Dr Rob Evans Edd university of Magdeburg

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Dr Rob Evans EdD

University of Magdeburg


Moving through change –the voices of East German HE professionals in transition and their biographical work.

1. Introduction

It is common now to make connections between the real compression of time and space as a result of all the many processes subsumed under the name of 'globalisation', and the difficulties of maintaining, or indeed the impossibility of developing, a traditional 'normal' biography, capable of satisfying the demands raised by childhood, youth, employment, career, family, and old age to holistically create order and enduring sense in a life. The replacement of the biography in the modern era, representable perhaps most simply as an upward curve or line (Alheit 2002b), by a more troubled progress through life, characterised by interruptions, twists and turns, and new directions, composed of a 'patchwork' of lived experiences, career projects and social engagements is the object of much educational and sociological biography research (e.g. Alheit 2002a; Fischer-Rosenthal and Alheit 1995).

The specific difficulties associated with the integration of historical events of the 20th century in individual life stories in post-war Germany, and in particular the difficult 'biographical work' faced by the population of the former GDR in East Germany in coping with the 'unfinished' history of the Third Reich as well as the 'untellable' history of everyday life in the communist GDR have been described as producing biographical "gap-texts" (Fischer-Rosenthal 1995). Other researchers have looked at the specific effects of rapid, difficult change processes in the former GDR since 1990 and unification (e.g. Chamburlayne et al 2000). The relatively well-known effects of unification and the wholesale "transfer of West German institutions of government and business to East Germany" and the "dramatic rupture with the assumptions and expectations of the immediate past" experienced by the populations of the new Länder throughout the nineties and into the new century (Bynner and Silbereisen 2000) have been recently given added emphasis in the first results of a large-scale study (Alheit et al 2004) which emphasises the regressive, backward-looking or stalemated nature of many individual biographies, thwarted and baulked, so to speak by an untellable or previously unchallenged lifeworld history which encompassed and embraces still the Holocaust and life under the SED regime.

This paper will consider the nature of biographical discourse(s) of learning, work and social engagement collected in depth narrative interviews carried out in a Language Centre at a University in East Germany1. The talk of these HE professionals – ranging in age between their mid-thirties to mid-seventies, all former citizens of the GDR and the majority lifelong employees of the university – is understood as constituting emerging learning biographies. The narrating voices of this collective of teaching professionals were collected within the current uneasy educational context in which the university is in transition to a service role with global market orientation and increasingly 'commodified' educational content (Corson 2000) in a region still struggling with unemployment and depopulation 15 years after the fall of the Wall and Unification. The stories of change of these survivors of the hard transition from the GDR to the BRD are presented here in vignettes for evidence of 'voices of transition' amid competing local, national, international as well as institutional and personal discourses of learning and knowledge. Discoursal self, hemmed in by the conflicting demands of social-historical and geographical provenance, is seen to involve difficult processes of 'identification' and 'location' and is communicated as a process of forced change and re-orientation, in language terms as a difficult ‘storied’, discontinuous biographical learning process.

2. A biographical approach to learning

The biographical method allows us to ask how changes and structural contradictions in people’s environments are recognized subjectively by individuals, and how such changes - rapid and sweeping - influence learning in work/study/life situations. To understand the relationship between change and subjective reactions, it is necessary to consider possible changes to concepts such as professionalism, professional identity and subjective participation-involvement in specific institutional relationships. Narratives of this kind of experience are, as Salling-Olesen (2000) points out, not merely individual case stories for there are gender, generation and cultural systems interacting with (the) educational system and labour market structures in which they are played out. The narratives, too, are laden with the individual's relationship to the professional discourses of their job, of their relationship to their professional-personal codes of expression and their most personal language resources. Frequently, and particularly in times of difficult change which produce considerable emotional and psycho-social burdens, this means uncertainty of social positioning, and increased recourse to individual and collective defence mechanisms.

Transition and the everyday

Such defence mechanisms are deployed in the unfolding of life stories, which, according to Alheit (1983), are essentially occupied with the necessity to sychronise two disparate levels of experienced time: firstly, the dimension of events and experiences which usually have a routine, daily, everyday frame, and secondly, those which operate on the life-time scale/horizon, which "links long past events with past experiences, past with present experience and ultimately present with conceivable future events"2 (Alheit 1983: 189). The cyclical, routine, repeated character of the everyday offers security and provides sets of "frames" for communication and interpretation (see below for Tannen 1993 and Bednarek 2005). Stepping out of the everyday frame to "tell" a story of the past, to recall something, to reminisce, is a trigger to retrospective (self-) analysis, no matter how casual it may be. It may be seen as a need to re-establish "order" or "balance" each time the secure frame of the everyday is departed from, for however brief a moment.

