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.