Research Method Workshop in Oral History-1

Oral History: A Resource for Collecting Historical Information Through Interview

Seyyedeh Pegah Rezazade
Translated by Ruhollah Golmoradi


"Research Method Workshop of Oral History", lectured by Soheila Safari was held in National Archives Building, NLAI’s Dr. Parham Hall on Monday, February 17, 2020.

Soheila Safari has a PhD in contemporary history from Al-Zahra University. The subject of his thesis is "Social Insecurities in Reza Shah Period in Terms of Research in Oral History ". He has been working with NLAI in Oral History Department for more than 10 years. One of Safari's activities is researching and implementing oral history project in field of history in academic system. He has also conducted interviews with professors at Tehran and Shahid Beheshti universities, people such as Dr. Shabani, Dr. Khalatbari, Dr. Golshani, Dr. Azari, and Dr. Bayani, and has collaborated in compiling research projects, such as Project for War Migrants, Islamic Schools, and Cultural Revolution Council. Another activities of Safari' is to review conducted interviews in oral history period. He has also completed a research project called "History of Central Organization of Ministry of Foreign Affairs". Safari has several articles in field of oral history, including the interview with Professor Adl in his resume, which is available to those interested in Quarterly of Oral History. He has authored articles in field of contemporary history titled "Discontent with Uniform Clothing According to Documents", "Protests of People for Urban Modernization in the Pahlavi Period", "Characteristics of Constitutional Government in Literature of Tehran's Constitutionalists Magazines" and "Archives in Iranian Qajar Travelogues".

Soheila Safari said at the session, "I'm happy to present to my colleagues another topic of oral history. There are many histories and definitions in oral history that I want to share with you. Purpose of this workshop and discussion is research method in field of oral history; that is, I want to talk about oral history as a historical research. As well as about that how an oral history project is formulated to reach reliable and remarkable interview and source so that we can finally remember it as one of the most important oral history requirements. Unfortunately, from the outset, most historians have not paid attention to oral history. There have been often people in social sciences and anthropologists who have smiled on oral history. But fortunately, given the current circumstances, today historians have to pay attention to oral history and cannot ignore it at all. Oral history, on the other hand, has an interdisciplinary nature. All of these are, of course, defined under collection of science of history. The definition given to history science, its research method, as well as its methodology, all refer to work in field of oral history. First let me say a general definition of science of history to bring us closer to our goal, oral history. History is knowledge of the human past, and that look at the human past from a wider perspective and, through this, different perspectives to be viewed. The past covers a very distant past, such as thousands of years ago, bringing history closer to archeology, and eventually encompassing not too distant and present times. The present and not so distant times, bring us closer to oral history, and oral history serve as an effective tool and method. If I want to give a definition of oral history, I must say that it is part of a historical research and historiography that I prefer to refer to as a way of collecting historical information and a historical source. Oral history is source of historical information, which through interviews, eventually becomes a historical source for researchers in different fields. Whatever the definition of oral history, what is important is that oral history must be surely research-based. In fact, research for oral history practice is a priori research that is being used by researchers and scholars after us. Just like historical research that is based on proposal and it shows the research plan. Oral history must be relied on a blueprint. Of course, this blueprint is not a static project in oral history at all, but a dynamic project that will be complemented by conducting research during interview. This blueprint is not going to limited and restricted us. On the contrary, we want to eliminate constraints with oral history in order to obtain credible information and to choose ways to conduct interviews that are more flexible. In this way, we do not want to engage fruitlessly in definite, predetermined frameworks like merely quantitative methods. Rather, it is, as I said, a strategy that puts us in the right direction of research. Of course, oral history also requires its own specific proposal, which I will discuss later.