The "normal" division of a life into expectable, foreseeable lifetime phases – adolescensce, school, the job, the family etc. – signifies each time a departure from the everyday dimension and the plunge into the potentially threatening environment of the new. In each such case, Alheit argues, we stand before the problem of showing others and ourselves who we are, what we are becoming, what we have been. This task is rendered incomparably more difficult and more threatening in situations when the everyday and its routines and rites, customs and places are thrown out of kilter and where their realignment seems doubtful or even impossible. Having to step out in this way and sort out life both in its everyday manifestation and even more frightenly in its overarching 'meaning' (or what served till then for meaning) "go right to the core of our biography because they endanger a reconstructable and already anticipated continuity of our 'self-plan'"3 (Alheit 1983: 193; see also Fischer-Rosenthal 1995: 50).

The telling of the "story" of the life-plan, the attempt to reconstruct the life/time dimension of the own biography requires the narrator to 'look back', to 'experience again' what it felt like, what happened, actions, emotions, worries, decisions, pains etc. The 'material' of this account is made up of precisely the everyday details, the particularities and idiosyncracies of the everyday, not of the larger life/time. Alheit points out here how the everyday seems to 'heal' the aridity and emptiness of the life/time perspective, rendering it vivid and specific, personal and tellable, the more so the less useable the old 'corset' of the life/time has become (Alheit 1983: 195).

The everyday

Ilona lived throughout her working life in the GDR in the neighbourhood of the Soviet Red Army barracks in M. Throughout her narrative, not once did she refer to the presence of the Red army in political, strategic, historic or moral terms, where any or all of such categories could be supposed to be available to her. The 'Russians' ("Russkies") appear "poor things, nothing to eat", they could sing so well when they were drunk, and her daughter used to take them soup in the winter.

Frau Hayler

G. Hayler, 77, employed as English lecturer from 1956 till 1990 in the various departments of the former Technical University of M. till her retirement a few months after the fall of the Berlin Wall

Of the uprising in 1953, of such political and social import for the development of the GDR and Eastern Europe generally, her narrative takes her on the fateful day off to visit a friend in a quiet village. Though in itself unproblematic – serving as it does to relativise the grand story of the uprising – no comment is dedicated to the aftermath of the suppression of the strikes and to the imprisonments and clampdown that inevitably followed. Frau Hayler in a sense passes out of history itself in that she moves from 'communist' Halle to the less political (because formerly social-democratic) M.

Vignette 1
Narrative biographies – frames, structures of expectation and embedded speech

In her work on ‘frames’ and ‘framing devices’, Deborah Tannen (Tannen 1993a, 1979/1993b), drawing heavily on concepts developed by Erving Goffman (1959 and 1981) contributes a further insight into the structure of autobiographical talk when she talks of “structures of expectation” and their role in “verbalization in the telling of oral narratives” (Tannen 1979/1993b: 15). These structures of expectation – tacitly understood meanings in spoken interaction about what is meant, not about what is said – establish a common-sense basis of understanding characterised – to use Goffman’s definition – by “‘normatively residual’ ambiguity” (Goffman 1981: 11). Tannen here, in stressing the play of commonly held cultural “schemas of knowledge” (Tannen 1979/1993b) with individual interaction is echoed by Schiffrin’s interest in the ability of narrative to verbalize and situate experience and thereby provide a “resource for the display of self and identity” (Schiffrin 1996: 168).

Ambiguity, however, and incompleteness characterise the autobiographical narrative. The individual is seen to have access to a range of discourses and constitutes her narrative self through the medium of language and interaction (Weedon 1987: 76-78). Linde, too, points out how other peoples’ stories (related in reported speech, embedded and ‘layered’ in the telling) become ‘own’ stories through a process of appropriation or conversion (Linde 1993: 35). The discontinuous and unfinished state of the biographical narrative is embodied therefore in the discourse employed by the autobiographical narrator. Here Goffman’s concept of ‘embedding’ can be used to describe this aspect of the speaker’s ‘self’. The words we speak, he points out, “are often not our own, at least our current ‘own’” for “although who speaks is situationally circumscribed, in whose name words are spoken is certainly not” (Goffman 1981: 3). Thus embedding makes it possible to ‘enact’ numerous voices over space and time within the interactive frame of the oral narrative and narrative interview (Goffman 1981: 4). This is a central feature of interactive talk in the research interview. Indeed, for the development of ‘own’ discourses within an emergent learning biography, the ‘converted’ and ‘enacted’ words of others or a non-current ‘self’ – what I have called elsewhere ‘embedded speech’ (Evans 2004; forthcoming) – are an important device for contextualization of talk and serve as a ‘plausibility device’ to ground its discoursal validity.

