Last week, students responded to two articles outlining the history, philosophy, and methods of oral history interviewing (core of assignment reproduced below). These readings prepared students for the class discussion we had on Thursday April 22. (Additional information on oral history methods & techniques can be found here.)
There were many thought-provoking elements in these student responses . . .
The Purpose of Oral History?
The readings listed below provide an array of reasons why people collect oral history interviews.
A few students alluded to the “social purpose” of a given historical narrative, and critiqued historical interpretations that seemed to have been written from a highly biased point of view (written by “the winners,” so to speak). Gathering oral history recordings can counteract shortcomings in the historical record by giving voice to more diverse groups. Since the 1960s, oral history has increasingly been used to collect narratives from people who belong to groups whose stories have not generally made it into the historical record. This enables historical narratives to include “bottom-up” as well as “top-down” perspectives which contributes directly to sustainability by providing a more representative and democratic interpretation of historical events.
Objectivity, Subjectivity, and Biases in Oral History
Fundamentally–and paradoxically–the oral historian attempts to be as objective as possible so as to frame questions that will garner subjective information from the interviewee. As we’ve discussed in class, there is no such a thing as pure objectivity, but if we don’t at least strive to be as objective as possible we run the risk of being unconscious of the ways in which our own personal biases influence our research process, color our list of questions, and undermine the interview.
As interviewers, we strive to be objective in the following ways:
1) We conduct as thorough research as possible
2) We frame questions with our own biases in mind so as to minimize our own subjectivity
3) We treat our interviewees as we would ourselves like to be treated–by respecting them and the work they do, by listening attentively, and by framing thoughtful questions
In these ways, we also seek to ask questions that will enable the interviewee to speak purely from a subjective standpoint–“speaking their own truth.” This is precisely the information we seek in an oral history interview. We approach an interviewee precisely because they are the experts in their own lived experience, and we’ve identified them beforehand as someone in the community that can help us understand what “sustainability” means to this specific person in this particular place and time.
One student asked, “How many interpretations are needed on an issue to help determine or reveal somewhat factual information, and how reliable do these sources have to be to be taken seriously?” Along these lines, another student asked: “Do interviewers take honesty or the integrity of their subjects into account while they are interviewing them?” The answer to this set of questions is complex, and completely dependent upon the historical question(s) being asked.
All sources can be seen as “factual” to some degree, depending on what use is made of the information. Lies and partial lies can be as informative as “the truth,” depending upon what questions a researcher is interested in pursuing. For example, even a lie, once known as a lie, can tell us something factual (that we know enough facts to know when we see a lie is one kind of knowledge). If the question is a Big Question–i.e., What were the causes of the Civil War, and what was there relative importance?–then the number of interpretations will likewise be large and involve much complexity. If the question is small–i.e., What did General Grant include in the text of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox?–then the answer will be relatively straightforward and involve only one source.
What Is and Is Not Oral History
As the Oral History Association specifies, there are a number of recognized fundamental elements of the practice. Though there is no official oral history certification process, most public history programs include oral history as part of undergraduate and graduate training, and experienced practioners also facilitate educational workshops.
There are a variety of other interviewing styles that may or may not share the same goals as oral history. Students listened to five kinds of interview in class to gain an understanding about the range of interview styles, practices, and purposes:
** Bill O’Reilly interviews Jeremy Glick: This kind of interview is not similar to oral history because: 1) lack of respect for difference exhibited by the interviewer; 2) interview purpose is to sustain a strict ideological perspective and garner television ratings to sell commercial products so as to justify continued broadcast of the program; 3) interview dynamic is conflict-based, with the interviewer set up to “win”
** Jon Stewart interviews John Yoo, Pt. I: This kind of interview is not similar to oral history because: 1) Stewart exhibits more respect for interviewee than does O’Reilly, but does show a lack of respect for the interviewee’s point of view; 2) interview purpose is to combine political commentary with humor to garner television ratings to sell commercial products so as to justify continued broadcast of the program; 3) interview dynamic is conflict-based, with the interviewer striving to “win”
** Terry Gross interviews author Bill Lunch: This kind of interview is not similar to oral history because: 1) Gross shows respect for the interviewer’s information, but frames the interview more as a back-and-forth conversation than as an information-gathering exercise (as is the goal of oral history); 2) though interviewer allows time for interviewee to explain his point of view, the interview is structured more like a conversation than oral history. This kind of interview is broadly similar to oral history because: 1) interview purpose is to focus discussion on author’s research and interpretation and not to “win” an argument
** Ken Meter on Building a Local Food Economy, pt. I: This interview is a kind of oral history because: 1) Interviewer is interested in asking questions of Meter that he can answer fully, and interviewer does not interrupt; 2) interview purpose is to highlight the work of this professional so as to document information pertaining to the topic of interest; 3) interview is structured in the form of an oral history, with both a video and audio component
** Gisela Feldman interview, pt. 1, British Library–Holocaust survivors collection.: This interview is a kind of oral history because: 1) Interviewer is interested in asking questions to learn Feldman’s life history, and interviewer does not interrupt; 2) interview purpose is to gather life histories to document the interviewee’s subjective, lived experience; 3) interview is structured precisely in the form of an audio oral history
Student Reading Response on Oral History Methods & Philosophy
Paul Thompson. “The Voice of the Past: Oral History,” in Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, eds., The Oral History Reader (London, Routledge, 1998), 21-28.
Valerie Yow. “Introduction to the In-Depth Interview,” in Valerie Yow, Recording Oral History: A Practical Guide for Social Scientists (Thousand Oaks, Calif., SAGE Publications, Inc., 1994), 1-31.
In response to the sources above, please provide the following:
1) What did you learn about the philosophy and methodology of oral history, based on these readings?
2) Our goal this quarter is to document the subjective experiences of people in the Portland area to create sources of information for people in the near and distant future as they conduct their own research on topics related to sustainability.; in this way, we’ll be providing a source of information and contributing to the community by giving voice to community members. Considering this goal, how do you see the practices and methods of oral history being of use to us?