Oral History and Life History

Definition


Oral Histories are a type of interview in which personal testimonies are collected and preserved. The term “oral history” can refer to the method itself, as well as the datum produced. Through oral histories, individual, familial, and/or communal memories and experience are can be captured, and shared for future generations. These data assist in the representation of localized experiences within a larger historical context. Oral history is just one approach within the wider-reaching methodological practice, life history. Not to be confused with life history theory (used in biological anthropology to note the behavioral investments made within a species to ensure survivability and reproducibility), the life history method is used primarily in cultural anthropology to provide a rich, full description of an individual life. By definition, life history “is a holistic, qualitative account of a life that emphasizes the experiences of the individual and how the person copes. It links experiences to subsequent actions and theoretical perspectives with personal experiences".[1] Thus, with it the researcher aims to provide an in-depth description of an individual, family or group and allows the research subject to describe a complete picture of their own life, in their own words. Most importantly, it allows for the life to be situated in a socio-historical context.

OLH 1.jpg

Relevant Characteristics


Life history method is used to provide contextual descriptions of individual lives, greater social structures, and historical events using in-depth, open-ended (or semi-structured) and usually in-person interviews. Frequently, multiple interviews over time are required, allowing for a rapport to develop between the interviewee and researcher, which is essential to method success. Depending on the research goals, the sample size could consist of one, several, or many individuals, families or groups. The method is often used to formulate further research or to clarify or go in-depth into initial themes.
Variations which help with visual representation include Lifelines[2]Textboxes[3] and the Life History Calendar. [4] The oral history is recorded via video or audio recording and requires written consent from both the interviewer and interviewee. Oral histories differ from other in-depth interviews because they focus on collecting memories of past events, rather than emphasizing contemporary events.[5][6] The interview should take place in a relatively quiet location in order to reduce any potential background noises that may be picked up through the recording.[7] It is best to allow the interviewee to decide the location, to ensure s/he is comfortable during the process.

“Method Made Easy”


  • Establish research question
  • Determine who to interview
  • Create interview schedule/guide
  • Master your arrival, introduction and setup.
  • Discuss release forms with interviewee.
  • Ask good questions to start out with in order to help stimulate memories; avoid yes/no questions
  • OLH 3.jpgListen, listen some more, and be flexible!
  • Let interviewee responses help guide you in asking new questions.
  • Take notes about further questions you have.
  • Respect privacy and confidentiality.
  • Show empathy and gratitude.
  • Remember biographical paperwork.
  • Analyze texts, crosscheck with interviewee

Advantages


OLH 2.jpg
This method is beneficial to both researcher and participants. Oral histories are excellent ways to collect first-hand accounts of historical events or daily life and provide individual and localized insight to complement events that may only be viewed through an objective lens.[8]Participating in an oral history may also be a therapeutic and empowering experience for participants, especially if they are often unable to have their voices heard. Additionally, it provides for more in-depth data gathering than other qualitative methods, all the while allowing for a strong, lasting relationship between researcher and subject. Perhaps most importantly, the method promotes an understanding of the historical development of attitudes and behaviors, and presents the life narrative with the hindsight and context of known historical events.

Limitations


Many cite the subjective nature of this method, which is often viewed as lacking generalizability.[9] By nature, this method utilizes a retrospective design, leaving it subject to potential recall error and bias. Events may be misremembered, or certain details may have been forgotten.[10] [2]Despite the socio-historic context that the method allows for, there is the potential for researcher interpretation error, or for presenting the research subjects in a decontextualized or romanticized manner.[11] Certain events or details may also be high lightened or downplayed, as oral histories are completely subjective accounts.Since oral histories are dependent on the participant’s memory, some information may be incomplete. Oral histories can be somewhat time consuming, in regard to both data collection (interview) and transcribing the interview (1 hour of interview = 4-6 hours of transcribing). Additionally, equipment (i.e. video and voice recorders, transcription software, etc.) may be expensive.

Analysis


The analysis process for oral histories is similar to analyzing of other types of interviews. Collected audio or video files can be transcribed, and coded by using qualitative analysis software, such as Atlas.ti, NVivo, or Stata. Any notes taken during the interview may also be analyzed for qualitative data, which can also be used to interpret patterns.[12] Texts are interpreted by the researcher and presented based on the research interest. Ideally, texts (transcriptions and final) are cross-checked and validated by the interviewee. Life history method implies the researcher will ultimately disseminate findings.


