psychology, she works successfully with a public relations specialization. I finished my studies in philosophy and history at the Charles University in 1961, and specialized in sociology and social psychology. In 1967, I was awarded a doctorate, and in 1968-69, I did my post-doctoral work at the Sociology Department in Pittsburgh. After returning from the USA, I worked for twenty long years at the Vinohrady medical faculty in Prague, at the department of social medicine, in the sphere of medical sociology. At the time when my daughter was to be born, I wrote A Book for Expectant Fathers, which was published several times and with which I am still satisfied. I began my professional career as a young teacher, focused on empirical sociology. I co-authored the book Sociology or Common Sense which became quite famous among Czech readers. From there, destiny has led me through various branches of sociology to biographical sociology and cooperation in the SAMISEBE project. I sometimes say that this experience revived my waning interest in big social problems, and postponed my professional obsolescence. At present, I have moved to the Silesian University in Opava, and, within the context of the SAMISEBE project, I am preparing a more extensive and personal work, the working title of which is "My Century".

Zdeněk Konopásek (born 1963): Thirty two years old, married (Helena), father to ten year old Jakub. In the mid-eighties, I graduated in educational sciences for the disabled, which, however, I never used in practice; since 1990 I have devoted myself to sociological research and teaching at Charles University. In my work, I concentrate mainly on the biographical method in social sciences, on contemporary sociological theory and on the welfare state. In the field of theory, I am especially fascinated by reflexive sociology and by the peculiarly ambivalent relations of the political and epistemological "right" and "left". Around 1980, I began taking part in alternative rock bands as a drummer and trumpet player. Ever since it became possible, I have consistently voted for the right-wing parties (that is to say the non-Christian parties of the current governmental coalition). I am the coordinator of the SAMISEBE project. Within this project, I write on the concept of reflexive autobiography. I also focus on the relations between biographical and institut-ional representations of reality and on the sociological analysis of state socialism - I am happy when I find places where these three themes are closely related.

Eva Stehlíková, maiden name Kostohryzová (born 1946): I am now almost fifty, I have three grown up children, three small grand-children and a fourth on the way. I am married (for the second time). I studied philosophy and sociology between 1965 and 1970. We were the first class of the re-opened sociological discipline. For twelve years, I earned my living with standard questionnaire-surveying of university students, for a short period I tried to grasp some basics of university teaching methods. I also devoted some time to the issue of the organization of health care. For the last four years, I have been interested most of all in the beginnings of biographical research in Czech sociology, and I try to communicate this inclination of mine to the students who give me the opportunity. I am having an even harder time with the life of a working grandmother than with my former dilemma of the working mother (a dilemma that was almost universal for Czech women of my generation). Perhaps this too is a reason why I am more and more inter-ested in themes involving human identities and their crises, social minorities and marginalised groups. I am looking forward to the day when age will free me from the unavoidable obligation to "earn a living somehow", and retir-ement will give me the freedom to do exactly what I like, be it - in part, at least - biographical sociology.

Olga Šmídová, maiden name Matoušová (born 1955): I was born in the cosy city of Prague. I have two children (Barbora and Vojtěch) and one husband (Rudolf). I studied law, economics, and most of all sociology (doc-toral degree in 1990). Life in the village of Potemkin developed in many of us a sense for the ambivalence of the real and the unreal, the objective and the subjective. The village of Potemkin was a stage prop, of course, but it was really there that we lived, practiced sociology, and loved… It is a feeling that lasts a lifetime, you cannot get rid of it by changing stage props or types of institutional structures. This is probably why I am so interested in the relationship of continuity and discontinuity, in the relativity and ambivalence of the current changes, which are sometimes so grandly called Transfor-mation. What fascinates me most about socialism and post-socialism is the private side of social phenomena. My particular focus has often changed. This bothered me quite a bit until I discovered that it is not so much through which topic study (this) society that is important, but rather HOW I study it. I am fascinated by the world of other people. I am grateful when they give me a glimpse of it, when I can share it with them. During the last few years, I have concentrated, thematically, on issues of life style, informal economic and inter-ethnic (Czech-German) relations. I teach qualitative research methods at Charles University, Prague.

Main topics and problems

What is the volume about?

In fact, several answers can be given. First, this series of texts can be read as an array of viewpoints on the SAMISEBE project itself. Then, the central theme of this book is one unusual version of the auto/biographical research. The history of the project is outlined here, the basic rules of cooperation within the group are explained and theorized, some analytic papers as well as an insight into the "original" data (our own life narratives) are offered.

