Shifting positions parallel with the changing historical context - The case of a context-integrating interview with a Second World War resistance member

Dorien van De Mieroop, Kris Bruyninckx

Lessius Hogeschool, Belgium


Retelling personal experiences are a typical way in which human beings make sense of their lives. By narrating events from the past in which they were involved, people can look back and reflect on what happened from a certain distance, depending of course on the amount of time that passed between the time of the narrated and the time of narrating. This reflexivity ‘creates the occasion for self regard and editing’ (Linde 1993: 105). Furthermore, life stories are strongly embedded in their contexts (De Fina 2000: 133). ‘Knowledge accrued from numerous “pasts” and continuing “presents” creates complex, nonlinear relationships between what we think of as “past” and what we view as “present”’ (Schiffrin 2002: 315). Typical contextual elements that can have an influence on life stories are social and political changes that have taken place between the time of the narrated and the present.

We study the life story of a Second World War Resistance member by means of an interview in which the interviewer explicitly inserts the historical context by selecting the topics of discussion and asking critical questions. The interview deals with three periods: the Wartime period, the First Repression Wave and the Second Repression Wave in Belgium. After going into the historical background of these events, we focus on the discourse-analytical study of the interviewee’s positionings (Harré and Van Langenhove 1999), mostly by means of his pronoun usage, since pronouns can be insightful tokens of alignment with a group, of contrastive positionings against other groups and they can also be used as membership categories (Leudar et al. 2004: 245). The interviewee’s positionings seem to shift along with changes in historical period and they mirror the general historical image of the Resistance. These three different positionings are in themselves highly consistent and this consistency is also present on a macro-level of the interview, because of the interviewee’s fairly muted style of narrating, by which blatant inconsistencies between these three positionings are avoided and a general, ‘good’ identity is constructed. This is not surprising, since people tend to have a preference for the construction of ‘a good self, and a self that is perceived as good by others’ (Linde 1993: 122). So by means of this context-integrating interview style, the general historical context was explicitly brought into the data and this was clearly reflected in the interviewee’s positionings.


De Fina, Anna. 2000. Orientation in immigrant narratives: the role of ethnicity in the identification of characters. Discourse Studies 2(2): 131-57.

Harré, Rom and Van Langenhove, Luk (eds.). 1999. Positioning Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.

Leudar, Ivan, Marsland, Victoria and Nekvapil, Jirí. 2004. On membership categorization: 'us', 'them' and 'doing violence' in political discourse. Discourse and Society 15(2-3): 243-66.

Linde, Charlotte. 1993. Life Stories: The Creation of Coherence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Schiffrin, Deborah. 2002. Mother and friends in a Holocaust life story. Language and Society 31: 309-53.

Session: Paper session
Discourse 3
Friday, April 4, 2008, 13:45-15:15
room: 11