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Autobiographical writing – Academia

Oral History1

 Oral history methodology in academic research

by Andrea Hajek (University of Warwick)

For a long time, oral history methodology has been criticized for its alleged unreliability. As Lynn Abrams puts it in her Oral History Theory (Routledge, 2010), ‘the historical profession kept oral history at arm’s length for some time, not quite trusting it as a legitimate historical source’ (p. 5). It was only from the Second World War onwards that oral history research began to be valued as a serious research method. Thanks to (oral) historians such as Luisa Passerini and Alessandro Portelli, in the 1970s the idea that oral history was unreliable was challenged: they argued that the subjective and narrative qualities of oral history sources were actually their strength.[1]

Oral history remains a complex research methodology, though, which brings along a variety of complementary factors that should be taken into consideration, such as the inter-subjective relation between interviewer and interviewee and the impact of cultural discourses on the creation of subjectivities during the interview process. Nevertheless, it can be extremely valuable in academic research. This article gives practical advice on how to prepare for and carry out oral history interviews.[2]

Before starting an oral history project, always think about why this methodology would be appropriate for your project: what is the output of your research? How will you use your recordings? Oral history is particularly useful if your aim is to fill in gaps in knowledge, analyse how people make sense of the past, or provide perspectives ‘from below’. One example of how oral history can challenge dominant discourses about the past which have silenced the voices of small groups in society can be found in a recent special issue of the journal Memory Studies, entitled Challenging dominant discourses of the past: 1968 and the value of oral history (http://mss.sagepub.com/). Beware, though, that oral history is time-consuming, in particular if you’ll be doing your own transcriptions, so it’s important to think beforehand about how you will be using the material and make a realistic time schedule at the start of the project. There are a number of good transcription software programmes out on the market, some of which can be downloaded for free. Still, these will never transcribe more than 80%, and you will need to fix the remaining 20%. Alternatively, there are professional transcriptionists who can do the job for you.
Finding interviewees is perhaps the most nerve-wrecking part of oral history research, if you are starting from scratch. The most straightforward way to locate interviewees is through local newspapers, archives, community projects and (political) organizations. Once you get in touch with people, use the so-called snow-ball effect, that is, ask them to suggest other interviewees and possibly have them put you in touch: people will be more open to you if you contact them via someone they know and trust.
Once you have an interviewee in front of you, it is important to develop a good interviewing technique. A tip to get the interview rolling is to start with a couple of simple ‘who, what, when’ type questions, or ask basic information about the interviewee, such as date and place of birth, education and employment.

There are several basic types of interview technique. These include unstructured or in-depth interviewing with open-ended questions: this allows you to gain an understanding of the interviewee’s life experience, and the interviewee can talk about their lives in a free-form manner. This does bring along the risk of diverting, so keep an eye on the time if you opt for this technique. Semi-structured interviewing implies using a set of organised questions while allowing time for more open-ended questions. You’ll be able to direct your interviewee better and get more specific information on a subject. Structured interviewing, on the other hand, utilises a standard set of questions which are ordered in a specific way. This is useful if you want to do quantitative analysis later. Focus groups, finally, means that you gather a group of people who discuss the answers together. This could get you a large quantity of information all at once, and is especially useful if you are investigating issues of collective memory or trauma. However, there are a lot of potential side-effects: if interviewees know each other they may not want to reveal certain (embarrassing or private) information. You should also think about whom to assemble so as to make the group as representative as possible. Finally, you’re not going to be just an interviewer but also a moderator.

The ‘ideal’ interview should last between 90 minutes and two hours, depending on the interviewee. You can also do a follow-up interview, if you want to re-elaborate certain topics, gather additional information or confront the interviewee with information you have received from other interviewees.

An important thing to keep in mind is that there are legal and ethical issues involved in oral history research. This is particularly relevant when interviewing medical patients, convicts or children. The interviewee is the copyright holder of the content (the words) of an interview, and you cannot use this content without getting his or her ‘informed consent’, so always make sure the interviewee assigns copyright to you via a consent form which you should be able to get from the research ethics board of your university. A consent form is also important if you eventually want to publish your research in articles or books. You may even need a consent form when refering to information provided by an interviewee, without actually quoting them.

Last but not least, recording equipment. Make sure you have a quality recorder, and possibly also an external microphone in order to get the best sound quality (a simple tie clip microphone will suffice, but if your interview takes place outdoors you may want to consider a uni-directional hand-held microphone). It is recommendable to use digital recorders, which allow you to upload the audio recording directly to your computer and to create as many back-up safety copies as you like. Do ensure, though, that your computer system will be able to support the audio files, and be careful when deleting files.[3]


[1] See on the history of oral history Alistair Thomson, ‘Four Paradigm Transformations in Oral History’, The Oral History Review 34.1, 2006: 49–70.

[2] See also Graham Smith’s research guide on oral history methodology and practice (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/heahistory/elibrary/internal/rg_smith_oralhistory_20111015) and my own online research guides on doing interviews (http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/services/library/researchexchange/topics/gd0085/).

[3] For more reading on various aspects of the oral history interview, see the ‘training’ section on the website of the Warwick Oral History Network: http://www2.warwick.ac.uk/fac/cross_fac/ias/current/networks/oralhistory.

Andrea Hajek received her doctorate from the University of Warwick. Her thesis on the public memory of Italian student movements in the late 1970s will be published in July 2013 (Palgrave Macmillan). She is the Senior Editorial Assistant for the journal Memory Studies, and a founding member of the Warwick Oral History Network. She has edited a special issue on ‘1968 and oral history’ (Memory Studies Vol. 6.1, 2013) and has published in Italian Studies and Modern Italy, among others. She is also a freelance blogger (http://factotumish.wordpress.com/).

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This entry was posted on March 12, 2013 by in Academia.
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