One should be aware, of course, that the sociological autobiography, more or less reflexive, is not a neglected topic in the contemporary sociological debate.(7) The SAMISEBE project, however, offers an opportunity to rethink the issue of reflexive autobiographical writing from a special perspective. This perspective is neither very radical nor consistent. It does not start, as usual, with a theoretically and morally ambitious subject-researcher who declares reflexivity as the new virtue to be pursued by social scientists while leaving the question of "how to practically achieve it" unanswered. Correspondingly, it does not present theoretically informed self-awareness of the researcher as the main source and warrant of her or his reflexive practice. Quite the contrary is the case. Ours is the perspective that starts with something very practical and non-theoretical. Indeed, SAMISEBE had started with a few ordinary rules for mutual collaboration within a group of diverse researchers… and with the following question left, for the time being, unanswered: "how to (theoretically and morally) understand our common effort?" Only ex-post, retrospectively, some of us tried to look for an answer to this question. The answer I found particularly interesting is that what we have been doing within the project is, in fact, something theoretically and morally very ambitious; and something that is rather well compatible with contemporary debates in the field of qualitative research. It is, I argue, a kind of reflexive autobiography. Nevertheless, the reflexive nature of our autobiographical effort does not stem from self-conscious subjects-researchers, members of the team. It is even relatively independent of each individual member's (theoretical and moral) understanding of the situation. What counts, above all, is the set of rules that bind us together, the formal design of our collaboration. In other words, we are forced to cope with the "reflexive condition" on a very practical level… That is how I personally interpret the project. And that is also why I think the discussion of our research design might be of interest to the theorists of reflexive autobiographical research writing.

I should add that the reader of the volume would not learn too much on life-story methodology. None of us has written for this collection a pure methodological paper on biographical research. It would not make sense to write such papers. There are others much better in it. Moreover, our group is methodologically heterogeneous and, in fact, not very interesting. Actually, SAMISEBE is not a kind of methodology for qualitative research. Rather, it is a research experiment with some noteworthy consequences for our understanding of the most general conditions of knowledge-claims making in the social sciences and for the current situation in the field.(8) It may well be that Western readers would understand our common research effort and its theoretical and moral contexts even deeper and better than we ourselves do. In other words, the SAMISEBE group is perhaps not the avant-garde of (qualitative) research; but - in my view - it is something that may be worth of attention of such an avant-garde.

Another possible answer to the above mentioned question is that the book offers unconventional sociological perspectives on the phenomenon of state socialism and its current transformation. The words "unconventional sociological perspectives", here, have a double meaning.

1) On the one hand, they express the fact that the biographical approach, in contemporary sociological literature on state socialism and on Central and Eastern Europe, has not been taken up to the extent justified by its current general popularity and by the specific features of the theme. What do I mean by this? The phenomenon of state socialism and its transformation is very difficult to study with statistical data. This type of data can be applied, to a certain extent, only in relatively stabilized and transparent conditions. Socialism, however, was anything but transparent. And its current transformation, on the other hand, effectively compensates the given increase in transparency (if there is any) by a high level of instability. Thus the study of biographies and life stories is often the only possible way to trace the really important, or even fundamental characteristics of former communist societies through empirical research.(9) Nonetheless, the overwhelming majority of sociological research in post-communist European countries is conceived as large, often "comparative" surveys. I am afraid that one of the main reasons for this situation is the same logic as the well-known and common economic strategy of quick, but small and short-term profit: wood is sold off as raw material for a pittance to the "wealthy foreign countries"; and only there is it processed and its value increased in the true sense of the word. Quite similarly - apart from rare exceptions - fresh data from the transforming countries are exported in a jumble to the West, where they are then worked into various theories of transformation. To many sociologists in post-communist countries, this seems to be quite a reasonable solution. We must, they argue, become integrated somehow into contemporary sociology, and inside the country no one is able to develop a better theory properly anyway. The data's western recipients often even demand that such conditions be included in the terms of research cooperation, as a prerequisite for any cooperation to occur.(10)

Within the context of Czech sociology, however, there is one more specific reason for the relative lack of interest in the biographical method. Few people draw attention to it openly, but Czech sociology was devastated significantly more deeply and extensively than, for instance, in Poland or Hungary. Petrusek (1993) in his commentaries on the evolution of Czech sociology during the communist normalization of the 70s and 80s, indicates that basically the only type of sociology that stood a chance of just surviving institutionally, and actually developing, was research based on refined statistics. This type of research was practically ideologically harmless, narrowly focused as it was on its own methodological and technical problems, which no outsider properly understood anyway. Interpretative paradigms and sociological theorizing were in a much worse situation. They practically had no tradition, no systematic contact with contemporary sociological literature and no possibility of finding a position inside the acceptable institutional conditions "on their own", and quietly surviving. If the current worldwide expansion of interest in the biographical method is closely connected to the most up-to-date developments in social theory, it is very difficult to find some support for this research trend within the context of today's Czech sociology.

