Skip to main content
Search form
  • 00:00

    [MUSIC PLAYING]My name's Joanna Bornat, and I'm emeritus professorat the Open University.I'm Jenny Harding, and I'm professorof cultural studies and communications at LondonMetropolitan University.

  • 00:24

    For me, it's about interviewing people about their past,about their experience, and so involves the past,involves the memory.And it's also about interviewing people who might notbe in the mainstream of history, so they're outside somehowfor whatever reason.It might be class, might be gender, might be origin,might be sexuality.

  • 00:51

    Yes, definitely.It's inviting people to talk about the pastas they've lived it, to reflect on and say what it meant,so it's very much about meaning and making sense of experience.And that's its distinctive quality and character.

  • 01:12

    It's about history.It's about having an understandingof the past, which has been lived as an experience.It might not be a whole life experience.It might be an aspect of someone's lifewhich is of interest.It might be some particular experiencethey've lived through, some epoch, some event theyparticipated in.

  • 01:33

    So it may not be their whole life,but we might need to understand thatin terms of their whole life.So we're not getting people to tell their life story justfor the sake of their life story.There may be more to it than that.I don't know.I think a lot of people use the two terms interchangeably,and I certainly have.Now having been involved in oral history projectsand with the Oral History Societyand teaching oral history, I then set upan MA in life history research, and part of that was Ifelt it was the broader term, but Imight be wrong about that.

  • 02:07

    No, I think you're right, and I've used the terminterchangeably as well.But I do like to get a sense of historyas somewhere else in terms of what we're researching,and I tend to think that oral history, with its connotationof being told, being spoken, tends to convey that morestrongly than the life history.

  • 02:32

    But it's maybe just my personal take.It depends where they're coming from.Biographical is a kind of generic termin some ways, which envelops oral history, life history,love stories, written accounts as well.But if we're talking specificallyabout biographical interpretive method,then we're talking about somethingthat has a quite distinct methodology all of its own.

  • 02:57

    So there is a-- yeah, there's a sort of genus reallyof projects or approaches, rather,which start with the self, which one would describe broadlyas biographical.Well, I think there are a lot of similaritiesbetween-- we might disagree on this-- but I think there aresimilarities between oral history interviewingand call it unstructured or semi-structuredqualitative interviewing.

  • 03:21

    And I think it's partly about the contextand partly about the questions that you're perceiving,but also, as Joanna said earlier,about memory and memory being the sort of centerpieceof oral history interviewing.So we are interested in how memoryis a process or a process of making sense of experience,of generating meaning, looking at howpeople reflect on the past, and how they interpret it.

  • 03:53

    And that's the focus.And yeah, there may be quite a lotoverlap with other kinds of interviewing.I mean avoid direct questions.Avoid questions which ask people to rememberdates or specific issues.There's a surprising number of peoplewho can't remember the day they were married, for example,and if you can't remember that suddenly, it throws you.

  • 04:14

    It's disempowering.So I think asking people more generally,how did you feel about, or do you remember whensort of, which is a less direct.You want them to describe a particular situationor a particular aspect of their early life.You might draw a contrast, possibly,with today's practices.

  • 04:38

    It might be something simple like how peoplehad a bath on a Friday night.You're not going to ask them how poor or rich their family were,but you might ask them questions whichtells you about the quality of the environment they lived in.You might not ask them how much their husband's wage was,but you might ask them something about the kind of food they ateor the food that was on the tableor where they did the shopping.

  • 05:03

    And I think there are ways around understandingthe materiality of people's liveswithout asking very direct questions, which requirespecific answers, which they might find challenging,although it's always difficult to know whatwill be challenging to someone.Hm.I guess that's also being aware of the social relation thatare involved in all, or rather, the social production of memoryas we talked about earlier.

  • 05:33

    Just being aware of those differencesand not trying to back people into a corner as well.Make them feel--Yes, they can be----like you're being critical.Sorry.Know that social production memoryis very important to the oral historyinterview, because actually there's two people taking part,and as interviewers, we bring our own interests.

  • 05:59

    We bring our own backgrounds into that interview.We bring our own images that how people see us and hearus is going to affect how they respond,and that sort of habitus, as it's being called,is part of the baggage that we bring,and we need to be aware of that in ourselves, I think,as interviewers.

  • 06:20

    Yes, it's possible to ask somebodyto talk about photographs or ask them to bring along somethingfrom a particular time, some memento, somethingthat they have, talk about a document or a photographand build on that.And I think that certainly helps people get goingor connect with the past, but I don'tthink it creates greater reliability if that'swhat you mean, because the chargethat some memories are less reliableas a source for history or a source of information I thinkhas been rejected, because people say, well,so is a document really stable?

  • 07:05

    How stable is that?That's open to many interpretations,and also the point about oral historyis not to-- it's to look at how thingsare remembered, the meanings that might be attached to them.There are other ways of finding out about particular eventsas well, other sources of information.

  • 07:26

    So oral history, it's trying to understandthe past, a certain aspect of the past,or aspects of the past.It's not the only way of approaching the past.And you can corroborate through maybe other interviews,other sources as well.And while it's true that many oral historians feelthat meaning is what we're seeking,and often that myth will tell us more about someoneor some group's understanding of the past,it's also true that there are some communities whichrely heavily on them in order to prove, for example, land rightsin Australia and North America.

  • 08:08

    And oral traditions there have extraordinary importanceso that memory is relied on for its accuracy or certainlyits reliability there and a recall of thingsof significance to that community.So I guess we do accept that memory can be fallible,but we do know that there are ways in which it can betested against other sources.

  • 08:34

    But we also do value memory for what it tells usabout people today and about the people who tellus things about themselves.

Video Info

Publisher: SAGE Publications Ltd.

Publication Year: 2015

Video Type:Interview

Methods: Oral history interviews, Biographical interpretive method

Keywords: biographies; marginalization; memory; oral history; oral tradition; Social factors; voice and visibility ... Show More

Segment Info

Segment Num.: 1

Persons Discussed:

Events Discussed:



Professors Joanna Bornat and Jenny Harding define oral history and explain how it can be used to learn about both the past and the present. They stress the importance of avoiding direct questions that might alienate an interviewee, and discuss the fallibility of memory.

Looks like you do not have access to this content.

What is Oral History Interviewing?

Professors Joanna Bornat and Jenny Harding define oral history and explain how it can be used to learn about both the past and the present. They stress the importance of avoiding direct questions that might alienate an interviewee, and discuss the fallibility of memory.

Copy and paste the following HTML into your website