Reviews 2015

Pričanja o djetinjstvu. Život priča u svakodnevnoj komunikaciji [Narratives of childhood. Life of stories in everyday communication]

Pričanja o djetinjstvu. Život priča u svakodnevnoj komunikaciji [Narratives of childhood. Life of stories in everyday communication]. Jelena Marković. Zagreb: Institut za etnologiju i folkloristiku, 2012. 381 pages. 120 HRK (paperback).

Originating within the research project "Issues of oral and folk poetics," conducted at the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research in Zagreb, Croatia, Jelena Marković’s Pričanja o djetinjstvu. Život priča u svakodnevnoj komunikaciji (Narratives of childhood. The life of stories in everyday communication) is the first study within Croatian folkloristics and ethnology entirely dedicated to narratives of childhood.

As the author notes at the very outset of this meticulous and thought-provoking study, the two central concepts of this research – oral narratives and childhood – are not the exclusive provenance of any single discipline, thereby warranting an interdisciplinary approach. In her attempt to examine memories and narratives of childhood within the context of everyday communication, Marković thus relies on the theoretical and methodological apparatuses of ethnology and folkloristics (the pillars of the study), as well as linguistics, sociology, pedagogy and cultural anthropology. The extensive but, by the author’s own admission, somewhat atypical corpus, which was not created intentionally but rather "grew out of conversations and life itself" (156), draws on archival materials and oral history interviews.1 In gathering her data, Marković utilized several different methods: semi-/non-structured interviews, transcribing past conversations from memory, placing adults and children in the role of researcher/interviewer and asking them to talk to people in their immediate surroundings about their childhood memories, and autoethnography, defined as the research of one’s own imaginary autobiography or personal narrative repertoire (retrospective fieldwork). A smaller section of the corpus consists of "accidentally" recorded memories of childhood, extracted from the archives of the Institute of Ethnology and Folklore Research.

The book is divided into seven chapters, each of which is further divided into numerous subsections. The introductory chapter is followed by three theoretical and methodological ones which provide an extensive and detailed overview of the study of childhood and its rather delicate position within different scholarly disciplines, especially (Croatian) ethnology and folkloristics. Much attention is dedicated to terminological discussions (narrative of childhood vs. life story, personal narrative, narrative of personal experience, life (hi)story, etc.), as well as to an overview of the different forms narratives of childhood can assume (parts of "grand" narratives, independent ‘small’ stories, relating one’s own/someone else’s personal experience/memory). Due to their comprehensiveness, the clarity of language in which they are written, and the fact that they provide a detailed overview of various disciplines, their gaps and pragmatic shifts, these sections are particularly useful as a resource for students. In addition to various ethical and practical issues of conducting research that involves children, the author also talks about the specifics of her field (everyday life and communication situations), the subjective and even intimate components of the research, archives and the use/availability of archival materials, etc.

Problems of genre classification are at the centre of chapter five. Narratives of childhood are discussed in relation to other short prose narratives dealing with experience and belief, such as memorate, fabulate, (negative) legends, personal myths, anecdotes and tall tales. The different genres are compared and contrasted in light of their semantic, communication, epistemological and narrative qualities. A special focus is given to the issue of belief which, as Marković points out, changes depending on who is telling the story, i.e. on the attitude of the narrator. It should be noted that the aim of this section is not to redefine genres, but rather to highlight the problems of genre classification, point to generic overlappings, and stress the importance of the oft-neglected performative aspect of oral genres. Marković also uses this discussion to call for a different approach to studying oral narratives, one that does not divorce content from context and treat narratives as if they were created in a vacuum.

In continuation of the argument for the study of narratives in context, chapter six examines different everyday exchanges involving adults and/or children in which narratives of childhood are related in or without the presence of children, or in which children relate their own memories/experiences with the help of adults. Marković’s numerous examples and transcribed conversations persuasively demonstrate how narratives change depending on who is telling them and to whom, and how the way adults talk to children and the memories/experiences they choose to share with them are shaped by changing concepts of childhood, child-rearing, pedagogy and education.

The subject of the seventh and final chapter is memory (episodic and autobiographic), nostalgia (especially in relation to brands people associated with their childhoods) and forgetting. Unfortunately, the book ends here and there is no concluding chapter summarizing all the findings and conclusions, and providing guidelines for future studies. However, the lengthy bibliography encompassing more than 30 pages is an excellent resource for anyone interested in pursuing the topic further.

Narratives of childhood, writes Marković, are as complex as life itself (12). Even though they play an important role in shaping our identities and surroundings, they (and other narratives of everyday life) are still, somewhat condescendingly, viewed as "small" narratives. The aim of this study is therefore to establish and promote the study of these "small" narratives as an important and legitimate area of research within ethnology, folkloristics and cultural anthropology. A particularly commendable aspect of the book is Marković’s continuous reflection on her methodology, her role as researcher and personal involvement in the research (sharing personal memories, relationships with interviewees, etc.).

Thanks to its multivalent perspectives and the many questions it poses, the book addresses a wide, though primarily scholarly audience. Thoroughly researched and engagingly written, Marković’s book has much to offer with very few flaws, and as such presents a valuable addition to a variety of disciplines within (Croatian) humanities and social sciences.

Nada Kujundžić
University of Turku, Finland
University of Zagreb, Croatia
Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies, Canada


1 All translations from Croatian are my own.