Life History Interviewing, My Experiences

By Sammi Lauth

Over the course of this trip, I have had the opportunity to interview women working in South Africa’s conservation field for my senior honors thesis. Using anthropological methodologies including participant observation and one-on-one formal and informal interviews, I have been focusing on the life histories of four women we have encountered during our travels through and around Kruger National Park. My research questions revolve around the life histories of these women in relation to their occupations as guides, rhino conservationists, and employees in the tourism sectors. How did their backgrounds and the circumstances of their family, religion, home town, education, leisure, relationships, etc. lead them to partake in conservation work? How has their worldview changed after entering their respective industries, if at all?

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The first woman I interviewed was with our group for several days, driving us to Kruger in one of our two Game Drive Vehicles (GDVs) and guiding us through the park and its many animal species. She had gone to university to learn wildlife education and worked for a safari tour company. The second woman I interviewed worked for the private game reserve we stayed at, helping with the cleaning and cooking. Family meant everything to her and her goal was to become a social worker and help members of her community. The third was a member of the Black Mambas Anti-Poaching Unit, an important all-women force in the rhinoceros conservation movement that operates in Balule Nature Reserve. She was a leader within the Unit itself and the breadwinner at home. The fourth was a dear friend of Melissa and David’s who had worked every job under the sun in game lodges. She had many stories to tell, and the intersections between work-related situations and personal anecdotes were fascinating.

The process of conducting life history interviews is, in a way, both harder and easier than interviews I’d conducted previously. It was nothing like I had done before. For example, when I interviewed my Dungeon Master (DM) from a Dungeons & Dragons campaign I had immersed myself into, I had set questions aimed at understanding DM culture and how she strung together semi-randomized events into a cohesive plotline. I was looking to answer specific research questions and get a better understanding of that which I had observed in-game.

Dissimilarly from that interview and others, I spent less time preparing interview questions beforehand. There was still preparation, of course, where I thought about the topics I wanted to cover and the core questions I wanted to get at, i.e. gender discrepancies in the workplace and whether they were felt by the women (See photo of field notebook for questions I wrote down to make sure I didn’t forget to ask them). More effort, however, was concentrated during the interviews themselves in the follow-up that occurred. I asked a question to start out, normally something that put each woman at ease such as talking about their children and their families growing up (I had the disadvantage of not knowing many of these women well, so it was vital that I made them feel comfortable enough to talk to a perfect stranger about heavy subjects), and from there, the questions that followed aimed to delve deeper into the answers given to previous questions. Coming up with follow-up questions during the interviews was tricky, but the more I interviewed people, the better I got at it.

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I’ll be using the experiences of these women, drawing comparisons between their backgrounds and courses in life, to get at issues concerning race, gender, class, urbanization, and changing perceptions of wildlife and religion linking South Africa’s conservation field to the people that comprise it in varying degrees. The simultaneously wonderful and complex thing about anthropological research is that you don’t know your hypothesis until you start working with the data you’ve collected. You return home with your field notes, interview recordings, and possible connecting theories swimming around in your head, and then you sit down with it all and start drawing linkages between theory and data; the people, their environment, and the complex and varied processes that guide their lives. I’m looking forward to working with the life histories I’ve heard, combining them with the content I’ve learned during my undergraduate career, and with the two creating an ethnographic account of the women I’ve met and their experiences inside and outside of conservation.

Natalie Miller