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  • 00:05

    JOANNA BORNAT: My name's Joanna Bornat,and I'm an Emeritus Professor at the Open University.[Professor Joanna Bornat, Emeritus Professor,Open University]

  • 00:11

    JENNY HARDING: I'm Jenny Harding.[Professor Jenny Harding, Professorof Cultural Studies and Communications,London Metropolitan University]And I'm professor of Cultural Studies and Communicationsat London Metropolitan University.[How would you define oral history methods for a student?]

  • 00:20

    JOANNA BORNAT: For me, it's about interviewing peopleabout their past, about their experience.And so it involves the past.It involves memory.And it's also about interviewing people who might not bein the mainstream of history.So they're outside somehow, for whateverreason, might be class, might be gender, might be origin,might be sexuality.

  • 00:48

    JENNY HARDING: Yes, definitely, it'sabout 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.[What is the difference between oral history and life history?]

  • 01:11

    JOANNA BORNAT: 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.

  • 01:32

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: 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.[Would a life historian get an interviewee to tell his or herlife story?]

  • 01:46

    JENNY HARDING: I don't know.I think lots 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 thenset up an MA in life history research.And part of that was I felt it was a broader term.

  • 02:07

    JENNY HARDING [continued]: But I might be wrong about that.

  • 02:08

    JOANNA BORNAT: No, I think you're right.And I've used the term interchangeably as well.But I do like to get the sense of historywithin-- as a somewhere else, in termsof what we're researching.And I tend to think that oral history,with its sort of the connotation of being told, being spoken,tends to convey that more strongly than life history.

  • 02:34

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: But it may be just my personal take.[What is the difference between oral history and biographicalmethods?]It depends where they're coming from.I mean, biographical is a kind of generic term in some ways,which envelops oral history, life history, love stories,written accounts, as well.But if we're talking specificallyabout biographical interpretative method,then we're talking about something that's quite--has a quite distinct methodology all of its own.

  • 03:01

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: So there is a-- yeah, there's a sort of genus, really,of projects, or approaches, rather,which start with the self, which one would describe broadlyas biographical.[As an interview, how would you conduct an interview,from start to finish?]I did an interview with a woman for the TimeScapes program,who had been just diagnosed with a fairly terminal condition.

  • 03:23

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: She was an older woman.And I think there, I was conscious of the factthat she had time limited to talk,although we didn't talk about that because she was lookingforward to maybe the next time I would interview herin 18 months.And so she-- she knew that I wantedto hear about her early story, about her early life.

  • 03:49

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: But I did feel that the way she talked about thingswas kind of, in a way, shaped by that sense of, you know,finitude that she had, and also wantingto pass on to her family a story whichthey would accept about her and about her late husband.So in some ways, it was a quite charged--emotionally-charged interview.

  • 04:12

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: And not openly so, but I felt it, and I think she did.And that was interesting and good.And the fact that she wanted to talk a lot about her originsin the Jewish East End, and how it linked to her current life.But I also felt there's a kind of constraintthere, which is her audience wasn't necessarilya research audience.It was her family.

  • 04:33

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: And so she was telling me in the wayshe wanted them to know her.And that can often be quite difficultto manage, because obviously, the narrator--it's their right.They're telling their story.They want to be remembered.[How do you negotiate leaving an interview?]It can be very difficult, because youknow when you're interviewing someoneyou're using that opportunity for something quite deep.

  • 04:59

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: And to break that off without acknowledgingthat in some way is, I think, unethical.On the other hand, you can't give peoplethe feeling that there's going to be some enduringrelationship there.So there has to be ways to manage that, that are notdamaging to people, but which also supportive of the endeavorthat we've both been involved in.

  • 05:19

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: There are social niceties.You write to people afterwards.You thank them.They've signed off an agreement to be interviewedand that you have the right to use the interview and whateverconditions they want to apply to it,whether it's to be anonymized or not.And you make yourself available if theywant to come back to discuss anythingand to change anything.

  • 05:41

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: [How do you find and recruit people for respondents?]

  • 05:43

    JENNY HARDING: Well, the first stage is just working outwhether oral history is the right approach and thinkingabout what oral history can offer your project that anotherapproach can't.[How do you decide what is the best approach for you?]I think it might be because you wantto explore issues, questions, experience in a lot more detailand depth.

  • 06:08

    JENNY HARDING [continued]: And you want to be able to respond more to the intervieweeand to explore meaning in a lot more detail.So that might be one thing.