Method in Context


Life history is used in many of the social sciences, particularly sociology, psychology and anthropology. Its uses alter depending on the theoretical background. The role of the researcher, and the researcher’s interaction with the subject, is crucial, but is unfortunately often “omitted or understated”.[13] It is important to remember that the telling of a life story can be emotionally or even physically draining; the teller should be ready to face these challenges, and researcher ready to actively listen. Oral histories are especially beneficial when used to contextualize specific event, because they reflect on individual and localized feelings and understandings about the event. While other types of interviews can provide insight into feelings and opinions about current events, oral histories can contextualize both current and past events into individual life histories, as well as create community histories through oral history collections.

Online Resources


University of South Florida Oral History Program:http://guides.lib.usf.edu/ohp

University of Florida’s Samuel Proctor Oral History Program:http://oral.history.ufl.edu/

SfAA Oral History Project:http://www.sfaa.net/publications/oral-history-project/

Oral History Association:http://www.oralhistory.org/centers-and-collections/

Life history research methods overview presentation: http://www.slideshare.net/aaocarroll/life-history-research-methodology

Life histories and biographical research methods presentation: http://www.tcd.ie/niid/pdf/Life_Histories%20_Biographical_Research_Methods.pdf


Further Reading


Angrosino, M.V.
2006 Conducting a Life History Interview. In Angrosino, M.V. (Ed.), Doing Cultural Anthropology: Projects in Ethnographic Data Collection, 2nd edition. Long Grove, IL: Waveland Press.

Dillon, Pattie
2000 “Teaching the Past Through Oral History.” The Journal of American History 87(2): 602-605.

Atkinson, R.
2001 The Life Story Interview. In J. F. Gubrium & J. A. Holstein (Eds.), Handbook of Interview Research: Context and Method. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Overview chapter on the method (note: updated book edition scheduled for 2012 release).

Hamilton, Paula, and Linda Shopes, eds.
2008 Oral History and Public Memories. Philadelphia: Temples University Press.

Mandelbaum, D. G.
1973 The Study of Life History: Gandhi. Current Anthropology, 14(3), 177-206. Early methodological overview using the life of Gandhi as example, with multiple comments from international anthropologists, followed by author’s reply

Ojermark, A.
2007 Presenting Life Histories: A Literature Review and Annotated Bibliography SSRN eLibrary: http://ssrn.com/paper=1629210

Putman, Errol, and Katie Rommel-Esham
2004 “Using Oral History to Study Change: An Integrated Approach.” The Social Studies 95(5):201-205.

References


  1. ^ Gramling, L. F., & Carr, R. L.
    2004 Lifelines: A life history methodology. Nursing Research, 53(3), 207-210.
  2. ^ Gramling, L. F., & Carr, R. L.
    2004 Lifelines: A life history methodology. Nursing Research, 53(3), 207-210.
  3. ^ Ojermark, A.
    2007 Presenting Life Histories: A Literature Review and Annotated Bibliography SSRN eLibrary: Chronic Poverty Research Center.
  4. ^ Nelson, I. A.
    2010 From Quantitative to Qualitative: Adapting the Life History Calendar Method. Field Methods, 22(4), 413-428.
  5. ^ Yow, V.R.
    2005 Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.
  6. ^ Ritchie, D. A.
    2003 Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  7. ^ Yow, V.R.
    2005 Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.
  8. ^
    Yow, V.R.
    2005 Recording Oral History: A Guide for the Humanities and Social Sciences. Walnut Creek: AltaMira Press.
  9. ^ Freeman, J. M., & Krantz, D. L.
    1980 The Unfulfilled Promise of Life Histories. Biography, 3(1), 1-13.
  10. ^ Ritchie, D. A.
    2003 Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
  11. ^ Cary, L. J.
    1999 Unexpected Stories: Life history and the limits of representation. Qualitative Inquiry, 5(3), 441-427.
  12. ^ Bernard, H R
    2011 Research Methods in Anthropology: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches, Fifth Ed. Lanham: AltaMira.
  13. ^ Freeman, J. M., & Krantz, D. L.
    1980 The Unfulfilled Promise of Life Histories. Biography, 3(1), 1-13.