Interaction, the subject/self and voicing transition

Biographical narratives, then, are to a large extent reliant both on the cluttering details of the everyday and the ambiguous, and partly for that reason therefore claimable and re-cyclable words and 'frames' of layered accounts offered in interaction by others. Giving voice in biographical narrative to change and to continuity is, in Fischer-Rosenthal's words a constant act of 'self-explanation': "Basically, everywhere where - for whatever reasons – life/time continuity is in question, biographical work is necessary in communicativen processes involving the giving of meaning and joint validation of meaning. It is always a question of self-explanation"4 (Fischer-Rosenthal 1995: 52).

An important aspect of this joint biography work is that the discourses involved are not merely ambiguous and in need of validation but that the interaction is played out in a potentially threatening environment where the biographical 'self', - however difficult it is to formulate sufficiently clearly the theoretical demarcations here between the discourses of self and the construction of emergent identity, - is in a state of becoming/changing. Wengraf, drawing on Hollway and Jefferson's concept of the psychoanalytic subject whose actions and relations with others are influenced by the unconscious defences deployed to cope with anxiety (Hollway and Jefferson 2000: 168) points out that there is not one subject "engaged in unconscious defences against anxiety" motivated "not to know certain things about themselves", but of course two anxious defended subjects in any dyadic interview situation (Wengraf 2000: 144). He is absolutely right to underscore this aspect of risk and insecurity, shared, in different ways, by researcher and researched. "In the interview," he argues

the researcher also must be assumed to be at least potentially 'motivated not to know' certain things that would be upsetting for him or her, and thus subtly or obviously influencing the production of some or all of the text of the interview (Wengraf 2000: 144).

In the vignettes we saw above, the researcher most decidedly was faced with 'unknowables.' Both parties negotiate their way around these 'gaps' in the biographical work, in a rite of unspoken constraints. Yet these very constraints are evidence of the joint work of the biographies, the telling and the told, the hearing and the interactive work of recognition. The field of narrative elicitation, is "personal identity work" (Coffey 1999: 40) and establishing field relations involves working rapports and trust, commitment and personal investment, genuineness and reciprocity (Coffey 1999: 39-42). The talk issuing in co-production from the participants in a biographic interview or indeed any situation in which the life-story in some form is told, is not a 'head thing', mental and intellectual, but very much embodied and mediated inter-relationally, physically, just as the physical also hinders and filters elements of understanding and recognition (see Sieder 1999: 251-2). Mason makes a similar observation, for she finds that subjects in biographical narratives are frequently not subjects with relations to others, but rather 'relational subjects' embedded in relations which condition their narratives and meaning-making (Mason 2004: 177-8). My respondents, too, are present, and enact embodied narratives. Their talk enacts and envisions their social worlds, from the microcosms of their momentary emotions to their embeddedness in the issues confronting them. The many strands of their narrations encompass their selves and their interlocking identity frames: the "Ossi"5 professional happy to have 'survived', the professional who can count themselves lucky to still be there (there but for the grace of God ...); professionals whose past careers in another social space were valued and valuable, professionals whose professional status has been vetted and considered appropriate, adequate, permitted; professional individuals who must juggle with multiple "personae", interacting with 'fellow-Ossis' or 'Wessis' or worse, and so on. We related in the telling and the listening as peers, yet as competitors, too, on a local, everyday level as well as on the historical, cultural level of the larger life/time dimension of the biography.

Biographies in transition

Having seen the necessity of maintaining a balance between the personal narrative and the social narrative, and the composition and re-composition of biographical stories and accounts out of own and others' words, experiences, and interpretations, it is time to bring these together with the critical experience of the breaks in social practices and expectations brought about in a situation like that of the 'Wende'. Central ideas here are the threat of erasure of events from the biographical narrative as well as euphemisms that camoflage and disnature experience, justification instead of explication, silence istead of communication and the strains these exits put on the individual biography. After considering briefly the pressures on biographical construction peculiar to moments of disruption and threatening transition, I will turn to the particular features of East German 'mentalities' and the 'retarded' or 'delayed' nature of the GDR society and the notion of embattled or besieged social spaces employed by Alheit in his most recent large scale analysis of biographies in the former GDR (Alheit et al 2004). I hope that by approaching the biography work exemplified here – in however limited a fashion – via this route, the workings of transitions on biograpical work and the voicing of transitions in narratives may be more wholly unfolded.

