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Oral History as a Social Justice Project: Issues for the Qualitative Researcher

By Janesick, Valerie J. | The Qualitative Report, March 2007 | Go to article overview

Oral History as a Social Justice Project: Issues for the Qualitative Researcher


Janesick, Valerie J., The Qualitative Report


I am writing this to assist researchers in training and experienced researchers in understanding ways to view oral history as a social justice project. This paper will illuminate the importance of oral history in terms of enriching the knowledge base of qualitative research methods as well. Oral history provides us with an avenue of thick description, analysis, and interpretation of people's lives through probing the past in order to understand the present .The postmodern appreciation of the study of people and their stories, those stories from persons generally on the outside or periphery of society, offer a unique opportunity to view and conduct oral history as a social justice project. Key Words: Oral history, Social Justice, and Qualitative Research

Introduction

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 (Figure 1).

Figure 1. Timeline of oral history participants.

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.

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