October 30, 2016

Interviewing Adults about Childhood Experiences

Angela Davis, University of Warwick

Recently I have been writing an article about a group of interviews I conducted with adults who attended different forms of childcare as children. This has led me to think about the problems of oral history with adults about their experiences of childhood.

Conducting oral histories of childhood raises many interpretive challenges. As with all interviews, an analysis needs to take into account the tension between self and public representation, the dynamics between interviewee and interviewer, the function of memory, and the playing out of the past-present relationship in interview narratives (Wright and McLeod 2012). In addition, as Jay Mechling has shown, oral history interviews with adults about their childhood experiences raise some particular methodological concerns. An adult reflecting today upon their childhood, “will be perceiving and interpreting that childhood through her adult, learned categories – from adult notions of propriety to the special vocabularies of popularized psychology” (Mechling 1987, 580-1). Their memories will also be influenced by the powerful cultural narratives of childhood given widespread expression in popular culture, for example as the best of days of your life or the days of innocence and simple times (Wright and McLeod 2012). Personal autobiographical memory is therefore functionally and structurally related to cultural myths and social narratives (Nelson 2003). In her interviews with people who grew up in 1950s Australia, Carla Pascoe found that her respondents recollected their post-war childhoods as safe and free in contrast to the dangers and pressures surrounding the contemporary experience of growing up (Pascoe 2009). Men and women construct their narratives of childhood both in the context of these cultural representations which are specific to their generation and in relation to the experiences of others, such as their children and grandchildren (Wright and McLeod 2012).

However, whilst it is important to be aware of the multiple strands of experience – public and private, and past and present, etc., – within oral history narratives, the benefits of oral history outweigh the limitations.

Mechling, Jay. “Oral Evidence and the History of American Children's Lives.” The Journal of American History 74 (1987): 579-586.
Nelson, Katherine. “Self and Social Function: Individual Autobiographical Memory and Collective Narrative.” Memory 11 (2003): 125-36.
Pascoe, Carla. “Be Home by Dark: Childhood Freedoms and Adult Fears in1950s Victoria.” Australian Historical Studies 40 (2009): 215-31.
Wright, Katie and Julie McLeod. “Public Memories and Private Meanings: Representing the ‘Happy Childhood’ Narrative in Oral Histories of Adolescence and Schooling in Australia, 1930s-1950s.” Oral History Forum d’histoire orale 32 (2012): 1-19.

September 19, 2016

Iconic Stories in the Aftermath of Genocide

Erin Jessee, University of Strathclyde

As oral historians, we often find ourselves drawn to uncovering the stories of ordinary people that are previously untold—at least in public—and which offer insights on historical events and actors that complicate the narratives that tend to circulate in more official settings. Yet as experts who’ve written on the symbiotic nature of collective and individual memory have noted, there are some stories that resonate so deeply with individuals that we incorporate and adapt them as part of our broader life histories, making them an integral part of our personal narratives.1 I’ve encountered this phenomenon repeatedly throughout my research in Rwanda, where in the aftermath of the 1994 genocide (in which an estimated 400,000 to 800,000 civilians, most of whom were members of the nation’s Tutsi minority population, were murdered by extremists affiliated with the Hutu majority population over approximately three months), certain narratives have taken on an “iconic” quality.2

The concept of the “iconic story” was first introduced by Linda Shopes who used it to encapsulate ‘concrete, specific accounts that “stand for” or sum up something the narrator reckons of particular historical importance’ that are ‘presented as unique or totemic events and are communicated with considerable emotional force.’3 To better express their personal importance, Sherna Berger Gluck later expanded this term to include any ‘anecdote that resonates so deeply that the narrator adopts it as her own.’4 In a forthcoming article with Memory Studies, I’ve highlighted four iconic stories that I encountered in Rwanda during fieldwork conducted since 2007 that were recounted by Rwandans from a range of ethnic, regional, political, economic, and social backgrounds. Of critical importance for analysis, the narrators who recited these iconic stories as part of their broader life histories often imbued them with subtle variations in their meaning and intent.

