The Methodology and Approaches to Oral History in Historical Research


Abstract:
Oral history is a research method in the discipline of history. Application of this method is very important for documenting contemporary historical events. In order to give depth to, integrate and expand the field of oral history, we need to answer a few questions first: what is the methodology of oral history? Where does oral history stand in the scholarly field? What are the dos and don'ts in oral history? How does the evaluation of oral history documents happen? What are the functions of oral history and oral historians? And, what is the correct way of interviewing?
This paper is an effort to offer a fairly comprehensive definition of oral history, its basics and methodologies and, to emphasize the importance of this method as an investigating tool in historiography.

Oral history is an approach in historiographic research which, having an interdisciplinary essence, developed during the past decades within historian societies. Oral history is an organized collection of living people's statements about their experiences. It is a present narrative of historical events. The type of research method used in oral history is qualitative and the true researchers are the narrators who play a significant role in the very events which they narrate with the help of the interviewers. In contrast to written history, oral history is a special way of historiography which uses interview as its tool. Common people are the primary audience of this method of historiography. One of the most prominent characteristics of this approach is the collection of different thoughts and opinions by the interviewer. Oral history not only is "a determining method in enhancing people's understanding of and sensibility towards contemporary events, perceiving the essence of time and historical constructs' functionalities", but also "is both a primary source of and a supplement to historiography."
Oral history deals with narratives of present people who advance live history as active participants in the events. This research method enables the marginalized groups, especially women, clergymen, proletarians, African Americans and other operative groups in the realm of history who sometimes have been wrongly neglected as margins of no importance to be heard.
Functions of oral history:
Oral history has diverse functions which are briefly listed below:
1. Invocation of people's memory as a research tool, in the process of expansion and completion of historiography of contemporary events enriches historical research.
2. In oral history, active and facilitating interview can result in disclosure of important matters and throwing light on the hidden angles of events; much unsaid can be said.
3. By providing equal opportunities for the presence of different groups such as women, proletarians, soldiers, migrants, etc. participation in historiography can take place at a more general and all encompassing level. 
4. Historiography can be released from centralization and government monopoly. Diverse actors can play their role.
1. Documents and photos which are collected during active interviews upon the interviewee's consent provide the proper background for the use of special, private and unofficial documents.
2. The engagement of oral history with currents of contemporary history and examining the challenges of the same period provides insight and solution to the existing problems. This engagement can somehow prevent the recurrence of ill-fated and unexpected events.
In oral history the narrator, reporting critically as an insider, looks at the root and basics of social change.
Oral history can make use of the memoires of those aged people who have significant memories of contemporary history.

 Oral history has a significant function especially in interdisciplinary areas such as sociology and psychology which figure out high human examples through analyzing personal, family and social lives of prominent figures.
Oral history is the result of interaction, completion, disclosure and mass production of historical data by the ones who were immediate and active participants of contemporary historical events.
The functions of the Oral Historiographer:
In the field of oral history, the interviewer plays a crucial role in retaining the memories of political and social forces in society.
"The oral historiographer has got to consider three fundamental responsibilities with regard to historiography: a. responsibility towards the interviewee, b. responsibility towards the society, public opinion and, his/her duty to history, c. responsibility towards archiving and sponsoring institutions."
Regarding the interviewees, the oral historiographer is responsible for recording the interview thoroughly and then editing it according to specific rules and regulations. In other words, the oral historiographer should take into account all the details and mention the necessary information about the events and figures discussed in the interview, footnotes and appendixes. In addition, the oral historiographer is responsible for the society and public opinion in offering the correct and complete script of the interview. Therefore, the oral historiographer should examine, in advance, the questions and the chronological order of events and social conditions which the interviewee inhabited, i.e. s/he should attend the interview session completely informed. Moreover, the oral historiographer should consider the few issues listed below.

Interview, the primary tool in oral historiography:
Interview in oral history does not mean gathering data but collecting detailed information with regard to rules in oral history which aim at retaining transparent data rather than disseminating news. Interview may be conducted in both structured and unstructured ways. However, the form of questions will vary in each method. A structured interview requires a chronologically ordered collection of profound query relevant to the subject of interview. In the course of unstructured interview the questions rise automatically. In this method, formulating questions based on the interviewee's remarks depends on the skillfulness of the interviewer.