The self-explanations and self-descriptions that make up biographies arise in the nexus of lived lives and lived social life/history (Fischer-Rosenthal 1995: 44). This essential entwining of the personal with the social dictates the awarding of significance to the present concerns of the subject. Looking back, viewing wheres/he has come from, pondering on where this is all leading, the biographical subject recreates past, present and future with the palette of the immediate now, whereby the 'now' contains both temporal as well as spacial elements and current/non-current 'other perspectives' (following Goffman 1981). The use of these perspectives and interpretive options must be seen as vital resources for the upholding of everyday order or its restructuring (Fischer-Rosenthal 1995: 53). Vital, for the greater the breach or rupture in continuity caused by transitions (from one job to another, from a marriage to a divorce, from health to illness, or from stable employment to permanent unemployment) the greater is the individual's need to bring back a semblance of balance to a biographical project in the process of losing its bearings. It is at moments like these, argues Fischer-Rosenthal, that "recourse is made to affirmation or to strategies of silence, of justification and of euphemism"6 (Fischer-Rosenthal 1995: 72)

Ultimately, such exclusions or tabu topics have a disintegrative effect on the individuals, hindering access to an appropriate own biography, a biography appropriate to the person and the timescale and contents of the biographical events, thus repeating and adding to the suffering or difficulties already experienced. By denying or slurring over seminal parts of the historical/social contents of a life/time narrative, the subject is deprived of their own biographical resources, and is likely thrown back on the frames of others', on ready-made scripts, fashioned to hide and conceal, travesty and embellish the actual events. The strains put on many biographical constructions in the post-Wende GDR may give rise to this kind of 'gap text' account.

Biographies in a 'delayed' society

A further exacerbating cause of incomplete biographies among East Germans who experienced the Wende as adults (but, as Alheit's work seems to demonstrate, among the young and very young, too – see Alheit et al 2004), is the larger problem of the democratic maturity of East German society. Thus Alheit argues that "East German society is a structurally modernity-averse and a 'delayed' society"7 (Alheit et al 2004: 7). By this he means that the notorious "late arrival" (Verspätung) of social modernisation in Eastern Germany (but his analysis is extended to Germany as a whole in contrast to the civil societies like France, the UK and the North American democracies) has as its result a lack of that unfolding of social resources characteristic of societies in which social classes and groups are less "bounded" the ones from the others and in which intellectually, morally and behaviourally groups are less subject to the "siege" or "embattled" mentality he deems characteristic of East German society in particular (Alheit et al 2004: 42). Mentalities in this sense are not merely psychic dispositions, nor do they merely represent an intuitive relationship to the world; rahter, they construct this social world, they condition and pattern relationships between groups and classes, between estates and individuals, between men and women, adults and children and so on. As interpretational models and a kind of "social grammar" mentalities impinge upon, dictate and create the discourses of self, identity and person employed in biographical work (Alheit et al 2004: 14-15).

A society like that of the GDR, tending to relative stagnation while hardening in its standardising efforts, maintaining pseudo-milieus (e.g. the 'proletariat' as ruling class) on a formal level, while on the informal levels people turned their backs on the official spaces of social life to dedicate themselves to a certain form of egocentric withdrawal harbours within its fabric imbalances that the transition of 1989 exacerbated beyond expectations.

A besieged social space

Because of this network of mutually ignoring social spaces, the formal and the informal, and because of the all-pervading pseudo-officialities of socialist humanism and ideological solidarity, Alheit uses the term "surrounded/umstellt" to characterise the blocked, separate social space of everyday practices in the GDR, separated as they were from the public discourses of the political and official worlds of this society (Alheit et al 2004: 30). Social modernisation, which would require processes of relatively more open social learning are blocked by the "public staging of pseudo-milieus" of the political-ideological kind. Spontaneous processes of association, which are automatically reflected in discourses of learning and biographical work, and the construction of 'genuine' milieus of social association are hindered by ubiquitous systems of control and constant states of mistrust (Alheit et al 2004: 33).

The difficulty of constructing biographies of transition

The important point it seems to me here is that with the disruption of the social space within which careers and CVs were projectable and secured, the accumulated knowledge of institutions and structures, places and people, behaviours and customs which taken together make up 'biographical knowledge' (Rabe-Kleberg 1995: 36) is in danger of being devalued or simply scrapped. Such 'biographical knowledge' can be individual and collective, specific to a class or a generation (and both or all, of course), is gendered and empowered/disempowered and can be seen as the basis of that ability to consider one's biography anew at each phase of its construction – i.e. agency – which is a crucial feature of biographical competence. Rabe-Kleberg argues convincingly that the extension of the concept of devaluation of biographical knowledge commonly applied in migration research to explain the catastrophic loss of routine competence in migrants, finding themselves separated from their own networks and relationship structures and adrift, so to speak, in a foreign, alien environment, can be aptly applied to the people of the former GDR, who though they remained where they were (forgetting for a moment the significant numbers who chose to migrate to the West) found themselves overtaken and swamped by the institutions and gatekeepers of West Germany, with the resulting experience of ignorance and the loss of that vital biographic knowledge necessary to maintain options and paths to autonomous decision-making and to construct biographies which make use of a whole range of interactionally validated meanings (Rabe-Kleberg 1995: 36-7).