Considered individually, each iteration of these iconic stories was used by the narrators to promote personal political agendas, most frequently aimed at either legitimizing or discrediting the current controversial Rwandan government led by President Paul Kagame.5 However, taken together and in conversation with the narrators’ broader life histories and ethnographic data that surrounded my fieldwork in Rwanda at different points in time, probing the subtle variations between different narrators’ versions of the same iconic story revealed the ethnic and political tensions being negotiated by Rwandans in their everyday, post-genocide lives. It also made visible the ‘amplified silences’ that Rwandan negotiate on a daily basis to ensure they remain in good standing with the government.6 Indeed, I argue that such analysis is often a necessity in modern Rwanda—as well as in other post-conflict, authoritarian settings—given how difficult it can be for ordinary civilians to speak about the complexity of genocide and national history more generally amid concerns of government surveillance and interference, as well as persecution of those perceived to be political subversives. Failure to do so places the researcher at risk of naively reproducing the power dynamics in which they are embedded, for example.

1 See for example, Thomson, A (1994) Anzac memories: Living with the legend. Oxford: Oxford University Press; Ryan, L (2010) Memory, power, and resistance: The anatomy of a tripartite relationship. Memory Studies 4(2): 154-169; Shahzad, F (2012) Collective memories: a complex construction. Memory Studies 5(4): 378-391.
2 For more on the 1994 Rwandan genocide, see Des Forges A (1999) Leave none to tell the story: genocide in Rwanda. New York: Human Rights Watch; and Guichaoua, A (2015) From War to Genocide: Criminal Politics in Rwanda, 1990-1994. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
3 Shopes L (2002) What is oral history? History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web: 2-23. Available at http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/oral/ (accessed 30 July 2016), p.9.
4 Gluck SB (2013) Trust, betrayal, and ‘truths’: reflections on what we do/don’t say about our oral histories – and why. In Sheftel A and Zembrzycki S (eds) Oral history off the record: toward an ethnography of practice. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, p.12.
5 Kagame and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) are often heralded as the saviors of Rwanda for having halted the genocide. Since the genocide, the international community remains impressed by the high degree of political stability and the RPF’s commitment to rapid progress in education, health care, and national unity and reconciliation. However, several human rights organizations and experts have produced damaging reports detailing the lack of civil liberties and democratic reforms in Rwanda. The Kagame regime is criticized for muzzling genuine political opposition, tampering with election results, limiting freedom of expression and freedom of the press, harassing, torturing, and assassinating suspected political dissidents, and waging a proxy war in the DRC. Rwandans who speak out against the RPF’s human rights abuses risk government harassment, illegal detention and imprisonment, and in extreme cases, assassination, resulting in a growing political opposition in exile.
6 Jennie Burnet has introduced the term ‘amplified silence’ in reference to the ‘intense public silence’ that exists ‘surrounding RPF-perpetrated violence experienced by Rwandans of all ethnicities.’ Burnet J (2012) Genocide lives in us: women, memory and silence in Rwanda. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, p.111.

August 17, 2016

On the audibility of time…

Writing about web page https://projectionproject.warwick.ac.uk

Richard Wallace, University of Warwick

Every oral history interview has its place. I mean this literally.

No matter what the subject, who the interviewee, or what the circumstances of the interview, every recorded encounter occurs at a particular place and time. The environment in which an interview is recorded can have an enormous impact on the progress of the interview: an interview conducted at a place of work might lead participants to be more guarded in their responses, for example, and the dynamics of the interviewer/interviewee relationship can often depend on who is ‘hosting’.

More than this, however, and what I’d like to address in this month’s blog, is the way in which the environment can imprint itself in the sonic textures of the interview recording; how we can hear where we are, and why this might be interesting.

To do this I’d like to give a couple of examples from interviews that I have recorded during the last two years for ‘The Projection Project’ (https://projectionproject.warwick.ac.uk/), an AHRC-funded research project exploring the work and history of cinema projectionists. Perhaps inevitably, a number of these interviews have taken place inside projection boxes, where the verbal accounts of what being a projectionist entails is backgrounded by the hums, rattles, clicks and clatters that signify that projection is taking place. In essence I hear the work done twice – once as it is described, and again without words as it just…happens, there is the background.

One interview ostensibly took place in a quiet area of The Tyneside Cinema in Newcastle with the Deputy Technical Manager, Brad Atwill. As with all UK cinemas, the majority of their films are projected digitally. As it happened, at the time of the interview, the cinema was screening a 35mm film print of Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar (2014). In a typical moment of serendipity, that always seem so unlikely, and yet happen so frequently in oral history interviews, just as Atwill is describing the novelty of screening film prints in the digital age, a loud rumbling sound can be heard on the recording. “That’s Interstellar, that rumble”, Atwill points out, and a few minutes later when a second, even louder, rumble can be heard, “that really needs sorting out. Erm, also the sound proofing isn’t great we’re sat right above the Classic’s circle.”

