A dialogical approach to cultural identity: A study based on life-narrative interviews and life-reminiscence group sessions with elderly Jewish immigrants from the former Soviet Union

Date of Completion

January 2003


Anthropology, Cultural|Gerontology|Sociology, Individual and Family Studies|Sociology, Ethnic and Racial Studies




The study is a secondary analysis of 27 transcripts of life-narrative interviews and transcripts of a four-session life-reminiscence group. The subjects (three men, seven women) were elderly (70 + years old) Jewish refugees from the former Soviet Union who had all participated in the University of Connecticut Life Transitions Research Project (Thomas, 1995). Their complex and diverse thoughts about their Jewish identities dominated the data and were reflected in several themes. ^ They came from “traditional” Jewish families. Their attitudes towards religion varied significantly but remained a part of their meaning-making. Living under oppression led to mutual separation from the Soviet regime and emergence and significance of “Jewish collectives.” They survived WWII and the Holocaust. Finally, they stressed the family as an alternative to social life. ^ The data showed the Jews in the Soviet Union were active and productive in Jewish identity search. The second research stage mapped historically the diversity of the subjects' ideas used in it. Using the theory of the Jewish Identity Crisis (a centuries-long development of meaning of being Jewish) I compared its major ideas with the themes from the data. I found certain resemblance and was able to distinguish “voices” covering all major themes of the Jewish Identity Crisis. ^ While some of the “voices” were clear and powerful, others were somewhat muted and rare. The third stage of research was to critically examine my conclusions. I found that in spite of some shallowness related to certain ideas mentioned in earlier stages, it was legitimate to classify Jews from the former Soviet Union as cultural heirs of the Eastern European Jewry. The subjects used a broad variety of ideas about being Jewish, reflecting their strong connections to Jewish heritage and personal importance of Jewishness. ^ An important part of my research was a successful introduction of the notion of dialogical identity, which allowed revealing hidden connections and cultural unity of the subjects' cohort in spite of contradictory, often mutually exclusive, statements about their Jewishness. The dissertation addresses also several cornerstone questions of qualitative methodology, including the role of an interpreter, the problem of preconceived ideas, and the validity of transcriptions. ^