3. A society in transition

Frank, 42, formerly university instructor of Portuguese, since 1990 teacher of English

Frank was employed in a ministry-sponsored crash course programme for Portuguese, teaching and preparing government employees for work in Portuguese-speaking Africa, at the time allied politically with the Socialist Bloc. The strict yearly routine with 30 to 40 people sent out to the small castle 50 kilometres away from the Technical University of M. to be taught up to proficiency in the language in 8 months, came to an abrupt end when the Berlin Wall fell.

"1990 everything changed at a stroke", Frank says, the Portuguese programme was stopped, in less than 3 months English was introduced. "Everyone changed their plans completely".

"There was a total change of direction …"

"I was the first to leave the sinking ship …" and he was away to M., to the university, where he straightaway began teaching English.

Vignette 2
The "Wende" (the transition from the GDR to the BRD) came as a sudden blow to many. Yet, unlike the other countries of the former Eastern Bloc, East Germany did not have to "go it alone" in the difficult process of conversion of the economy and society from a failing planned economy to a "free" market economy and a Western-style democracy. As Bynner and Silbereisen point out, however, though the transition process from real existing socialism to a Western-style liberal democracy might seem relatively straightforward given the common cultural past and language shared with the former Federal Germany, in fact "for East Germans the speed of change constituted a dramatic rupture with the assumptions and expectations of the immediate past" (2000: 1). The same authors warn too against overlooking the more general waves of development affecting industrialised societies - and by extension the construction of individual biographies in times of rapid transformation - (Bynner and Silbereisen 2000: 2) but in terms of immediate impact on structures of professionalism, employment conditions and the political context, it seems warranted to see the transition undergone in the former GDR in the 1990s as similar only in part to the experiences of the rest of Eastern Europe, as something of a special case, therefore.

To understand better the forces working on the formation of 'normal', and after the Wende, 'transition' biographies, it will be useful to review the pre-Wende centrality of the institution 'career' (Corsten 1995) and the effects of its breakdown.

The literature on the GDR is unanymous in characterising this society as 'regulated', in which careers were highly “standardised”, with the result that people had widespread high expectations of security and stability (Berger 2001: 249). Further and Higher Educational targets were very significantly oriented to the creation and furtherance of the 'specialist worker' (Facharbeiter) and qualifications in all institutions and at all levels were couched in technically egalitarian terms (Sackmann and Wingens 1995: 119), so that Alheit speaks of the 'egalitarian modesty' ("egalitäre Anspruchslosigkeit") which went to make up the centrally determined Middle-of-the-road habitus ("verordnete Durchschnittshabitus") in GDR everyday life (Alheit et al 2004: 33; Alheit 1995: 102), while Berger characterises the GDR as a 'career-centred society' ("verberuflichte gesellschaft") (Sackmann and Wingens 1995: 120). The DDR was incomparably more fixated on work as the centre of social existence and all social status values systems than West Germany; the proportion of people tied up in work relations of whatever nature was in 1989 significantly higher than that of the old BRD; in addition, there was essentially no difference in the way men and women saw this, both defining themselves and their life courses largely according to work relationships (Berger 2001: 250-251). Where stable career structures represent a foundation of the life-course plan, career identity is naturally fortified in the same way: the linking within the professional spaces of the GDR of career, profession and identity was felt to guarantee on a social level "stable external evaluation" and on the individual level "stable self-evaluation"8 (Corsten 1995: 48). Further, on account of the thorough regulation and political control of vocational and educational training there existed a regime of which Berger calls 'sufficient qualification', i.e. there existed the generally automatic reward of an appropriate job for a certain qualification. This made possible “practically exact biographical planning potential"9” (Berger 2001: 259).

Coupled with the standardisation of qualifications and thus career-entries, the whole process from school to university of choosing a subject, opting for a degree or vocational direction and finding employment thereafter was subject to a formally needs-driven planning and allocation policy10 (Sackmann and Wingens 1995: 119-20). This is reflected unambiguously in the biographies of my interviewees, whereby the formal workings of the system are seen to be the trigger for surprising evidence of self-initiative and self-directed 'biography-career work', as in this first vignette:

Wilma, 58, teacher-trainer (Russian language), interpreter, after the Wende university English teacher

Wilma chose language at school because they "were fun", completed her Abitur in an all girls sixth form. More or less all of the girls wanted to be an interpreter or a stewardess, the catch being that it was only possible to study to be an interpreter in Leipzig. She wanted to do Spanish and English, but at the interviews there was always a slavic language on offer instead. The interviewers 'offered' her Polish and she said "on the spot" that she "didn't want to". By chance the same day she heard that the Institute for Adult Education was holding interviews, she went there and "became an adult educator". There she was offered Russian, too, yet with English. She passed the examination. They offered her the career in teacher training for the university, "you are good" they said "we'll take you".