It’s an important moment for me because not only can we hear Atwill describing an unusual part of his current working routine (he doesn’t get to screen film prints regularly anymore) but the traces of his work is audible in the environmental recording. His statement “that really needs sorting out” is also significant, because – for a moment – the environmental concerns overtake the interview situation, Atwill stops being an interviewee and starts being a projectionist, identifying a problem and making a mental note to sort it out during his next shift. The rumble spoils the audio quality of the interview clip, but it tells us so much about Atwill’s working life, and also offers a record of him at work.

I’d like to conclude with one final example. I recently had an interviewee temporarily pause their recollections because their ornate clock began to chime the hour. When we interview people in their homes it is not uncommon for there to be a clock present in the room, and thus, also present in the recording. It’s not something that I imagine we pay great attention to at the time, but when I play the recordings back, the clocks seem to take over, insisting on their own presence; you can’t compete with time, even, it seems, at a sonic level. For a discipline that is so intertwined with exploring memory and its relationship with time, we might do well as oral historians to ensure that we are also paying attention to the aural, to those elements that exist in the recordings beyond the human voices. Listen to the clocks, they have things to tell us.

July 24, 2016

Conference report: OHS 2016 Conference: 'Beyond Text in the Digital Age?'

Writing about web page http://www.ohs.org.uk/beyond-text-in-the-digital-age-conference-report/

Angela Davis, University of Warwick

On the 8-9 July this year’s Oral History Society conference took place at the University of Roehampton on the theme of ‘Beyond Text in the Digital Age: Oral History, Images and the Written Word’.

The conference encouraged us to rethink what we mean by doing oral history in the 21st century. Many new issues are coming to the fore. Does the fact that oral history can now be presented in new ways mean we need to rethink our practice? How do we navigate the many new ethical issues involved? What are the consequences of increased accessibility?

The conference opened with an excellent keynote by Mary Larson entitled ‘What Media Really Means: Implications of the Move from Analog to Digital’, which introduced many of these central themes. As well as providing a history of the technical developments oral history has witnessed in recent decades she explored their consequences for oral history theory and practice. A key concern is how we can provide easily accessible oral history interviews online while ensuring their audience is aware of the wider historical context of what is discussed, and is given information about the interview itself.

The particular issues when dealing with marginalised and vulnerable participants was a theme in many papers. For example in a session on ‘Ethics’, which looked at ‘Representation and Marginalised Identities’, Janet Traies discussed the challenges she faced in gathering the testimonies of older lesbian women in Britain, a group she described as being thrice marginalised, because they are lesbians, because they are women, and because they are older. She talked about the importance to her interviewees, many of whom having lived a lifetime of secrecy, that the anonymity of the testimonies were preserved. This posed particular problems when she tried to gather testimonies for a radio show. However she also found some of her participants were pleased that their voices were now being heard and for these women it was important that their own names were used.

From a different perspective, but reflecting upon some of the similar ethical issues, was a paper in a session on ‘Accessibility’ by Paul Hunt and Sara Pickard from Mencap Cymru about their project ‘Hidden now Heard’. For the project they have been interviewing patients and staff of Wales’ former long-stay hospitals. They discussed the challenges of interviewing people with learning disabilities, and analysing and presenting their testimonies. Paul and Sara also showed us some of the wonderful ways they displayed the interviews they have gathered in a travelling exhibition, with recordings being played in beds, radios, and even toilets.

Overall, the conference showed there are really exciting opportunities for oral historians, and indeed all those making use of oral history, in the digital age, but also many challenges.

June 18, 2016

Oral history in higher education: towards an organic discipline?

