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Using Oral History as a social research technique -   A teaching strategy

What is oral history?

Graeme Hitchcock (1995:18) has defined oral history as, the investigation of the past by means of personal recollections, memories, evocations or life stories, where the individual talks about their experiences, attitudes and values to a researcher. The technique has enjoyed a long lineage in social psychology and anthropology. In sociology, oral history is grouped among other human or personal documentary sources, such as letters, diaries and autobiographical accounts, which are most strongly associated with symbolic interactionist and ethnographic traditions. It offers more flexibility than many research techniques and is a very different approach to the 'train tracks' of positivism. The researcher is able to change direction and refine the research problem in the course of the interview. A renewed interest in oral history evidence has been fuelled by developments within critical ethnography, feminism and sociolinguistics.

Why conduct oral history?

'Men make their own history but not under circumstances of their own choosing' - Marx

One of the strengths of oral history is that it recognises that the present has emerged from the past; the past acts as a constraint and provides the context for the present. Oral history gives us access to the informal, it extends beyond official discourse. Young (1971) has described how the hierarchical ordering of 'valued' knowledge reflects a hierarchically ordered society. It follows from this that history is written from the standpoint of the powerful. One of the strengths of oral history is that it gives us access to politically and economically marginalised groups. It extends beyond the limitations of written documents offering a voice to the 'rank and file'. Central here is the problematic nature of knowledge as a social and historical construct and an acceptance that written evidence is only one side of a conflict. Spender (1983) illustrates this simply in her assertion that, What women know frequently dies with them.

Each generation of women forges understandings about subordination, within their own lifetime and from the circumstances of their own lives, but because these meanings do not become the general currency of the culture they are not passed on to the next generation with the result that neither women nor men know about the women that have gone before Spender (1983)

Sociological knowledge itself is a social construct. Roberts et al (1981) have documented the malestream bias within sociology. Thus in asking questions about the utility of oral history we may raise questions about the purpose of sociology in general. Indeed Foucault maintains that good sociology should endeavour to make audible the voice of the the subjugated other.

Practical issues - Getting started

I gave my Lower Sixth students (66) the task of planning, arranging and recording an oral history interview. This was to inform an oral presentation to their peers and a written evaluation of oral history/unstructured interviews as a research technique to be formally assessed.

Before starting the practical element of the assignment the students were cautioned against rushing into data collection prematurely and the need for preliminary research and careful planning was stressed (valuable lessons for coursework later). In class students read extracts and completed workshop activities on black and women's history based around the work of Paul Thompson, Beverly Bryan and Amrit Wilson.

The next stage in the preparatory work involved searching for primary sources on the internet. This is an excellent topic to introduce students to sociology on the superhighway as a little effort is very richly rewarded. Following a brief introductory talk and equipped with handouts listing some of the more lucrative website locations, students worked in pairs trawling the extensive collections of archive material, sampling the transcripts and listening to the audio recordings. A simple oral history search from a subject directory (eg. Yahoo; http://search.yahoo.co.uk/) reveals over 60 sites offering advice and access to transcripts, photographs and archive material. Resource material is likely to grow as the number of documents available on the internet is estimated to double every fifty five days (NCET). For those new to the web, the NCET website provides comprehensive, practical information sheets on 'The Internet and the World Wide Web' (also available free through the post) and 'Internet Searching' (http://www.ncet.org.uk). When students had found and read a range of sources they were able to print out a hard copy of any resources they felt would help them prepare for their practical work or support their written evaluations.

After the I.T. session students focused on the practical issues involved in conducting the interview. This was a good opportunity to reinforce the relative strengths and weaknesses of structured and unstructured interviews generally. The latter requiring more expertise and practice due to its responsive nature. The students were required to prepare as thoroughly as possible by conducting background research and brainstorming themes/issue areas to explore. Ideally the interviewer must be knowledgeable in order to know what is significant and to elicit quality responses. Possible themes/discussion areas include childhood, family, schooling, work life or marriage (although any one, or any aspect, of these could be a focus of reflection in its own right). Once selected, core themes were developed into sets of possible questions. The questions needed to be detailed, specific and numerous to take the interviewee back. In discussing ethics students were advised to send a copy of the core themes and/or explain fully the aim of the interview well in advance of the proposed date for the interview. Students needed to gain the consent of the interviewee to record the interview and possibly play back excerpts to their class and tutor. In accordance with professional practice, students were encouraged to design an appropriate Personal History Release Form based on examples they had found on the internet (eg. U.S.U. Oral History Program Materials Release Form; http://www.usu.edu/~oralhist/personrel.html).