Vignette 3
In a similar way to how Wilma thwarts the proposals of the formal system of direction and allocation, Frank's way into his originally unintended career in Portuguese is told in the subtely wry fashion he is a master of that manages to turn a narrative of disempowerment into a saga of having 'dodged' the system, surely an example of the biographical 'scripts' or 'frames' I shall have cause to speak of later on:


Frank was in a class in the city of R. which was specialised in languages, with everyone in the class doing Russian and English. Everyone wanted to be able to do Spanish. Because Frank "hadn't been completely stupid" in Russian, he had to learn Polish for three years. On account of his specialisation I Polish he stood a very good chance of having to continue in the slavic languages at university. "I wasn't actually too keen about that" he says. He was "eyeing" being an interpreter, the only catch being that in the GDR you could not choose the language you be an interpreter in, that was allocated to you according to needs.

After the revolution in Portugal in 1974 and the liberation of the ex-Portuguese colonese in Africa, portuguese was massively pushed in the GDR, to prepare government employees and educational 'specialists' for periods of work abroad. Frank was chosen in his year with 10 others from the whole of the Republic to study in Leipzig, 4 years studying Portuguese and English.

After graduating he was automatically assigned to the crash courses in the castle at Hohenerxleben.

Vignette 4
Michaela, 42, a long-standing colleague of Frank's, tells a superficially similar story, yet here we have a different genre or script, more closely resembling the self-effacing undemanding modesty of expectations that Alheit associates with the classic topos of the rather 'grey' egalitarian 'middle of the road', and which is predicated on the proletarian-workerist, work-oriented mainstream discourse dominating civil values in the GDR (Alheit et al 2004: 33; Alheit 1995: 102):

Michaela, 42, tells how her "interest for Physics and Maths got less" in her sixth form years and she turned more to languages. She developed, too, "the desire to do adult education". She applied to Leipzig and was, like Frank, one of 10 chosen from the whole GDR to study languages and adult education. She applied for Spanish, following the advice of her father, but they offered her Portuguese, "Africa was coming up". Michaela took to her studies, was excited by her work placement in the castle at Hohenerxleben where she worked in the crash programme for future specialists in Angola. Despite wanting to stay at the castle, she was required to return to study and she obtained the offer to progress to do a doctorate. The dissertation would have to be about Galician, however, and "another language, no thanks – I wanted to go back to Hohenerxleben. That is really my life"

On the experience in the castle at Hohenerxleben, Michaela thinks and says: "We were there for them. It was, it was really … great, we were a community. That was my whole life"

Vignette 5
With the Wende came massive threats of insecurity, unemployment, marginalization, career and what seemed a stable life purpose in one went off the tracks within weeks, months. My respondents were, with one exception, all in full and stable employment at the time of the fall of the Wall. Despite the signs of political instability that had begun to make themselves seen and felt since the late 70s (Alheit 1995: 107-8), themselves subtle signs of the loss of cohesive power of the psuedo-rationale of the central role of the working class in the young socialist

Ilona,_63,_English_teacher,_formerly_Russian_teacher,_now_retired,_part-time_employment_as_assistant_teacher_in_English'>Ilona, 63, English teacher, formerly Russian teacher, now retired, part-time employment as assistant teacher in English

"I thought I could grow old with my Russian"

Vignette 6
republic and thus of much of the logic of the social-civic value systems embodied in the educational and job allocation structures my respondents had had to pass through, the certainties and guarantees still overtly, officially enshrined and maintained in GDR institutions and practices for traditional routes to qualifications, to adulthood, to family life and maturity existed and persisted till the bare reality of the 'transition' of 1989 arrived. At a sweep, Bynner and Silbereisen remark, notions of security were radically reformulated: "Such developments, characteristic of risk societies ... passing through late modernity ... challenge particularly the German notion of identity based on occupation, 'I am what I am trained to be' (Bynner and Silbereisen 2000: 4). They point out further the "increased vulnerability to social exclusion of certain groups who in the past had been absorbed into adult society relatively easily", and while they are referring specifically to adolescents in education, it is important to add that the young, women and the professionally active all had stakes in the social spaces of the society of the GDR which fell away and were replaced by alternative, unfamiliarly threatening social spaces, with concomitant loss of social capital or otherwise (Bynner and Silbereisen 2000: 6).

With the threat to employment for the members of the professions came 'evaluation', political, professional, official and ad hoc. Boards of evaluators, largely brought in from the West, were employed in 'running-down' processes, euphemisms for collective dismissals and the relegation of tried specialists to the ranks of the apprentices, if not the unemployed. Reactions like those of Wilma are probably common. Single adjectives express the bleakness of the times.