  • 06:24

    JOANNA BORNAT: I think there is the issue of memoryand what oral history offers you that other sources don't offeryou and being able to structure a dialogue in some way, whichenables you to explore things, possiblyin greater depth than you might getwith a quantitative approach or a structured interview.

  • 06:48

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: I think we would go for somethingwhich is much more open when we're thinkingabout an oral history approach.And it offers itself as a method whichenables people to identify quite interestinglywith the method themselves.I think it's extraordinary that I don't evernow need to explain to anyone what oral history is,whereas even five years ago, I would have to define it.

  • 07:16

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: People understand it.So in a way, I think oral historyoffers a kind of contact with the personthat you want to talk to, which they have an understanding ofand that's very helpful.And it kind of makes you feel it's more ethical in a sense,you know.They know what they're in for, I think, well,at the outset anyway.

  • 07:37

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: So I think that there's that kind of a side to oral history.And of course, the other aspect isthat when you're doing oral history interviewingor you're doing oral history research,you're aware that you're dealing with the survivor population.You're not able to go out and source the samplein quite the same way, as you would in maybea younger generation or something that's moregenerally shared.

  • 08:04

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: So I think, sometimes, some questionsindicate that you're going to be looking for survivorswho've had particular experiences of a time that'spassed.[How do you recruit and locate potential participants?]I think it depends on the project.I mean, I think all historians tendto get very irritated by people from the media who say, doyou know anyone old who remembers World WarII or something like that.

  • 08:32

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: And it's such a wide and meaningless category.And any way, they could probably find them themselvesquite easily with a little bit of effort.You'll probably cut that bit.Anyway, there are obvious social networks that you go through.They might be clubs.There might be associations.There might be places in which people of the typeyou're searching for congregate.

  • 08:54

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: There are various kinds of listings that you might use.I think a favored method is, once you'veidentified the people that you need to interview,if it's a kind of a theoretical sample,then the snowballing method is quite, quite common,with all the hazards attached to that.[What planning do you do ahead of the interview?]

  • 09:14

    JENNY HARDING: Well, I think you needto do quite a bit of research.You need to really put the time into finding outabout the topic that you're interested inand the person-- the sorts of experiencesthat you're going to be asking about.You need to really prepare well.

  • 09:34

    JENNY HARDING [continued]: You need to be informed.And I think it varies how-- it dependson the sort of interview you're going to do, as well.I mean, if for example, you're doing an interviewon a particular topic, a particular themeor a particular episode, you reallyhave to know about that theme and that episode.

  • 09:57

    JENNY HARDING [continued]: You need to know something about the personthat you're going to meet and talk to.And I think you need to have some idea of topicsthat you're going to cover and some possible questions.You know, it's interesting in the sessionbefore, somebody asked particularly about this,now how do you plan for or prepare an interview.

  • 10:21

    JENNY HARDING [continued]: And people have different views about that, as to how flexibleor how structured it needs to be.Clearly, well, I think it's less structured than a questionnaireor a rigid schedule.But you do need to have some idea of the questions you'regoing to ask.It's part of the planning.

  • 10:42

    JENNY HARDING [continued]: And you also need to give the person you'regoing to interview some indication in advanceof the sorts of things that you would like to ask them about.And it will never really cover everythingthat comes up, because nobody really knows what will come up.Sometimes, we're very surprised, and the intervieweeis very surprised about the sortsof things that have come up.

  • 11:05

    JENNY HARDING [continued]: But I think you need to put a lot of research and imaginationinto preparing for the interview.

  • 11:14

    JOANNA BORNAT: I think one thing that I sometimesfind is helpful to me, as much as the interviewee,is not necessarily to start at the beginningif you're thinking in a time chronology sort of way,but just to ask them a general questionabout where they're living now or what, you know,how they feel about their lives now, or something like that.So that you've got a sort of starting point of reference,which they probably feel quite comfortable talking about.

  • 11:40

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: And then, you can take them back possiblyto an earlier time in their lives.

  • 11:46

    JENNY HARDING: I think-- yes, I think that's very important,particularly if the earlier time mightbe difficult or sensitive.So with the young people leaving care,we started off asking them about how they spent the time, thingsthey liked doing.Then, started to really just have a good chatabout that to start with.[When things come up in an interview that weren't plannedin advance, what kind of interview methods would youuse?]Well, I think there are a lot of similarities between--and we might disagree on this-- but Ithink there are similarities between oral historyinterviewing and unstructured or semi-structured qualitativeinterviewing.