The reason I emphasize oral history today as one of requirements of history, and even its most basic and fundamental, goes back to the general notion of oral history, and a notion in minds of audiences, researchers, and elites. Addressing this profession and being master in it is more important since we at NLAI produce oral history as an archival responsibility; that is, given the position of NLAI, what is produced here is in fact a kind of interaction and friendship between oral history historians and dear archives. Therefore, the center helps to the produced oral resources and making them accessible. The general idea is that oral history is an easy task, and it is easy for anyone to do. For example, they say we suggest a topic and thanks to the internet and Wikipedia we do a search and get information and start reading and finally writing. while, we must bear in mind that we have acquired a special opportunity through oral history. We can discuss specific issues with specific people and this opportunity will never be repeated. Sometimes we have an opportunity that we should gather this special information; let’s step in oral history heartily, and, most importantly, apply our scientific and ethical commitment in this field.

First and foremost, I must say that method is preceded by methodology. Methodology itself is an important and very broad topic. I will do my best effort to note them briefly and just refer to their headings in certain and of course short time that we have. Topic of oral history in Iran is a new field. Our understanding of methodology plays an important role in formulating oral history project and interviews we conduct and information we collect. In general, we have two types of methodologies in humanities: one is quantitative method and the other is qualitative method.

In quantitative methodology, subject of humanities and natural sciences is the same. Humanities regard human as an object. In natural sciences, human beings are seen in the same way and are observable and testable. The data obtained through "quantitative" method can be easily described quantitatively and statistically. The interviews conducted in this way are structured and inflexible. It can even be said that it is based on a pre-determined questionnaire. The questions are clear and definite. The interviewer is not actively involved in quantitative method. There is no special interaction between interviewer and interviewee. The presence or absence of an interviewer may not have much effect on the interview. In this way, the interview conversations are sometimes repeated easily. Statistical and empirical analyzes and determined responses obtained from these data are easily predictable. Place and time also have no effect on the interview process. The interviewee is not allowed to speak freely. In the next step, through criticizing "quantitative" method, "qualitative" method is discussed and studied. This method is known as interpretive method. In "qualitative" method, subject of humanities and natural sciences research is not the same. In this way, human is said to be a complex, multi-meaning, and multidimensional being. It is also based on mentality and interpretation of the social actor. Here historian and researcher attempts to understand and interpret his behavior through empathy. The interviews that take place in this way are really flexible interviews, having in-depth and so-called open questions, not predetermined questions. In qualitative way, the subject is determined and everything goes according to the central subject.

In qualitative method, special attention is paid to context. The researcher in this way seeks to create meaning, omitting meaning and to find it, and leaving behind this empirical process. Of course, there are some criticisms of this method. However, being aware of both methods will help our research.

Some believe that the two quantitative and qualitative methods are inherently different from one another and cannot be combined. Some also believe that these two approaches can be combined to achieve better results in research. We can also use unique features of these two methods based on the type of topics. But for oral history project, as I said, oral history proposal must be research-based. Qualitative strategy gives us a framework but at the same time is flexible, that is going forward with our interview and research. The first thing, like all research projects in field of history, is to choose a topic. The subject must be based on researcher's interests. From the outset, we must know that we should not choose a subject that we have no interest in or information about it. Process of research and interviewing in oral history is an up and down trend. If we are not interested in its subject, we will certainly be discouraged and tired during the process and our project wouldn’t be advanced. But the interest in research and subject in a word lead to pass confidently and surely if there are any difficulties during the work.



Let me also add that the interest in subject differs from that of, in the words of occidentalists, “sympathy” with it. Interest in subject helps us to get closer to existing historical realities. On the other hand, if we are dogmatic on a subject, we must, undoubtedly, know that this dogmatism would take us away from the present reality. In the second step, we must select a topic where research is possible. We should not choose a subject that has trouble in accessing its resources and books from the beginning, and so-called limit us are generally! Some subjects may be new to research, but they cannot be researched. Another is that the chosen topic should be in line with limitations, facilities, and capabilities of the researcher. The researcher, just like any other human being, has its own possibilities and limitations. Skill limitations are one of the things to be considered. In other words, every research requires its own skills. If the researcher lacks the skills, he or she will face many obstacles. Based on knowledge of researcher of research skills, he/she must move on to the subject in specific areas and takes step in the same necessary spaces.

