Orientation Observation In-depth interviews Document analysis and semiology Conversation and discourse analysis Secondary Data Surveys Experiments Ethics Research outcomes



Social Research Glossary

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© Lee Harvey 2012–2018

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A Guide to Methodology

4. In-depth interviews

4.1 Introduction to in-depth interviewing
4.2 Types of in-depth interview
4.3 Methodological approaches to in-depth interviews

4.3.1 Positivist approaches to in-depth interviews
4.3.2 Phenomenological approaches to in-depth interview Identifying subjects' meanings or perception Phenomenography In-depth interviews as a basis for empathetic interpretation Deconstructing everyday life/rules of behaviour Life history interviewing as a means to establish how people come to develop specific ideas and consequent actions Autobiography Oral history

4.3.3 Critical approaches to in-depth interview

4.4 Doing in-depth interviews
4.5 Analysing in-depth interview data
4.6 Summary and conclusion Oral history
Oral history is another form of first-hand account of events. It differs from life history because the focus or topic is not the individual's life but an event or a social process. Usually an oral history of an event or social process is built up from the views of more than one individual.

Oral history may exist in some settings as the primary form of history, where no written account exists: this applies not only to so-called non-advanced societies that have a predominantly oral tradition but to subgroups within advanced society that do not have access to written history makers who might document subgroup culture.

Some researchers distinguish oral tradition from oral history. Oral history is somehow collected by the researcher through interviews, diaries or other textual sources. Oral tradition pre-exists, is the main form of history, and is 'picked up', recorded in some format (audio or written) by the researcher.

The reconstruction of the history of African people's relies heavily on oral traditions. Despite being criticised for a lack of clear chronology and being of sentimental value, Sola Akinrinade (2005, p. ) argued that  oral traditions are 'no worse than those of other sources of history, including written records' and the theoretical advances in oral tradition have focused on how to minimise weaknesses. Indeed:

Oral traditions, among many African peoples, are more complex, better-organized forms of recording history than the stories and legends of some other preliterate societies. Traditional controls in the form of training and taboos have served to guarantee the reliability of historical accounts. "Palace historians" and griots often occupy hereditary positions, and the training of custodians of a society's history usually begins at an early age. Special occasions such as coronations, burials, births, and other rituals present opportunities to perfect their arts. Stringent sanctions are attached to any distortion of historical accounts. The fact that in such societies crimes and punishments are communal and that physical and spiritual influences guide social compliance provides added checks against manipulation of accounts. Oral traditions have thus been successfully employed to reconstruct the history of many societies in Africa. In Nigeria, the pioneering works of Kenneth Dike—Trade and Politics in the Niger Delta (1956)—and Saburi Biobaku—The Egba and Their Neighbours (1957, based on a 1951 thesis) relied mainly on gathered oral traditions and have survived much historiographical scrutiny to remain national historical classics. Substantial works on East African history have also depended on the collection and use of oral traditions following the pioneering works of B. A. Ogot. Jan Vansina's [1961] seminal theoretical work, Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology, articulated the major theoretical advances for the defense of the use of oral traditions in historical reconstruction. The case for oral tradition was further taken up in his more recent study, Oral Tradition as History. Vansina, however, not only makes a case for the validity of oral tradition in historical reconstruction but has produced historical works that fully utilize the method. These include The Tio Kingdom of the Middle Kongo 1880–1892 (1973) and The Children of Wool: A History of the Kuba People (1978).

