Retas Sejarah

Valerie J. Janesick // Oral History as a Social Justice Project: Issues for the Qualitative Researcher

Oral history is a technique with its very own history (see Thompson, 1988). It is regularly defined in this era as some variation of, “the recorded reminiscences of a person who has first hand knowledge of any number of experiences.” In reviewing the literature, I have discovered seventy definitions of oral history, many of which are overlapping. For ease of understanding this paper, the notion of recording participants’ memories in some form seems to fit. Early in the last century, oral history focused on interviewing elite persons such as generals, famous artists or scientists, great leaders of nations, or anyone who surfaced as distinctive within a given community. At the same time local individuals who had a strong memory of a town, city, state, or region were sometimes seen as knowledgeable in terms of historical events. Thus, it is helpful to view oral history itself on a continuum. On one end, the most sophisticated individual elite may be interviewed, while on the other end we have the most ordinary everyday citizen. Each has much to tell us as we come to understand society in all its complexity.

Elite Combination Participants Ordinary Participants (Some elite, some ordinary qualities) Participants

The specific techniques of oral history are also the techniques of the qualitative researcher. Likewise, the use of ordinary language to convey a story has its roots in qualitative research. It is easy to see how oral history can be a valuable tool in the qualitative researcher’s “tool kit.” In addition, we as qualitative researchers have experienced various transformations from a traditionalist to a reconceptualist approach, and now to the postmodern orientation.

For this paper, I define the traditionalist oral historians as those who prefer to use a tape recording only, and who, usually, do only one long interview per participant. Traditionalists likewise often stay clear of interpretation and concern themselves only with elite participants.

Reconceptualists go further in that they may use multiple technologies to conduct an interview such as a digital video recording, some written protocols from participants, and more than one interview per participant. They also may frame their oral history projects around themes, and may offer multiple and competing interpretations and analyses. For example, reconceptualists might interview the army general as well as the second in command, and the lowest member on the hierarchical totem pole.

Postmodernists use all tools currently available to conduct multiple interviews with participants, and before analysis and interpretation of the data, they clearly spell out their own point(s)-of-view. Postmodernists also see oral history as a way to repair the historical record by including the voices of participants outside the mainstream of society. An example of a postmodernist approach to oral history might be to frame the questions to the army general around themes of power, its uses and abuses as well as race and class-based questions. The postmodernist oral history project offers the opportunity to widen the repertoire of techniques, interview questions, and competing points of interpretation and data analysis. Thus, I will argue in this piece that oral history can be extended to be understood as a postmodern social justice project.

Oral History Evolving

Within this postmodern orientation, I want to take a dynamic view of oral history. I am asking the reader to give up the notion that oral history is simply a collection of tapes and transcripts on file in a library archive. Rather, I am asking the reader to take a journey with me in viewing oral history as dynamic, ever changing, and evolving to match the evolution in our understanding of research and society. With any research project, there is analysis and interpretation. In the postmodern era, oral history can consist of tapes (audio, video, digital) and transcripts. However, that is only the first step. The next step is the analysis and interpretation of the data in those transcripts. Thus the interviewer as oral historian shares an interpretive role with the participant being interviewed. In fact, in my own oral history research project on women teachers, a participant asked me, “what are you calling me in the write-up?” I answered that I usually use the word “participant” to describe members in a study. She then said to me, “wouldn’t it be better to call us both interpreters?” Her comment suggested that we were both engaged in a mutual process of translating and making sense of one another, essentially in a co-researcher relationship.

What she was talking about was the evolutionary, vibrant nature of oral history. Thus, the reason for me to connect oral history at this moment in time with qualitative research rests on the notion of interpretation. Why do we want to hear the stories of individuals? Why do we take pains to record on tape and even type transcripts about the past? Why do researchers undertake such projects? We do this to understand the lives of those whom we interview in order to understand ourselves and our worlds. As with any qualitative research project, developing an understanding of lived experience from the participants’ point(s)-of-view is primary. Oral history with its immediate face-to-face orientation and supplemental documentary evidence helps to provide a path to understanding behavior, its motivations, and this for both interviewee and interviewer. Thus, oral history becomes particularly useful to qualitative researchers for we are documenting multiple histories, of multiple individuals, to make sense of our world. Experience and what sense we make of experience are critical. Here is where oral history and qualitative research meet. We converge in various ways.

  1. The basic techniques of oral history are the basic techniques of qualitative research. Both use interviews, observations, and documents as evidence. How things differ in any approach to qualitative research (in this case, oral history) depends on the purpose of the study, the theory which guides the study, and the role of the researcher.
  2. Telling someone’s story particularly through remembering key events and lived experience is a major goal for both the oral historian and for many qualitative research projects. Thus the oral history method, which has been underused in the field of education, at least may now be considered as a viable approach. This may allow for documenting the stories of women, minorities, or any individual outside the power base and center of decision-making. For example, I am currently conducting an oral history project of women school superintendents who bring a unique perspective to the study of women in administration. Oral histories of these leaders may provide a fuller picture of what that role means in today’s world.
  3. Using ordinary language to tell the story is required for both the oral historian and the qualitative researcher. The beauty of oral history is that the everyday words of the participants are captured on digital voice recordings or digital video recordings and yield an understandable narrative.
  4. There is no one set explanation or interpretation for a given set of data. Oral historians, as qualitative researchers, use the data at hand and render the most inclusive explanation and interpretation possible at that moment in time. In this postmodern era, the oral historian often includes the points-of-view and voices of participants who are on the outskirts of society, thus widening our understanding of oral history.
  5. Historians and qualitative researchers in general are involved in describing and explaining someone’s memory of events and activities. There is a powerful urge in the soul of human beings to preserve their stories, their past recollections, and weave the story of their lives. Oral history is a memory of the self.

Consider the following proposed timeline, Traditionalist, Reconceptualist, and Post Modern as you process the connection between oral history techniques and qualitative research techniques.


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