Oral and Life Histories
Giving Voice to the Voiceless
Louisiana State University
In many ways, social science research is an extended form of journalism. Both observe, record, analyze, and report findings. Social scientists, however, are largely free of the deadline pressures that define news work. Nevertheless, journalists can benefit from learning about the more methodical approach of social science research and adapting it where possible to their own work. The method of oral or life history, mostly practiced by historians, sociologists, and anthropologists, is one research method that closely mirrors what journalists do. In fact, many texts on the oral history method draw on the work of journalists in describing the practices of this method and recounting its history. Journalists are credited with popularizing the technique of interviewing significant people about their lives. Some say Horace Greeley of the New York Tribune started the trend when he went to Salt Lake City to interview Mormon patriarch Brigham Young in 1859 (Ritchie, 1995).
However, journalists working on deadline are not doing the same thing as oral historians even though the techniques bear many similarities. Journalists have no time for multiple, lengthy interviews, typically use only a few short quotes, do not always record the interview, and rarely transcribe tapes and archive them in a library for others to examine. Interviews become oral history only when these criteria are met, according to Ritchie (1995). Nevertheless, for longer journalistic projects the oral history method can be adapted to suit jour-