2) The formulation used above, "unconventional sociological perspectives on the phenomenon of state socialism and its transformation" also has a second meaning. This is the meaning by which the unconventionality of the perspective on the subject of socialism arises from its sociological nature. By this, I mean that, conventionally, the reflection of the phenomenon of state socialism tends not to be truly sociological. In fact, sociology gropes when it comes to a convincing theory on state socialism that could be integrated without problems into the majority of other current sociological debates (for instance, in various versions of the dispute on modernity). Sociologists usually make use of strongly polarized terms from political science and history; sometimes they borrow - without critical consideration - from the vocabulary of the mass media. In this way, sociological research sometimes becomes mere sociological commentary of interpretations that are, at best, essentially political or historical. Sober sociological analyses of socialist everyday life, of the institutionalization of the socialist social order, etc., are relatively sparse, for the time being.(11) Our ambition here is precisely to emphasize and strengthen the sociological perspective in the examination of the phenomenon of state socialism.

Finally, the last possible answer to the question about the mission of this book may seem absurd at first sight: the book can also be read as an unconventional sociological testimony on contemporary European societies in general, that is to say even on contemporary societies in the West. I am convinced that the truly sociological study of state socialism says more about the so-called capitalist societies of this time than may be expected. A lot of what is usually pinned on to "socialism" as its specific characteristic is actually a general attribute of life in our epoch, but these aspects of life have long been outside the visual angle of western sociology. It is clearly no coincidence that the sociological analysis of socialism arrives in the end at the same phenomenon, in my view, as the currents of western sociology that try to react to present-day trends of evolution of (post)modern societies, that is, at the close link between crisis of representation and crisis of legitimacy.

It probably does not make much sense to discuss this problem right at the beginning of the whole book. The final chapter will deal with it in greater detail. But I would like to appeal to the reader right away not to try and see in the chapters devoted to the reality of state socialism some truth about strange and exotic political regimes, so distant from what is known about standard western societies. Rather, I would recommend that the reader ask him/herself as often as possible: Do I really not know something similar as part of the reality of western societies (perhaps under a different name)? Is it really, from the perspective of non-socialist modern democracies, as bizarre and incomprehensible as it seems at first sight?

Notes on the organization of the book

The first chapter is dedicated to a more detailed explanation of the SAMISEBE project. It should give the reader an idea of how it is shaped and what problems its form brings for the participants. The two main parts of the book follows: the part composed of our analytical or interpretative contributions,(12) and the special part with selected extracts of the biographical materials of all participants. The entire collection of texts is concluded by a chapter that summarizes the main principles of the SAMISEBE project, formulates its relationship to contemporary sociology, and, in a way, brings one back to the very beginning of the book, that is to the question of what the book is actually about.

The biographical extracts that can be found in the part two are eight passages, each composed from the autobiographical texts of one of the team's members. These extracts can give the reader a picture of the nature of the autobiographical materials that we work with. They illustrate their various styles and genres (which differ not only from person to person, but also from theme to theme and simply over a period of time). They document the thematic structure of the texts and show how individual texts and different perspectives specific to each generations refer to similar or identical experiences, events, or historical periods. The text of the extracts is usually composed of two to three longer excerpts, taken from different "levels" (continuat-ions) of one's personal autobiography. From time to time, this main thread of the text is interrupted by shorter excerpts from the autobiographical work of other members of the team(13), or from other parts of the autobiography in question. The motives for the inclusion of these parentheses differed from case to case. Sometimes they are allusions to the same event, or a similar experience, as the one that is being discussed in the main story. Elsewhere they are, on the contrary, presentations of differences and contrasts between styles, perceptions, or experience. In yet other places, they may only represent a kind of factual explanation: then the biographical parenthesis serves to explain more precisely a concept, event, person, situation that appears at that moment in the main narrative.

It was necessary to include some explanations and factual notes that would make the excerpts more comprehensible for the foreign reader.(14) However, because the narratives are not primarily historical documents, we refrained from giving detailed clarifications of every point that might be less understandable to a foreign reader. We concentrated on explaining only those concepts, events, and institutional contexts that we considered being important for the comprehension of the account in question, or of its sociological interpretation. Moreover, the readers can consult a little aid included in the appendix: the index of personal names, institutions, and abbreviations.