Wilma, 58, teacher-trainer (Russian language), interpreter, after the Wende university English teacher

"1992 the evaluations came. Once political evaluation, another one for your subject, then the department was reorganised and everyone was evaluated another time. A commission from the old bundesländer. The Gauck commission had checked everyone11. Help was offered for anyone who went away from the university to go into the schools. For Russian it was really bad. Whoever was able to teach German was lucky to be able to teach at private schools.

It was a very hard time. We always had to prove that we were good enough to remain at the university."

"It was humiliating".

Later "it became very quiet" at the university.

Vignette 7
The experience of evaluations, two three or more within the space of as many years, was shared by all my interviewees, yet with the exception of Wilma no overt mention was made of this time. Equally bitter, yet tellingly abstract (and significantly ahistorical) were such remarks as Ilona's:


It was "very hard". "After every war there have been things like that …"

Vignette 8
Michaela seems to make a point of slurring and blurring the contours of the experience, which she makes no secret of having disliked:


"Some just went away altogether, some were unemployed"

"I didn't really take it in. I can't really remember much about it, I was busy with my baby, didn't really …"

Vignette 9
On the other hand, telling details of the complete 'clear out' that the Wende signified for whole institutions, academic processes, learning and teaching biographies, are contained in Michaela's narrative:


"Secretaries were taken over by the university, everything had to be cleared out… A lot was thrown away … I took an edition of Schiller"

She had begun, of her own accord, in 1986, a doctorate in Portuguese, not the Galician that had been pressed upon her some years before:

"I began my dissertation in 1986, I had got pretty far with it, about modality in Portuguese, I was quite advanced with it, the literature part was ready, I had everything in a shoebox … the journal I used was a communist journal2

After the Wende "my supervisor said I needn't expect to get anywhere with that kind of source … I simply didn't make an effort to have my way … I didn't have the strength"

She made some moves to carry on with her research but she got the response that "they weren't interested in her continuing her doctorate…"

Vignette 10
There is much in a narrative like Michaela's (but also Ilona too turns away from the events, substituting cynicism and mistrust for the more obvious resignation and regret heard in Michaela) that reproposes a common reaction: in place of critical self-reorientation we see something like acceptance and adaptation to social constraints as a reflex reaction (see Korfes 1995). The whole process of evaluation from without and without recourse to known institutions and the security of recognisable outcomes seems to generate at best a rapid, cynical-adaptive judgement and it seems plausible to hear in this a tension that, perhaps surprisingly, after 15 years is still unresolved. Korfes, in her examination of the same phenomenon in relation to members of the legal profession comes to the conclusion that 1) those who were taken on again after the evaluation process took the date of their reinstatement as the start of a new phase in their professional ( and personal) biographies, and 2) they surprisingly and somewhat confusingly presented their career biographies as examples of continuity, where their professional workplaces had changed in every conceivable fashion, suggesting that this rationalisation serves as a means of overcoming the break in their biographies (Korfes 1995: 160-2).

The "Wende" was sudden, it came hard, yet it was in fact an announced fall, and though with hindsight certainly the last of a series of shocks, in any case causally linked with a range of other disruptions to the GDR system during the 70s and 80s. Thus Alheit argues that despite the fact that the reunification process had and still has a deep effect on the social fabric and social praxis of the East German regions, he is at pains to stress that the "special East German situation" is not "simply a product of the Wende", rather he considers that "the state of mentality in East Germany has at the same time historic depths"12 (Alheit et al 2004: 8). His judgement seems to be borne out by my own ongoing research among this professional collective, that "A serious political discussion about German pasts after reunification of both German societies has to date not found an arena"13 (Alheit et al 2004: 8).

4. Discussion:

Conclusions are at the present time still rather provisional. Please accept my apologies. I expect to develop this section on the basis of discussion and after more work on the interview extracts (which are also lamentably crude right now).

Nevertheless, there are a number of first simple observations that can be made on the basis of the interview experience.


To the question, are there voices of transition, are they hearable and how can they be interpreted?

The voices of all respondents are "defended", emotionally laden, cautious, and "shifting".

In every case there is evidence in the talk as well as on the basis of the interview experience to suggest that there is extreme guarding against the intrusion of discourses (ideas such as freedom of choice, initiative, defiance, protest, leadership, defending rights, etc) which seem to be construed as hostile; personal life histories are opaquely a-historical; life/time horizons are rarely confronted; own past experience is trivialised or rendered comical (the whole system was comical, therefore …); cynical interpretations embrace the supra-personal and close the possibility of open exchange

"Official", formal discourses of the GDR past are non-negotiable, as their discussion and use as biographic resources necessarily positions the respondents as defended individuals and as members of collectives that no longer exist (and have no discursive right to exist, they feel, they know)

"Tacit" discourses abound: discourses of emotion (resentments, loss, regret, ambivalences to the former state of things as to the present state of things); the "Wende" itself is relatively safe ground – this is a supposedly accepted "script" that all can jointly use (i.e. no-one thinks the Wende was a "good thing")

Discourses remain embedded within locations/spaces which no longer pertain and are de-valued; this affects directly identification procedures with the profession, the institution, work and work ethos, research and its value, private life and private ambitions (e.g. travel, preferences, residual membership categories of the Soviet bloc)

Respondents occupy the "victorious spaces" of unification (superficial historical clichés and set scripts) yet distrust seems to remain, caution of the "other", members of other historical spaces closed to my respondents for reasons of biography

The necessity of having a "correct" biography 16 years on remains the most obvious cadence heard.