Andrea Hajek, University of Glasgow

Oral history sources have long been marginalized and criticized for their alleged unreliability. As Lynn Abrams puts it, the historical profession mistrusted oral history as a valid historical source. This changed after WW2, although it still took several decades before oral history methodology would be considered a research method. Today oral history is widely used both inside and outside academia, although not everyone always acknowledges the fact that they are indeed doing oral history, and not just gathering testimonies (I remember stumbling on this when trying to “recruit” members for our Oral History Network in the past). We also have a good range of publications on oral history methodology and theory, with Abram’s highly successful Oral History Theory (2010) standing out most. A more recent, Italian book that contributes to the development of oral history as a discipline that is increasingly taught in a university environment, is Bruno Bonomo’s Voices of memory. The use of oral sources in historical research (2013). This theoretical, historical, and methodological introduction to oral history is written mostly for students and early career researchers who want to create and use oral history sources in their research. The book offers both an overview of the history and theoretical implications of oral history and the practical and methodological side of oral history research. Accordingly, it is structured along three lines of discussion that explore the theory, history, and methodology of oral history, and it concludes with a useful reading guide where Bonomo offers reviews of some exemplary works of historical research that use oral history sources. Finally, we should also mention Valerie Yow’s new edition of Recording oral history: A guide for the humanities and social sciences (first published in 1994), which also provides reading recommendations as well as new developments and approaches to analysis and interpretation.

In spite of this wealth of secondary literature, clearly highly requested considering that many texts are often published again after several years, when it comes down to doing interviews for a research project, universities often lack services and resources. With the exception of some institutions which do offer courses on oral history (most notably of course the Oral History Society), or which actually have an internal oral history centre or network, such as the Scottish Oral History Centre at the University of Strathclyde and our very own Oral History Network at Warwick, universities are usually forced to draw on free lance oral historians. With students and researchers increasingly using oral history either as their primary research method or as a complementary source for qualitative data, and demand for oral history training within higher education necessarily outstripping supply, the time has perhaps come to develop a more organic format for the discipline of oral history as practiced in higher education.

May 18, 2016

Translations and translating oral history

Angela Davis, University of Warwick

For my current project on the history of Jewish motherhood in Israel I am making use of several collections of interviews held at the Oral History Division of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Some of the interviews are only available to me as transcriptions and some I also have the audio recordings. Some of the interviews I am using were conducted in English. Some of the interviews were conducted in a range of other languages including Yiddish, German and French and then the transcripts from the original language were translated into English or Hebrew, and some of the interviews I am using were conducted in Hebrew and I am making my own translations of the transcripts into English. This is the first time I have conducted a multi-lingual research project and it raises many new questions for me. While I am familiar with thinking about the issues concerning the interviewer-interviewee relationship and the role of the interviewer, thinking about the role of the translator is something new for me. Indeed thinking about translation is encouraging me to think about the role of language more generally. As Basil Hatim and Ian Mason have argued: ‘Translation is a useful test case for examining the whole issue of the role of language in social life’ (1990, 1) Using translated interviews, or indeed translating interviews, raises many new interpretive challenges, with which I am currently struggling. On the one hand, if language determines experience (Bassnet 2013) where does this leave translation? Can we fully understand a person’s experiences if they have been translated out of their original language? Of course this raises further questions about interviews conducted in a language other than the interviewee’s mother tongue. There are other issues surrounding the role of the translator ‘who, by translating sources, not only creates new ones but can also alter the perception of the originals’ (259 ). Developing this point Bogusia Temple (1997) noted, when discussing translation and cross-cultural research, that ‘Translation/interpretation is inseparable from the application of a theoretical perspective. Both provide accounts which assume a position that has been constructed using a different language. If language constructs as well as describes a society, the figure of the interpreter/translator must come out from the behind the shadows’ (607) Addressing the impact of the translator on the transcripts I am considering is somewhat easier with the interviews I am conducting myself, I know a little of my own background and identity(!), but while the translator is usually named in the other transcripts I am analysing, I rarely am presented with any biographical details. Temple (2013) has reflected there are no definitive solutions to translation dilemmas, and there are multiple meanings in translations as there are in oral histories themselves, but she believes that neglecting the issues of translation has ethical implications.


Bassnett, S. (2013), Translation Studies (London and New York: Routledge), fourth edition.

Hatim, B. and I. Maon (1990), Discourse and the Translator (London and New York: Longman).

Institute of Contemporary Jewry. Division of Oral History, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem http://www.hum.huji.ac.il/english/units.php?cat=4246

Müller, B. (2014), ‘Translating Trauma: David Boder's 1946 Interviews with Holocaust Survivors’, Translation & Literature 23:2, 257-271.

Temple, B. (1997), ‘Watch Your Tongue: Issues in Translation and Cross-Cultural Research’, Sociology 31:3, 607-618.

Temple, B. (2013), 'Casting a Wider Net: Reflecting on Translation in Oral History, Oral History, 41:2, 100-109.