What Akinrinade doesn't address directly is the 'weaknesses' of written accounts, other than to acknowledge that many written documents are in reality processed oral traditions. Alessandro Portelli ([1979], 1998, p. 37) on the other hand, argues that written sources are no more credible:

Oral sources are credible but with a different credibility. The importance of oral testimony may lie not in its adherence to fact, but rather in its departure from it, as imagination, symbolism, and desire emerge. Therefore, there are no 'false' oral sources. Once we have checked their factual credibility with all the established criteria of philological criticism and factual verification which are required by all types of sources anyway, the diversity of oral history consists in the fact that 'wrong' statements are still psychologically 'true' and that this truth may be equally as important as factually reliable accounts.
Of course, this does not mean that we accept the dominant prejudice which sees factual credibility as a monopoly of written documents. Very often, written documents are only the uncontrolled transmission of unidentified oral sources (as in the case of the report on [Luigi] Trastulli's death [Portelli, 1991], which begins: 'According to verbal information taken…'). The passage from these oral 'ur-sources' to the written document is often the result of processes which have no scientific credibility and are frequently heavy with class bias. In trial records (at least in Italy, where no legal value is accorded to the tape recorder or shorthand transcripts), what goes on record is not the words actually spoken by the witnesses, but a summary dictated by the judge to the clerk. The distortion inherent in such procedure is beyond assessment, especially when the speakers originally expressed themselves in dialect. Yet, many historians who turn up their noses at oral sources accept these legal transcripts with no questions asked.

The issue here is to assess the doucumetary or oral sources rathet than take them at face value, see Section 5.3 on Establishing the nature of documents.

When oral history is 'collected' by a researcher this usually involves asking people to reflect back. Making audio recordings of memeories probably beagn in the USA with work of Allan Nevins at the University of Columbia who recorded the memories of 'persons significant in American life' in 1948. George Ewart Evans, the pioneer of oral history in England, took a different approch and collected memories from 'old survivors' of work and life in Suffolk villages, published, in 1956, in Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay. A similar approach was being developed in Scotland which resulted in the School of Scottish Studies, established in 1951, at the University of Edinburgh, to collect, preserve, research and publish material relating to the cultural traditions and folklore of Scotland. Many public libraries and some museums have local history collections in which interviews with older residents form a core resource and provide rich information about aspects of day-to-day life such as childhood, family, work, religion, shopping, transport and leisure as well as insights into social values and meaning. Such research aims to record the experiences of 'ordinary' people and thereby give them a collective voice; an objective shared by many types of qualitative social research. The BBC (from 2003 to 2006) invited its audiences to send in recollections of the homefront in the Second World War. In what is one of the largest memory projects, 47,000 recollections were put online, along with 15,000 photographs.

Juliette Pattinson (2011) drew on memory when she undertook oral history interviews with British secret war veterans. She conducted fifty-eight interviews between 1999 and 2002 with female n=32) and male (n=26) veterans of the Special Operations Executive (SOE), a British Second World War organisation that equipped resistance circuits and infiltrated clandestine operatives. Respondents included agents in Nazi-occupied France as well as headquarters staff, nurses and commandos. The veterans were aged between seventy-two and ninety-six, eight working class, 43 middle class and 7 who described themselves as upper class. She asked, 'Does the interaction of gender subjectivities that occur in the dialogue and in the virtually unconscious recognition of non-verbal signs have a significant impact, shaping both the content and form of [oral history] interviewees' testimonies? Her conclusion was that gender is important but that social status and age differences also played a part.

See also Section for discussion of narrative analysis of oral histories.

Oral accounts can also be taken contemporaneously (collecting perceptions at the time) in anticipation of future research thus forming an oral history archive. Television and radio news interviews are, in effect, an oral history archive. The mass observation movement (begun in 1937) also developed an extensive oral (and visual) history archive (see also Section for comment on mass observation).

In 1998 and 1999, the The Century Speaks series involved 40 BBC local radio stations recording personal oral histories from a broad cross-section of the population. It resulted in over 6000 BBC recordings of the loves and lives or ordinary people and 640 half-hour radio documentaries broadcast during the final weeks of the last century. British Library Sounds has made 395 audio extracts from these interviews available for anyone to listen to online.

Neuman (2006, p. 432) distinguished oral history from recollection. For him, oral history is a systematic enquiry, it is 'A recollection in which a person is interviewed about the events, beliefs, or feelings in the past that he or she has experienced' while recollections are statements or writings about past experiences collected after time has passed and based on a memory or stimulated by a review of old objects, photos or notes.


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