Are they successful, in the sense of possessing (now) an upwardly linear biography? (Wohlrab-Sahr 1995).

Irritations are set loose by the drawing of comparisons after 1990 with other measurements of success.

These people have effectively left behind themselves their own biographies. They have assumed new biographies, adapted to new biographical trajectories. Unreflectively. Or only in part.

Managing the "breaks", or just pasting them over?


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1 Between the early summer and autumn of 2005 thirteen members of staff of the language centre of an East German university were interviewed by me. Interviews were arranged and conducted for the most part after the end of the semester when a certain calm had set in. Most interviews required a set-up time of at least one month before a suitable time or venue could be agreed. 11 of the the 13 interviews were individual, 2 members of staff were interviewed together, for the only reason that they happened to be together in their room when an opportune moment arose. The average length of each interview was 90 minutes, though 3 exceeded this (150, 180 and 240 minutes respectively). All were recorded with a digital recording device except for 2, on the express wish of the interviewees in these 2 cases not to record anything. The digital recordings were transferred to my PC and to CD-ROMs, for analysis with text-analysis software (for a discussion of the methods and possibilities in the use of digital collection and analysis, see Evans 2004).

The opportunity to begin the process of interviewing was offered by the celebration within the university of 50 years of the language centre, which allowed the experience of the past in the GDR to be coupled with the developments since 1990.

Very preliminary results – more impressions – were made known in a talk I gave at the Conference around the 50th anniversary celebrations in November 2005. In this talk I dwelt on the significance of biographic work, on the role of institutions and their relationship to identities, and on the transformation of social and individual spaces in the social environment of the professionals I interviewed, since the end of the GDR. A publication is due to appear arising from this talk sometime in the near future.

2 ["…der vorvergangene mit vergangenen Ereignissen, vergangene mit gegenwärtigen und schließlich gegenwärtige mit zukünftig denkbaren verbindet"]

3 [" … treffen immer die Substanz unserer Biographie, weil sie eine rekonstruierbare und bereits antizipierte Kontinuität unseres 'Selbstplanes' gefährden"]

4 [“Kurzum, ueberall, wo – aus welchen Gruenden auch immer – lebenszeitlicher Kontinuitaet in Frage steht, ist biographische Arbeit in kommunikativen Prozessen von Bedeutungserteilung und gemeinsamer Bedeutungsvalidierung erforderlich. Es geht immer um ein Sich-Erklaeren ….”]

5 The terms 'Ossi' (Ostdeutsche/East German) and 'Wessi' (Westdeutsche/West German) are still as current today in 2006 as they were 16 years ago.

6 [“…je grosser die Kontinuitaetsbruch ist, desto grosser ist der biographische Thematisierungsbedarf. Sobald allerdings das individuelle oder kollektive Transformationspotential ueberfordert ist, geraten affirmative Thematisierungen in den Vordergrund, oder werden Strategien des Verschweigens, des Rechtfertigens und Umschreibens eingesetzt”]

7["die ostdeutsche Gesellschaft (ist) eine strukturell 'modernisierungsresistente', eine 'verspätete Gesellschaft']

8 [(Berufsidentität) "Sie erzeugt auf sozialer Ebene stabile Fremdzurechnungen, auf individueller Ebene die Chance, stabile Selbstzurechnungen vorzunehmen"]

9 ["weitgehend fixe biographische Planungshorizonte"]

10 The system as described here corresponds most nearly to the first 20 years of the GDR, i.e. up to the late 70s at the most. Thereafter, while the system continued in place, and took on if possible even more static or stagnant form, the degree of informal career-choice and mere lip-service to the formal structures was on the increase up to the Wende (see Alheit 2004; Berger 2001; Sackmann and Wingen 1995).

11 The Gauck Commission, set up in 1990 to coordinate the investigation of the activities of the former State Security of the GDR, the "STASI", was named after ist first commissioner. It continues its activities today at its headquarters in Berlin.

12 ["Die Mentalitätslage in Ostdeutschland hat gleichsam eine historische Tiefe …"]

13 ["Das ernsthafte politische Gespräch über deutsche Vergangenheiten hat nach der Vereinigung der beiden deutschen Gesellschaften vorläufig noch keinen Ort gefunden"]


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