April 12, 2016

Before Oral History: the Folklorists

Writing about web page https://williamgpooley.wordpress.com/

Talinote Lacave was not quite old enough to personally remember the final stages of the Napoleonic Wars. Born in 1814, she would still have been a toddler when Napoleon was definitively banished. But almost ninety years later, she had an inherited memory about the final years of the fighting. In a mixture of Gascon and French, she told the folklorist Félix Arnaudin:

 The Portuguese came through first: they were bad types.

Our lot, the French, they came next, and I can tell you, they weren’t much better, they were bad types. They said [in French]: ‘Look at you, happy in your little cottages, while we, we have to go off and be killed for you lot…’ (She said it in French [the folklorist noted])

The English came last. Now they were a brave bunch.1

What is this account, if not an early example of oral history?

The relatively little-known man at the centre of my PhD research and future book is the man who collected Talinote’s story: Félix Arnaudin. Félix’s true passions were the Gascon language that Talinote spoke, and the local singing tradition which he obsessively documented over a forty year period, from around 1873-1914. But his interest in folk tales, legends, proverbs and songs turned Félix – just as it turned many other folklorists – into an oral historian in all but name.

When he asked about local supernatural events, his informants frequently replied with stories about their parents or neighbours, or about other notable events in the area. Sometimes they even left the supernatural details Félix was asking about out altogether.

And sometimes these ‘supernatural’ legends turned out to be something strikingly similar to straightforward oral histories.

One example that is central to my book project is a story about inequality in local agriculture, and the failure of justice. The story – which Félix heard from several local people, including one of his ‘star’ narrators, Mariane de Mariolan (1822-1916) – told how an unfortunate goatherd was caught grazing his sheep in a local noble’s new pine plantation. Scared for his life, the goatherd fled, with the noble hot on his heels. Finally, out of desperation, the goatherd turned and shot his pursuer, killing him.

When Félix investigated this legend of the murder of a local aristocrat, he found out that the story was actually true, and wrote an article about what Mariane’s legend added to understandings of the case, given that little written evidence about the crime survived.2

Why does it matter if the folklorists are close to what we might call oral historians?

Let me suggest two reasons:

First, as Guy Beiner’s magnificent work on the failed 1798 invasion of Ireland by the French demonstrates, historians are missing out on a huge body of material by overlooking the proto-oral history sources in folklore collections. Beiner’s book revealed not simply new information about the events of 1798 from these folklore sources, but actively proposed new interpretations about popular participation in the invasion, and the role of women.

The second point is more challenging.

As someone who goes to folklore conferences (and would strongly recommend them) I have heard discussions about oral history’s amnesia about its own origins. The historiographical account which makes oral history only a product of twentieth-century movements risks artificially severing it from a series of traditions (including anthropology, ego writing, and early sociology, to mention a few others).

And in the case of folklore, what particularly gets lost is a whole set of tools that the folklorists developed: ideas about ‘tradition’, ‘genre’, ‘orality’, and ‘community’. These are specific ways to understand oral cultures, which come with benefits, and of course with problems: each of those tools could be a blog post in themselves.

But I think it is worth thinking about what oral historians stand to learn from the history of the folklorists, and the other way around.

March 21, 2016

Restitution? The ethics of presenting oral history interviews online

Valerie Wright, Glasgow University

I’m relatively new to oral history. When completing my masters’ degree I had attended several workshops, training sessions and completed methods courses all safe in the knowledge that as a historian of the interwar years, I did not actually have to go out and interview anyone! (I’ve always found oral history both enticing and at the same time intimidating).

This was all to change in 2014 when I started work as a research associate on a project looking at the history of high rise multi-storey flats in post-war Glasgow.[1]

It’s a relief to say that I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the process of recruiting, interviewing and analysing the oral history interviews we’ve conducted for the project. It can be challenging and it’s been a very steep learning curve, but it’s fair to say that I’m a convert!

This term I’ve also been teaching on an oral history honours course, and discussing the ethical implications of the use of oral history narratives with the students has really made me think about my own work and how we will use the oral history testimonies we have collected for the project. I have found Alessandro Portelli’s work particularly instructive on this issue. As well as very articulately and thoughtfully setting out his opinions on how researchers should essentially ‘mind out manners’ and respect and listen to those willing to share their history with us, I found that his thoughts on restitution and whether or not we can return history to the community in which it was gathered stimulating.[3]

As the internet is increasingly used as a way of virtually curating oral history testimonies, the ethical considerations for oral historians do not end with the interpretation of transcripts and communication of findings in academic journals and books.[4] The use of the internet as a ‘site of memory’[5] has, for me, raised issues over where we should archive our interviews and whether they, or extracts from them, should be available online for everyone to see? If so, do we ask our respondents to choose the extracts as a form of ‘co-production’ or ‘shared authority’?[6] Does this provide restitution, or a voice, for those whose stories have been omitted from the history of high rise in Glasgow?