  • 12:23

    JENNY HARDING [continued]: You know, I think it's partly about the contextand partly about the questions that you're pursuing.But also, as Joanna said earlier, about memory,and memory being the sort of centerpiece of oral historyinterviewing.So we are interested in how memoryis a process or a process of making senseof experience, of generating meaning,thinking, looking at how people reflect on the pastand how they interpret it.

  • 12:56

    JENNY HARDING [continued]: And that's the focus.And there may be quite a lot of overlapwith other kinds of interviewing.[What advice would you give about asking questionsin an oral history interview?]

  • 13:07

    JOANNA BORNAT: Avoid direct questions.Avoid questions which ask people to rememberdates or specific issues.It's surprising the number of peoplewho can't remember the day they were married, for example.And if you can't remember that, suddenly it throws you.It's disempowering.So I think asking people more generally"how did you feel about" or "do you remember when"sort of, which is a less direct-- youwant them to describe a particular situationor a particular aspect of their early life.

  • 13:39

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: You might draw a contrast possiblywith today's practices.You know, it might be something simple like, you know,how people had a bath on a Friday night, you know.You're not going to ask them how poor or rich their family were,but you might ask them questions which tells youabout the quality of the environment they lived in,you know.You might not ask them how much their husband's wage was,but you might ask them something about, you know,the kind of food they ate or the food that was on the tableor where they did their shopping.

  • 14:09

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: And I think there are ways around understandingthe materiality of people's liveswithout asking very direct questions, whichrequire specific answers which they might find challenging.Although it's always difficult to know whatwill be challenging to someone.

  • 14:25

    JENNY HARDING: Hm, hm.I guess that's also being aware of the social relations whichare involved in-- or rather the social production of memoryas we talked about earlier, just being aware of thosedifferences and not trying to back people into a corner,as well, make them feel--

  • 14:50

    JOANNA BORNAT: Yes, they--

  • 14:51

    JENNY HARDING: Like being critical.

  • 14:53

    JOANNA BORNAT: Sorry.No, social production is very important to the oral historyinterview, because actually there's two people taking part.And as interviewers, we bring our own interests.We bring our own backgrounds into that interview,bring our own inner images that they--how people see us and hear us is goingto affect how they respond.

  • 15:13

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: 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.[What do you think is most likely to go wrong in an oralhistory interview?]Equipment might fail, quite clearly.A good thing to test it out first to be sureyou know how it works, and what the batterylife is in your-- whatever device you're using.

  • 15:41

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: Whether the microphone has a separate battery-- I mean,very basic stuff.Make sure you know your equipment.I mean, that's what I've been failed on many times.

  • 15:51

    JENNY HARDING: Somebody might change their mindabout being interviewed.Or they might change their mind about allowingyou to use their interview.Because you know, as I said before,things come up that maybe people didn't expect to come up.They may have talked about something.Later, feel they don't actually want that informationto go any further.

  • 16:13

    JOANNA BORNAT: Or an interview might justend because someone can't actually carry on.They're too emotionally upset by it.And that can happen, and that can be very difficult.And it's their right to withdraw.And of course, you can always sayat the start of the interview, here's the machine.You can always press the pause button if you want toor tell me when to switch off.

  • 16:35

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: And you have to be ready to do that.It's their-- it's their-- their-- I mean,there's nothing better than having an opportunity to talkabout yourself.And most people enjoy being interviewedbecause who gets-- how often do people get that interview.But sometimes, as Jenny's pointed out,you stray into areas you hadn't expectedand that can be upsetting.

  • 16:55

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: Maybe you need-- people need time justto collect themselves.Maybe you have to accept that it's not going to work.[Do you usually record an interview on video?]Well, video versus sound is a bit contentious issuein oral history.And I-- I would tend to say sound.But I realize video gives you more information.

  • 17:19

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: But I-- certainly, I think, for research projects,it's-- and you want to take it further.You want to analyze the data, you'regetting into much more difficult areas of interpretationif you've got to take in visual cues and clues, as well.And I tend to think that people relax more with sound only.

  • 17:41

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: They've less to be distracted by.There's less-- it does mean you don't haveto have a third person there.I do-- I know people say that theycan conduct an interview on their own with a camera.But I'm not totally convinced that it's quite the sameas a sound only recording.I don't know what you think, Jenny.

  • 18:01

    JENNY HARDING: I'm much more inclined to favor sound,definitely.So I've-- I've been involved in projects that have used both.I mean, recently, when I've been teaching students oral history,I've had an experience, much as I described earlier,of teaching with video and then teaching just with sound.

  • 18:25

    JENNY HARDING [continued]: And we switched to sound because wefelt that people listened more.The students listened more when they were thinking about soundand thinking about what people were saying.They got quite distracted with visual aspectsof telling a story.I don't know.