Finally, two last comments. Though the book was actually only finished in 1995, we decided to keep conscientiously to the original papers of 1992, and not include more recent texts. The original contributions have merely been more or less reworked and completed. The same applies to the biographical excerpts. This decision was not painless. At the time when we were putting together the definitive version of the volume, some of us had to grapple intensely with more than two year old papers to give them - mostly, I suppose, for ourselves - the hall-mark of topicality, the impact of living knowledge. This was probably even harder with the biographical extracts. In many places of the selected excerpts, we felt the need to complete the several year old biographical writing from today's perspective, to include new reflections of events, persons and contexts that the biographical text refers to. This desire was all the stronger the more the events or situations were, at the time of writing, still part of the burning-hot present for the authors. Indeed, these very events often have now gone beyond the "threshold of present", and thereby acquired for us the hall-mark of what belongs to the past. This significantly changed the perspective from which we - as their actors - reflect them. Our uncertainty concerning these texts also arose from the necessity to give our biographical accounts the status of "historical" accounts that would correspond to the historical nature that the described settings had acquired. In the end, we settled for a compromise solution of this problem: in the places of our biographical extracts where we each sensed it to be important, we included notes which evoked the relevant distance between the old narrative and the current state of affairs, by way of a factual explanation.

The role of the editor, which I took upon myself, cannot be confused with the role of spokesman of the entire group. My personal perception of the project has left its distinctive mark on the editing and wording of the biographical extracts, on the introductory and final chapters, as on this preface (not to speak of my own chapter in the series of SAMISEBE contributions). If anyone else in the team had been in charge of talking about the project, the reader would have most likely gotten a slightly different picture. On the other hand, only very few editors probably ever received as much support and assistance from the individual contributors as I did. Without the close cooperation of all the SAMISEBE participants, this collection of texts could not have been put together.

Zdeněk Konopásek, editor
February - June 1995


(1) Josef Alan, my colleague, of whom more will soon be said (since he is one of the participants in this project), had doubts about this passage of the preface: "Are we really such prominent actors in modern power relationships? Don't we, at so many places in our biographical narratives, express distaste and disgust with the classical power position of the Sociologist? This entire project is actually the negation of such a prominent position!" Well yes, there is something to it. Modern power relationships, so closely related to particular forms of knowledge, are, nowadays, very often and quite broadly subjected to critical reflection. And this reflection, understandably, makes them lose their once-sharp contours. The presented autobiographical project is part of this rather broad current, which causes the most general foundations of social sciences, including the related power aspects, to be transformed. On the other hand, I am positive that even the participants in this project themselves do belong to the "dominant and powerful". They may be strange, in some ways really bizarre sociologists, but they still are sociologists. The power aspects of their position are reflexively softened and relativized, they are no longer so obvious and firm, but it would be dangerous, I think, to harbor the illusion that they released themselves somehow from the power attributes of their position.

(2) SAMISEBE is a play on words with two reflexive Czech pronouns. OURSELVES'SELVES is an awkward translation into English.

(3) This is the eight-member group that worked on the book. However, one of the team's founding members, Jiří Kabele, has already ended his active participation in the research.

(4) I asked the others to write for me this part of the preface.

(5) He left the Institute in 1997.

(6) He died in September 1996.

(7) See, for instance, Aldridge (1993), Berger (1990), Denzin (1997), Horowitz (1969), Merton (1988), Roberts (1994), Söderqvist (1991), Stanley (1992, 1993) and the rapidly expanding body of contemporary American writing within or about the genre of "auto-ethnography" (e.g., Ellis, 1997; Ellis, Bochner, 1996).

(8) As already indicated, these consequences need not be equally noteworthy for all the members of the team themselves.

(9) One of the first important books on this topic was Memory and Totalitarianism, edited by Luisa Passerini (1992). Another examples are papers recently prepared for special ISA and ESA sessions.

(10) This and other related problems are touched by some of the contributors to the thematic issue of Hungarian journal Replica "Colonization or Partnership?" (Hadas, Vörös, 1996).

(11) There are, of course, exceptions to this trend. Within the context of Czech sociology, these are above all the books by Ivo Možný (e.g., 1991) and Josef Alan. Recent examples of the kind of work that I have in mind, taken from international journals, include Ashwin (1996), Grekova (1996) or Verdery (1991).

(12) These contributions are rewritten and extended papers we originally wrote for the international workshop on the SAMISEBE project, which was held in Prague in December 1992.

(13) These excerpts-insertions are identified by the first name of their author.

(14) We realized, while working on these explanations, that the description of many realities must be almost incomprehensible for an outsider. A typical example is the abuse of abbreviations, and of new words derived from abbreviations, to indicate all sorts of institutions, social organizations, events, etc., which spread especially in the 1950s - and not only in socialist countries. In other places, the complication arises from absurdly entangled property conditions, or other legal relations. In such cases, it does not make sense to dissect the situation in great detail. For the sake of clarity we finally decided to simplify the text of the original narratives a bit, to simplify, for instance, the use of names and abbreviations.


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Contents of the entire volume:



Part I: Texts

Part II: Documents