These are the questions that I will be considering over the next few months as we analyse and write up the findings from our oral history interviews


[1] Housing, Everyday Life and Wellbeing over the long term: Glasgow 1950-1975 http://www.gla.ac.uk/schools/humanities/research/historyresearch/researchprojects/housingandwellbeing/

[2]Chris Leslie, Glasgow Renaissance http://www.glasgow-renaissance.co.uk/portfolio/introduction/

[3] Alessandro Portelli, ‘Trying to Gather a Little Knowledge: Some Thoughts on the Ethics of Oral History’, in The Battle of Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue. University of Wisconsin Press 1997 Pp. 55—71, here pp. 68-71.

[4] Steven High, ‘Telling Stories: A Reflection on Oral History and New Media’, Oral History 38:1 (2010), pp. 101-112.

[5] Lucy Noakes, ‘‘War on the Web’: The BBC ‘People’s War’ Website and Memories of Fear in 21st century Britain’ in Lucy Noakes and Juliette Pattinson (eds), British Cultural Memory and the Second World War (London: Bloomsbury, 2013), pp. 47-67 here p. 48-52.

[6] For a discussion of shared authority see Lynn Abrams, ‘Power and Empowerment’ in Oral History Theory, (London: Routeledge, 2016), pp. 153-74.

February 21, 2016

Life histories or career trajectories? Oral history and gender

Laura Tisdall, Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford

As part of a pilot for one of my postdoctoral projects, I recently interviewed 15 male and female Oxfordshire teachers who started their teaching careers in the 1970s, exploring how their relationships with the pupils they taught changed as they themselves grew older. These were not traditional 'life history' interviews, but drew upon elements of the approach pioneered by Stephen Ball and Ivor Goodson's work with teachers, aiming to situate these participants' personal stories alongside their professional identities. [1] Strikingly, however, while my female interviewees seemed to instinctively perceive the close relationship between the public and the private, my male interviewees often resisted or neglected this narrative, preferring to focus entirely upon their career trajectories as teachers. This reflects a trend perceived by numerous oral historians, who argue that the ways we remember the past are gendered; for example, Penny Summerfield has explored how women forgot or minimised those elements of their war work that did not fit into public narratives of commemoration. [2] More broadly, it has been suggested that women are socialised to remember relationally, to fit their own stories into networks that reflect the most important relationships in their lives, whereas men tend to tell stories where they are the only important actor. [3]

One aspect of my participants' stories highlighted the most striking gender differences: the experience of parenthood. Without exception, all of my female interviewees who had had children of their own volunteered the observation that becoming a mother had been a significant influence on their teaching careers, not solely because it usually entailed taking a break from teaching, but because it meant that they related to their pupils in a different way. As one participant wrote in her initial questionnaire in answer to the question 'What have been the biggest influences on your teaching throughout your career?', 'My own children! I learnt so much more about child development.' [4]One of my female interviewees was single and childless, but even she, without being prompted, commented that having the chance to get to know her friends' children had made her a better teacher. In contrast, my male interviewees, all of whom were fathers, did not mention their children unless specifically asked about them. When asked whether becoming a father had been an influence upon their teaching careers, some simply said that it had not, while others admitted that it had, but that they had 'never thought about that before.' Unlike their female counterparts, they had not constructed parenthood as a crucial part of their career histories.

Male teachers tended to see being a teacher as a professional role that was separate from their private life, and told me stories about their career trajectory. In contrast, female teachers viewed their role as a teacher as inextricable from the wider roles as either mothers or carers of children, and so situated their careers in their life histories. This was indicative of a wider gendered split that I observed in my doctoral research between men and women's attitudes to teaching as a 'profession' or as a 'vocation', and suggests that gender not only affected these participants' career paths at the time, but also the way they remembered their careers from the vantage point of retirement.

