Interactive Oral History Interviewing

By Eva M. McMahan; Kim Lacy Rogers | Go to book overview
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ethnicity shape women's experiences provided a vague outline for the narratives women related to us. It was in the context of our interest that women's narratives about their complex experiences of subjectivity became audible.

Recall Harding's ( 1987) argument that "the best feminist analysis. . .insists that the inquirer her/himself be placed in the same critical plane as the overt subject matter" (p. 9). For Harding this means that "the class, race, culture, and gender assumptions, beliefs, and behaviors of the researcher her/himself must be placed within the frame of the picture that she/he attempts to paint" (p. 9). In our view, this notion needs to be amended to include the fact that it is often in the process of conducting interviews that researchers discover some of their most taken-for- granted assumptions. Thus, it is not enough for researchers to preface interpretations of data with descriptions of their assumptions and beliefs, as if their meanings were self-evident outside of the interview context itself. For example, the awkward moments in Elizabeth's interviews clearly revealed our assumption that a successful woman in a male-dominated occupation would be interested in thinking about how gender shapes her experiences. This kind of assumption surfaces only during such an interaction; it is an assumption we could articulate only after the fact. As soon as we acknowledged that assumption, the meaning of our research question changed. We expanded the question of how Elizabeth interprets the gendered character of her experiences to include how she decides such interpretive work is not worth doing. Hence, just as treating women as narrators requires interpreting the telling itself, understanding how the researcher's interests and assumptions shape the narrative requires interpreting the interaction itself.

Analysis of interview interaction allows us to consider how our own interests and assumptions hinder or encourage the other's narration, and how we should alter our interviewing practices and interview questions. But the goal of such analysis is not simply to figure out how to produce the smoothest possible interview. Rather, focusing on interaction of whatever kind--awkwardness, blunders, patience, mutual participation--makes it possible to interpret how individual women communicate their complex subjectivity. By examining our interviews with Elizabeth Swenson, Rose Farrell, and Diane Turner, we have shown that narrating subjectivity is a complex interactional process and that interpreting women's subjectivity is a matter of embracing that complexity.


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Bell C. S., & Chase S. E. ( 1993). "The underrepresentation of women in school leadership". In C. Marshall (Ed.), The new politics of race and gender (pp. 141-154). London: Falmer Press.

Briggs C. L. ( 1986). Learning how to ask: A sociolinguistic appraisal of the role of the interview in social science research. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Corsino L. ( 1987). "Fieldworker blues: Emotional stress and research under involvement in fieldwork settings". The Social Science Journal, 24( 3), 275-285.

DeVault M. L. ( 1990). "Talking and listening from women's standpoint: Feminist strategies for interviewing and analysis". Social Problems, 37( 1), 96-116.


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