The project raised issues about the relative merits of technological records and issues around transcribing and editing data. The strength of oral evidence lies in its orality. There are obvious difficulties in capturing the spoken word in written form, conveying its texture, nuance and connotation. Students were advised to avoid switching the tape on and off (eg. to allow 'off the record' comments) and to feel comfortable with pauses. Video records had the advantage of illuminating non-verbal communication eg. body language, facial expressions and this can aid transcription accuracy. They are however much more intrusive.

Reliable recording equipment was available from college. Video equipment could be loaned from the Media Studies Department and a set of dictaphones was recently purchased by the Sociology Department through a successful LAWTEC bid. Nevertheless students were trained to assume the worst and to check the quality of the recording beforehand, develop confidence in using the equipment, always to put in a new tape and batteries and to carry spares of both. There were inevitably teething problems. One pair of students were so anxious not to unsettle their interviewee with the equipment that, having tested the quality of the recording at table level, they then plunged the dictaphone into the thick pile of the carpet and were rewarded with the additional problem of the constant hum of an electric fire.

Interview technique

The students were reminded that many interviewees are worried about being recorded and they should try to make the experience as informal and relaxed as possible. They were encouraged to get the flow of conversation going before asking permission to turn the tape on and learned from instances where interviewees changed the tone of their voices or clammed up. Inter-personal skills are required to sustain a natural, conversational and responsive style. Students were urged to sound interested and appreciative, to encourage the interviewee and prompt them where necessary. Access to people's self can only be achieved through demonstrating a persona of understanding, interest and empathy (Humphries, 1984). Active listening skills are essential and body language should also confirm interest. Students were advised to keep their interviewees within a broad area of interest (on 'theme') whilst being careful not to direct the interview too closely. It may be more fruitful to depart from original aims and explore other areas of interest as they arise (hear and react). Willa K Baum (1977) offers the following valuable advice to student interviewers, Don't use the interview to show off your knowledge, vocabulary, charm, or other abilities. Good interviewers do not shine; only their interviews do (http://www.lib.berkeley.edu/).

The best and most effective oral history interviews are those that allow the interviewee to drift backwards and forwards through time and space allowing the individuals subjective experience to come through to the surface Graeme Hitchcock (1995:20)

Students were also reminded not to let their own values and beliefs interfere unduly with the research process. Their interview style should not give away their own position on issues under consideration. This point was discussed in class and acted as a vehicle for raising the issues of objectivity and the desirability of value freedom in sociology generally. (Clearly Amrit Wilson would not have conducted her research at all if she had not identified very strongly with her interviewees. She discusses the issue of objectivity and personal involvement directly in her work).

Building a concept index

On completing the interview the students labelled the tape with the following details: date, location, duration, interviewer(s) and interviewee. As transcribing interview data is a time consuming task, the students were not required to produce verbatim accounts. This did mean however that full transcripts were not available for interviewee confirmation and thus the possibility of respondent validation and its attendant claims to strengthening internal validity were lost. If the material is to go into an archive or is to be subsequently used to develop a concept index, it is useful to log a brief list of up to a dozen key words with each tape to help others identify the core content of each interview . North American examples of key word lists appear in the archive and advice material on the internet. To adapt these and offer a U.K. example, an oral history interview with my father-in-law might contain the following key words: West Yorkshire, Co-operative Society, Slaithwaite, bicycle, Pennines, JU88 bomber, amateur football, Linthwaite trades league (1951). An example of a concept index provided on the internet is the Hayti oral history project documenting the experience of African Americans in the 'Jim Crow South'. Here eight undergraduates at the Centre for Documentary Studies at Duke University, North Carolina, employed conventional categorisation techniques to group themes woven through the qualitative data collected. Six headings representing core themes emerged from their study of senior figures in the Hayti black community ie. church, civil rights, education, segregation, slavery and urban renewal. Each theme was explained and referenced to relevant interview excerpts (http://aaswebsv.aas.duke.edu/docstudies/cds/). It is not necessary to construct a concept index and of course this requires a degree of comparability in experience across interviewees which may not be the case in many classroom projects.

