Academic journal article The Oral History Review

Gaining Access and Sharing Authority: What I Learned about Oral History from an Episode in U.S.-China Transnationalism

Academic journal article The Oral History Review

Gaining Access and Sharing Authority: What I Learned about Oral History from an Episode in U.S.-China Transnationalism

Article excerpt

Abstract The terms "access" and "authority" serve in this article as distilled references for two ongoing and interrelated discussions within oral history. Both discussions turn on the relationship between scholar/interviewer and subject/narrator. On the one hand, researchers more easily gain access to the extent their subjects come to know and trust them. On the other hand, breaking down sharp boundaries between interviewers and narrators inexorably opens up the question of how much authority those interviewed have over the final scholarly product--the more so to the extent a scholar self-consciously strives to share authority. Among the lessons learned from one research project involving middle and upper middle class professionals are: that one need not fear "losing objectivity" by becoming too close to a subject, since all knowledge is partial; that other research methods can provide a check on oral history interviews; and that the scholar must assert ultimate authority, even after sharing it.

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Over the past several decades, oral historians and their disciplinary cousins, ethnographers, have paid increasing--and increasingly reflexive--attention to the interrelated methodological issues of access and authority Access entails questions such as who is an "insider" and whether a scholar who attempts to claim or achieve insider status sacrifices objectivity in the process. Discussion of authority highlights the differences between documentary or artifactual evidence vs. interviews, questions about who selects and interprets the latter type of evidence, and--again--the objectivity question. From an oral history perspective, a recent Oral History Review forum on "shared authority" exemplifies the reflexive nature of this discussion. (1) Similarly, writing as an anthropologist, Barbara Tedlock documents a shift of emphasis within that discipline "from the ethnos in ethnography to the graphia--the process of writing." (2)

The present essay builds on and, I hope, contributes to these ongoing discussions. I reflect on the emergence of--and my responses to--questions of access and authority in the course of my research among a group of San Francisco Bay Area residents. For a master's thesis at the University of Kansas, I wrote a history of an association that a group of these residents formed in 1990 in the wake of the Tiananmen Square tragedy as a way to give expression to their concerns for the people of China. Specifically, they founded a transnational social policy think tank called The 1990 Institute, whose mission is to improve the lives of the Chinese people by helping China modernize. My research methodology was interdisciplinary, using documentary evidence, media content analysis, and--importantly--interviews with participants in the events I studied.

In the course of those interviews, I saw some confirmation of Kirin Narayan's denial of a binary demarcation between insiders and outsiders (whether along lines of ethnicity, class, or gender). On the one hand, Narayan argues that no degree of ethnic or other similarity in background can erase the boundary between subject and researcher in an ethnographic encounter. On the other hand, she believes that most ethnographers--to varying degrees, depending on their cultural background, attitude toward subjects, and length of engagement--become at least "minimally bicultural" and "partial insiders." (3) She further believes that research improves when scholars can bridge the cultural gulf between themselves and those they study. To those who would caution against a loss of "objectivity," she replies that all knowledge is partial. (4) While Narayan does not impose class limits on the scope of her argument, her examples and the secondary literature she cites are primarily concerned with subaltern social groups. Since my subjects are members of intellectual, professional, and elite groups, the nature of my interaction with them extends our understanding of the potential for researchers to become minimally bicultural partial insiders. …

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