Most people modify their ways of speaking, writing, texting, and e-mailing, and so on, according to the people with whom they are communicating. This fascinating book asks why we 'accommodate' to others in this way, and explores the various social consequences arising from it.
AUTHOR: Linde, Charlotte TITLE: Working the Past SUBTITLE: Narrative and Institutional Memory PUBLISHER: Oxford University Press YEAR: 2008
Natasha Azarian Ceccato, SKEMA Business School, Sophia Antipolis, France
Working the Past draws equally on ethnographic methods and narrative theory to investigate how an institution remembers its past. Its intended audience is as wide as its scope is interdisciplinary, drawing on linguistics, narrative theory, business culture and ethnology, among other fields. The monograph is the result of a three-year ethnographic study within MidWest, a pseudonym for a large insurance company; the central question is how the institution uses narrative to construct its identity. Over the course of ten chapters, Linde takes the reader on a narrative-infused journey in which business culture, sociolinguistic theory, and ethnographic methods are intertwined to tell a coherent story. In a fresh and engaging fashion, Linde makes the important point that institutions, much like individuals, use narration as a way to construct their presentation of who they are and what they have done in the past. She brings to light the stories that are told, retold and transmitted within an institution, examining who tells the stories, when they are told, and how these stories are used to affect both the narrators and the institution itself.
The book is full of ethnographic and contextual detail to provide the background, culture and history of the insurance company in question. Field notes were kept during the research, but much of the data came from interviews conducted with employees. It is primarily these interviews which make Linde's principal points about which narratives survive the test of time. Conversely, she touches on stories which are not remembered, providing socio-historical background to explain their absence. A definite strength of this book is the detail Linde devotes to methodology, as she successfully integrates ethnography and narrative analysis. Often the reader has the impression that Linde is in fact talking to her as she explains how she unearthed the 'stock stories' of the institution.
A clear contribution to the field of narrative theory is Linde's analysis of what she calls 'retold tales', stories in which the narrator was not a participant or a witness to the events narrated. In her research, retold tales were often related by employees about the company's founder and founding, in which many recent employees were not present. However, retold tales differ from simple accounts of the past because of linguistic details which in fact indicate the narrator's participation in a story which they could not have been present. For example, narrators use the first person plural, 'we,' as well as quoted speech, which could not have been actually heard by the narrator (Linde, p. 79). The implications of this analytic construct are also relevant to narratives within collectivities for which some stories are told and retold by individual members in ways that would lead one to believe that the narrator actually lived through the experience; I am thinking here primarily of stories of vicarious experience concerning the Holocaust treated by Schiff, Noy and Cohler (2001). The analytic construct used in Linde's study can thus be applied to other types of narratives which are inherited and transmitted across contexts. In short, Working the Past makes points relevant not only to the business environment explored, but equally to other realms of narrative research in which the boundaries of ethnography and narrative analysis are also blended.
Working the Past is an important contribution to the interdisciplinary spectrum of narrative research in which few monographs intermesh ethnography with narrative theory. While the book is a significant contribution to the field of narrative and linguistic analysis, it would be equally valuable to students interested in ethnographic research, as the detail and the clear and concise manner in which Linde explains her methodology provide a useful model.
The book however has two minor drawbacks. I also considered one of these drawbacks to be one of the book's attributes, that is, the book is so full of information regarding the insurance company history and context that at times the reader is left wondering, ''do I really need to know all of this?'' In the end however, one could argue that more information is better than the inverse. The other drawback concerns the use of the examples Linde uses to make points relevant to a certain narrative tenet. That is, at times she draws on situations and studies far removed from the setting of MidWest Insurance, such as Waldorf education. This lack of coherence between such examples and the book's subject leads to an analysis which is less sound than it could have been, had she stuck to examples from the business environment.
Ultimately, though, the book is clear and descriptive, and above all it is inviting to the reader because Linde avoids following into 'linguistic jargon traps' which often make otherwise interesting linguistic analysis inaccessible to larger readerships.
Schiff, B., Noy, C. & Cohler, B. (2001). Collected Stories in the Life Narratives of Holocaust Survivors. Narrative Inquiry, 11(1), 159-194.
ABOUT THE REVIEWER
ABOUT THE REVIEWER:
Natasha Azarian Ceccato is professor in English and Communications at the
SKEMA Business school in Sophia Antipolis, France. Her research interests
include narrative and commemoration, collective memory, and the language of
media and advertising.