  • 18:46

    JOANNA BORNAT: Yeah, I just-- I thinkthat would make sense to me.Although, I know there are, for example, the SpielbergCollection, the Shoah Collection,this massive enormous collection,which is available online for people to look at,is totally video.But I don't know how long those videos are.But I mean, I guess they did that for a good reason.

  • 19:08

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: They wanted powerful imagery.And it's a different kind of oral history doing, I think.[Do you think using oral history interviews is a valid approachfor researchers to take?]I think it's necessary.I think you have to.And I think one of the most interesting developments thereis is, following the digital revolution really,is it's now so much easier to actually go backto other people's interviews and use them and use themalongside other sets of interviews.

  • 19:34

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: I know there are all sorts of controversies about it,but I don't feel that it's-- I feel it's a moral thing.I think it's something that social scientists oughtto be willing to do to share their data, aslong as the people who gave those interviews originallyare aware that the purposes for which it was givenmay be different when they come to be used later.The people are happy to have their interviews archived.

  • 19:56

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: That's fine.And I think it's necessary.

  • 19:59

    JENNY HARDING: Yes, I agree.I just think there's so much effort goesinto collecting material.And it's not fully interpreted and used.So I think it's a great waste.[How do you elicit testimony about something that might havehappened a long time ago?]Yes, ask somebody to talk about photographsor asked them to bring along somethingfrom a particular time, some memento, somethingthat they had, talk about a document or a photograph,and build on that.

  • 20:34

    JENNY HARDING [continued]: And I think that, certainly, helps people get goingor connect with the past.But I don't think it creates greater reliability,if that's what you mean.Because the charge that some memories areless reliable as a source for historyor source of information, I think, has been rejected.

  • 20:56

    JENNY HARDING [continued]: Because you know, people say, well,so is a document really stable?You know, how stable's that?You know, that's open to many interpretations.And also, the point about oral historyisn't to-- is to look at how things are remembered,the meanings that might be attached to them.

  • 21:17

    JENNY HARDING [continued]: There are other ways of finding out about particular events,as well, other sources of information.So I mean, oral history isn't-- it's trying to find,to understand the past of a certain aspect of the pastor aspects of the past.It's not the only way of approaching the past.

  • 21:36

    JOANNA BORNAT: And you can corroboratethrough other, maybe other interviews, other sources,as well.And it's true-- while it's true that many oral historians feelthat meaning is what we're seekingand 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 memory in order to prove,for example, land rights in Australia and North America.

  • 22:05

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: And oral traditions there have extraordinary importanceso that memory is relied on for its accuracy or certainlyits reliability there in recall of things of significancein that community.So I guess, we do accept that memory can be fallible.

  • 22:25

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: But we do know that there are ways in which you can betested against other sources.But we also do value memory for what it tells usabout people today and about the people who tellus things about themselves.[How might you reassure somebody who might worry thatrespondents or interviewees might seem self-importantin their testimony?]People will be self-important and valedictory.

  • 22:46

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: I mean, it's their right to be.I don't think we should try to change the way people telltheir stories.If they tell us in that way, that's of interest.That has some significance and tells us something about themor the particular group in societyor their sense of status and position.People may puff themselves up.But that's an interesting story in itself.

  • 23:05

    JENNY HARDING: Yes, and part of the sortof ethos of the oral history movementhas been around empowerment.And if people feel empowered and then theyfeel sort of picked up by it, thenthat's part of the process, isn't it?

  • 23:21

    JOANNA BORNAT: Because I think Jenny's absolutely right.We're giving people-- we hope we're giving people--we'd like to think we're giving people opportunity to speak whoaren't normally listened to.So if they take the floor, that's terrific.We feel they've risen to the opportunity that'sbeen presented to them to tell their story, to givetheir version of the past.

  • 23:42

    JOANNA BORNAT [continued]: And that's why we think it's important to do oral history.


Professors Joanna Bornat and Jenny Harding explain what oral history is and discuss the challenges of this type of research. They explain how to prepare for an oral history interview, what the difference between oral history and life history is, and how to recruit participants. They also highlight the pros and cons of audio and video recording.

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Joanna Bornat and Jenny Harding Discuss Oral History Methods

Professors Joanna Bornat and Jenny Harding explain what oral history is and discuss the challenges of this type of research. They explain how to prepare for an oral history interview, what the difference between oral history and life history is, and how to recruit participants. They also highlight the pros and cons of audio and video recording.

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