I would like to emphasize this section further, as one of the main options and pillars is that the interviewer has sufficient mastery over the interview subject. Naturally, any interview needs experience, skill, and enhancing the interviewer's knowledge. This does not mean that the interviewer becomes aware of the subject during the interview. Each subject has its own expertise, knowledge and method. The interviewer should honestly avoid addressing issues that do not have sufficient skill. She/he doesn’t not do this merely as a task, for example, a bureaucratic and office task, and filling out his/her office hours. As we have different historical subjects, including social history, cultural history, and economic history, we will naturally have different research. The study methods and their sources are different, and in the end the questions from each of experts in this field are quite different. Therefore, it is necessary for the interviewer to consider carefully these issues in choosing the topic and conduct the research having be thoroughly master in the topics and understanding methods of her/his subject. It is only by knowing the subject thoroughly that things like mistakes or contradictions of the interviewee become apparent to the interviewer. The interviewer should also be able to direct, like movement of a river, all interviewee’s talks during the interview and research. As well as, unnecessary questions not to be raised by being knowledgeable in the topic, and the interview not to become a classroom for researcher that she or he want to learn during interview. In fact, the interviewer should not be the same as a student that learn and to be trained in process of interview. On the other hand, the interviewee does not have to explain his/her specialized terms. I remember that in one interview, the interviewer was not able to even repeat terms of the interviewee till end of the interview, and had a vulgar and inaccurate understanding of those terms.

Another way to choose a topic is how you view history. We do not consider history limit to power and politics and focus on all aspects of history, such as cultural, social, economic, and so on. All of these has an impact on the subject selection. Related to subject selection, attention to trivial areas and missing circles makes producing oral history itself to initially target groups of audiences who have been unaware of the story details. Missing issues should be addressed by oral history. The same is directly related to issue of that selecting subject is future-oriented. There are many phenomena that are self-evident today, are still written and to be forgotten very simply. Here, oral historians can record obvious topics. By choosing a topic, we will be guided to the subject matter. In the case of research, we will provide further explanation and formulation of the problem, and we will focus on what we are essentially looking for in choosing this topic. The question that what we are looking for may lead us to searching how, what and why. We must explain this what and why in a way that to be completely clear to the audience. A detailed explanation of the research problem, both for the researcher and the reader, clarifies what the research is looking for. The audience, and, consequently, oral history researcher should know and expect first of all what topics and discussions his/her project has and what not will be discussed. So we can say that the problem is problem of scientific ambiguity that lies within subjects of research and we have come to them from our previous studies. The scientific question itself is awareness of the subject. The problem is to explain and making scientific the topic within our field of study, which is based on a transitional approach to the subject and seeing inadequate the prior answers to that question. All of these signify the researcher's knowledge. Now, if a subject is new and initiative and there is little information about it, our subject cannot be problem-focused. Here, too, we enter field of oral history if we wish and address the subject for collecting information. Oral history interview is an exploratory one, meaning we just want to gather information through an interview. After this step, we can move on to proper exploration of the problem with being master in the subject and the information we have collected. Here we can, in fact, limit our issue and raise a question regarding our time, budget, resources, and access to knowledgeable people and even our own scientific capability, and current dilemma and requirements. Presenting problem will eventually lead to one or more questions; main question or multiple questions. The questions finally have answers for themselves. But what matters in research is raising question. Asking a question is much harder than answering it. The questions can be described as novel, which in turn leads to production of science. Only if a question is asked, an answer will be received too. The questions are generally divided into two categories. Descriptive questions and analytical questions. Descriptive questions, for example, begin with the name and surname, and direct the research problem toward description with explaining what and how. It should be clear to the researcher which kind of research he or she intends to do; descriptive or analytical? In analytical research, the researcher seeks “why”. Sometimes questions may be a combination of both. The researcher wants to describe first and then provide an analysis of the subject. Descriptive questions are not problem-oriented questions. But analytical questions are problematic. Another set of questions are causal and reason questions, where causal questions seek cause of the story, and reason questions seek reason. The difference is that causal questions are about objective things. What is found in natural sciences is visible and touchable in causal questions, but reasons, or the same reason question are about subjectivity. They cannot be observed and touched.


To be continued...

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