Review and evaluation

The project culminated in each student giving a presentation to the class on their interview. In the majority of cases the interviewee had given their consent to have excerpts played and these were used as the basis of discussion. (It is important for students to keep a note of relevant tape count numbers). Feedback focused on the relative merits of unstructured interviews and the skills necessary for good practice. These were recorded on the board throughout the session and reviewed at the close. The summary of discussion points provided final guidance on the written evaluations which were submitted two days later.

It is not difficult to criticise the reliability of oral history interviews. People are rarely objective about themselves. The human memory is selective and susceptible to distortion. However the value of oral history is less about events and more about meaning. The experience of the interviewee is significant on two levels: the actual lived experience and the perceived experience. There are the additional problems of orality and literality. Oral sources are distinguished by their form, volume and tonal range. This is not easily reducible to written form. Recorded statements may blur distinctions between the factual and the artistic. More significantly, individual testimony tells us little beyond the world in which the individual lives. There is no such thing as a representative autobiography. Good oral history should go beyond simple autobiography. There is a need to 'bring structure back in', otherwise accounts may represent a 'superficial historical consciousness'. Lived experience cannot inform us of the forces which shape our lives. Reality exists outside consciousness eg. class relations and our place within them. Structures can influence values (eg. attitudes to work) which paradoxically may reinforce structures. It is important to place the object of study within a socio-structural context. This is an opportunity to raise Weber's views on methodology with students and stress the desirability of a research strategy which seeks to find out about the view of reality held by the people being studied and the structural factors which help to account for a particular subjective view. The credibility of oral evidence depends on its internal consistency, cross-checking, and whether the account is placed in the wider social context (Lummis, 1987).

The value of oral history in the Lower Sixth classroom is less contentious. Formal and informal opportunities for monitoring learning outcomes exist in workshop activities, class presentations/discussion and written evaluations. On completion of the project the following gains were made: increased motivation, active participation, enhanced group interaction and confidence in I.T. applications. Every student has found and downloaded information from the internet and experienced 'research' for themselves. It should be stressed that the role of the tutor as facilitator and director of activities is an important one. Strong tutor support provides the scaffolding within which active learning proceeds. This proviso aside, the project reflects and hopefully recommends a constructivist approach to curriculum development which may prove useful in teaching those areas of the syllabus which deal with conceptual knowledge, from which students feel most removed.

REFERENCES

  • Bryan, B. (1985) The Heart of the Race. Black Women's Lives in Britain; Virago
  • Hitchcock, G. (1995) 'Writing Lives' Sociology Review ; September 1995 (pp.18-23)
  • Humphries, S. (1984) The Handbook of Oral History: Recording Life Stories; Inter-Action Trust Limited, London.
  • Lummis, T. (1987) Listening to History: the Authenticity of Oral Evidence; Hutchinson Education, London.
  • Roberts, H. (ed.) (1981) Doing Feminist Research; Routledge and Kegan Paul, London.
  • Spender, D. (1983) Invisible Women: Schooling Scandal ; Women's Press, London.
  • Thompson, P. (1988 2nd. ed.) The Voice of the Past; Oxford Opus Books, Oxford University Press.
  • Tonkin, E. (1992) Narrating Our Pasts: the Social Construction of Oral History; Cambridge University Press.
  • Wilson, A. (1978) Finding a Voice. Asian Women in Britain; Virago.
  • Young, M. F. D. (1971) Knowledge and Control; London, Collier-Macmillan.

Biography

Moira Hulme teaches A level and GCSE Sociology at The Blackpool Sixth Form College. She is an Assistant Examiner for AEB Sociology, Paper One. The Sociology Department is also working in partnership with Lancashire Constabulary on a major social survey aimed at developing student research skills and improving the quality of information available to improve community policing in the Blackpool and Fylde area. (An article outlining this project was published in the Autumn 1997 edition of The Social Science Teacher). Feedback on either of these two projects is welcomed.