Biographies and generational patterns


Keywords: biographical agency, pivotal time, generation of the 1970s, narrative patterns

The article scrutinises the autobiographical stories told by people born in the 1970s. The chosen group spent their adolescent formative years in the whirlwind of the social changes characteristic of Estonia in the 1990s and they found themselves in high positions at an unusually early age, enjoying upward social mobility. The analysis is based on stories elicited from qualitative interviews (biographical, focus-group and in-depth interviews). Specifically, the analysis focused on how the interviewees saw their own role, or agency, and to what extent they referenced the developments in their lives to the social structural background of the political change in the 1990s. The article demonstrates that despite the modern popularity of individual success stories, the informants tend to describe their success as a result of taking advantage of their luck rather than of a desperate hunt for success, thus diminishing their personal role.

There may be several explanations for this phenomenon. A general explanation could be that the key of narration is chosen according to the assumed expectations of the interviewer, thus focusing on the relations between periods of times and life. On the other hand, times of great change may easily make an individual feel only partly responsible. Even if one takes decisive steps to improve one’s personal life or the social situation, unstable times involve a lot of uncontrollable variables. True, some variables are present during stable times, but in most cases the degree of control or lack of control is known. In unstable times, however, normal circumstances may change or disappear altogether, while some uncontrollable conditions may become controllable. Hence, a similar style of narration can also be met referring to events of pivotal times, such as wartime escapes. Although stories are usually told with more nuances than the generalisations of social scientists, the experience of a certain historical period will leave an unmistakable imprint on the narratives of the period, while the people who happen to have shared not only the experience but also a common social background tend to follow similar patterns (narrative templates), when speaking about their experience.

The age group under study tends to interweave the haphazard, chaotic and hectic aspects of the social environment with their own choices and agency of the time. They emphasise the high rate of change typical of those times (from a strict order to chaos, from chaos to stability) and personal initiatives are described in the context of the surrounding atmosphere, which encouraged and promoted such initiative. The times are depicted as positive, although such keywords as „chaotic”, „uncertainty”, „turbulent” and „complicated” are not commonly perceived as such. When telling an autobiographical story, one may often mention some aspects where the personal role of the story-teller is less salient, but which nevertheless contribute to the image of the person, thus increasing their symbolic capital. It could even be called generational capital, as far as being born and experiencing life in a certain period has become a resource in its own right and an awareness of this background is conducive to higher social prestige. This may well be the main reason why personal agency is sometimes diminished and a greater importance is given to the time period, as it was likely to have provided its contemporaries with a certain life experience and contributed to their character.

Raili Nugin (b. 1975), PhD, Tallinn University, Centre for Landscape and Culture, Researcher, raili.nugin@tlu.ee


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