[1] Stephen J. Ball and Ivor F. Goodson, Teachers’ Lives and Careers (East Sussex, 1985)

[2] Penny Summerfield, 'Culture and composure: creating narratives of the gendered self in oral history interviews', Cultural and Social History, 1, 1, 2004, 65-93

[3] Richard Eley and Alyssa McCabe, 'Gender differences in memories for speech' in Paul Thompson, Luisa Passerini and Selma Leyesdorff eds., Gender and Memory (Oxford: 1996)

[4] Oxfordshire Pilot Project, Questionnaire 0x.015.

January 22, 2016

Do I like them too much? Not necessarily

Andrea Hajek, Glasgow University

I first became interested in oral history after my doctoral thesis, which examined public memories of a violent incident that occurred 35 years ago. I collected some dozen interviews without giving thought to what oral history really entails. I probably didn’t realize I was doing oral history, and made just about every mistake in the book. I particularly recall an occasion where my interviewee broke down and cried as she reminisced about the death of a friend; I then realized I wasn’t just gathering research data, but dealing with a live subject who, at that moment, was in pain. When doing oral history we are not simply extracting information, but also making people relive events and as such have an ‘affective responsibility’ to ‘receive’ their memories in a supportive way. Just like the American Indians’ belief that when you take their picture, you take their soul, we too take something from the interviewee. Or to put it differently, our ‘research frame’ doesn’t necessarily match the interviewee’s ‘memory frame’ (Summerfield 2000, 94), and this poses a dilemma: are we there just to listen, absorb their stories and record the dynamics of remembering, or should we do something more? Should we be their friends?

Research on intersubjectivity has grown over the past decade. In her famous article, ‘Do I like them too much’, Valerie Yow identified increasing awareness from the 1970s of the interactive process of interviewer and narrator, as various disciplines began questioning the ideal of scientific objectivity (2006, 57). Feminist theorists in particular placed a new attention on intersubjectivity, which caused a shift in the ‘paradigm transformations’ of oral history practice (Thomson 2006). Yow concludes: ‘we cannot go about research without questioning ourselves, our biases, our purposes, our reactions to the narrator and the process, and the effects our research have on the narrator’ (62). Lynn Abrams too has pointed out the necessity of acknowledging ‘the intersubjective relationships that are present within the interview situation’ and to think about ‘what impact the self [that the interviewer] projects to the interviewee has had on the resulting testimony (2010, 63).

These intersubjective exchanges are so interesting because they take place at a highly unconscious level. They are the little hints of body language, tone of voice, even style of clothes or home interior. But they don’t take place just during the interview: the style of a prior email or text message may say a lot about the narrator and their willingness to be interviewed, and how they prepare themselves for the interview. These aspects have a huge impact on how the interview develops, as they ‘trigger responses of empathy and antipathy, expansiveness and defensiveness, trust and mistrust, remembering and forgetting, and shape the stories told’ (Summerfield 2000, 103).

I used to believe that with time I have learnt how to read these hints and respond to them, until I recently embarked on what was probably my most unpleasant interview ever. Considering the fact that the interviewee’s emails never exceeded a 15 word limit (including phone number and address), I should have anticipated the disaster. But then I think this can also be productive, as painful as it may be for either interviewer or interviewee. Perhaps we should embrace our subjective selves more actively, and actually encourage discomposure.


Abrams, L. (2010) Oral history theory, London: Routledge.

Summerfield, P. (2000) ‘Intersubjectivities in oral history’, in Cosslett, T., Lury, C. and P. Summerfield (eds), Feminism and Autobiography. London and New York: Routledge, 91-106.

Thomson, A. (2006) ‘Four Paradigm Transformations in Oral History’, The Oral History Review, 34, 1, 49-70.

Yow, V. (2006) ‘Do I Like Them Too Much?’ Effects of the Oral History Interview on the Interviewer and Vice-Versa’, Oral History Review, 24, 1, 54–71.

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  • Thank you for this informative and useful blog. I agree that historians have much to gain from looki… by Alexander Freund on this entry
  • hi Angela, there are consent forms with the interviews that have been transcribed, but not with the … by Andrea Hajek on this entry
  • Hi Andrea. Just a quick follow up question – what paperwork actually exists for the interviews? Are … by Angela Davis on this entry
  • hi Angela, thanks for this. I too am working with some archived interviews, alongside conducting my … by Andrea Hajek on this entry
  • I was interested to read the angle of your initial blog as I am in the process of planning an oral h… by Nickianne Moody on this entry

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