Interview Skills in oral history:
Donald Ritch, one of the most famous figures in oral history in the U.S has proposed a few issues regarding the attributes of interview in oral history, of which the most important are mentioned below.
The interviewer should do preliminary research on the subject of interview and gather relevant detailed information in advance in order to have the required knowledge of the work. The more the interviewer knows about the interviewee and the subject, the better he can establish rapport with the interviewee.
Most of the interviewees, especially the elderly, do not trust the interviewer to expose themselves. They mostly see the interview as a trial (test). The interviewers should try to calm them down and encourage their honesty by setting frequent meetings in a friendly atmosphere.
The interviewers should prepare the questions before hand and pose them at the right time. They sometimes have to dedicate some time to the interviewee's deviated answers which might contain valuable information.
The older ones and the ones who have played more important roles in the events or the society under study should receive first priority for interviews. Younger and more prepared interviewees should be reserved for the final phases of the study.
1. The cooperation of those who are called gate keepers by oral historiographers is necessary. Gatekeepers could be the interviewee's spouse, siblings, other relatives or close friends.
2. The ones who cooperate less need to be repeatedly and patiently encouraged.
Charles Morrissey, the former president of the Oral History Association , who began his work in the field of oral history in 1975, has been in charge of several projects. In a selected article from The Oral History Reader called "On Oral History Interviewing", based on his experiences, he mentioned some of the interviewer's skills in the course of oral historiography, of which the most prominent are listed below.
1. Regarding the number of participants in interview, Morrissey suggests that, "it is preferred for each interviewer to face one interviewee" (p: 107).
In the course of interview, "a lot depends on how much control you have over the situations." (p: 108) Being focused, in shape and in control over the interview, are extremely effective.
2. "One of the things we emphasized was to let the interviewee talk. It's his show….As Louis Starr said "A good interviewer is a good listener.""(p: 108)
3. Morrissey points out that the interviewer should always carry a notepad in order to take note of questions which might cross his mind or to ask for the correct spelling of names.(p: 108)
4. Morrissey argues that "A good interviewer should probe deeply into the details, asking for examples of generalizations he [interviewee] had given"(p: 109) and "constantly look for illustrations of points the interviewee is making."(p: 109)
5. According to Morrissey "In oral history one of the great dangers is for the interviewer to feel that he has to keep talking until the interviewee tries to get a word edgewise. Sometimes interviewers tend to rush things. We should let the interviewee to proceed with his own pace, if it is slow, from our viewpoint, nonetheless it is his pace. We should let him go at his pace"(p: 110)
6. Based on his own experiences, Morrissey advises us to postpone sensitive questions until the interview is well on track. It is rather important to establish a strong rapport with the interviewees and, to gain their trust. (p: 110)
7. Morrissey believes that in interviews, when there is an important subject to deal with, the interviewer should approach it from different angles. The interviewer should never assume that it is enough to discuss a topic only once, abandoning it completely and, never trying to address it again. (p: 111)
8. In the course of the interview one should use keywords such as ‘which date, who, when, how and, why’.
9. The interview should be accompanied by supplementary documents, pictures and evidences.
10. After finalizing the interview script, it is better to show it to the interviewee for revision. Some believe that this means over privileging the interviewee. However, this phase should be regarded as a second chance. 

Methodology of Oral History:
The methodology of Oral history is that of naturalistic method and qualitative research. Naturalistic research methods are geared towards explaining human complexities. These methods emphasize human complexities and man's capability in shaping his experiences. In this approach it is believed that truth is the combination of realities. The followers of this approach try to understand human experience as it is, through analyzing human mind and collecting memoirs. In this method, the emphasis is on dynamic, holistic and personal human experience. Following this approach one should try to consider all aspects within the relevant context and from the view point of the people who have experienced it.
In each oral history project, participants actively partake in social interactions and gain new experiences. Through these interactions and experiences, they collect different viewpoints to achieve new facts. Using qualitative research methods, oral historiographers seek to investigate facts whose generalization they do not consider significant. The questions addressed by researchers in the course of qualitative research are: Who can be a rich source of information? Who should be interviewed? What should be observed to achieve a clear understanding of a phenomenon?
New questions arise as the research progresses: To whom can we talk in order to confirm, correct and, enrich our understanding? Burns & Grove believe that in the qualitative research method people who partake in the study should not be called samples or subjects, rather they should be called participants or informants, because they are not being tampered but are active participants of the research. This very fact causes their lives and social interactions to be understood better. Patton (1990) calls this type of sampling “purposeful or theoretical” because the people who have experienced the phenomenon under study or have special viewpoints about it are the ones selected.
Sampling in oral history qualitative research:
Sampling methods in qualitative research in oral history are as follows:
1. Convenient sampling: In this method, available people or volunteers who are found through advertisements are used. But the people who show up might not be well-informed. Therefore, adequate information might not be obtained through this method of sampling.
2. Snowball method: This method, sometimes called “network or chain method” is suitable, effective and cheap to access the ones who are hard to find. In this method, the researcher asks the first group of participants who have been chosen through convenient sampling to recommend other people they might know to participate in the research, people who have experience in the field of study. This method is rather quick. In addition, due to first participants' acquaintance with the new ones, the researcher can create a rapport with new participants easier.
3. Theoretical/purposeful sampling: While convenience sampling is followed by snowball sampling, in the end, it mostly turns into purposeful sampling. In other words, oral historiographer usually purposefully and with regards to what kind of information is required due to initial findings, tries to sample. Therefore, later samples depend on first samples and the information they have provided.

To sum up, sampling in qualitative research depends on the decisions taken at the course of sampling. Being sensitive to situations, gathered information and relevant analysis are sampling's major characteristic in qualitative research. Oral historiographer is often confronted by these questions: Where to start from? Who to start with? First samples are chosen through convenience sampling method, followed by snowball method. The selection of future samples depends on the previous samples and the information gathered from them. First samples are sources for selection of future samples with special characteristics.

Authenticity of oral documents:
First, the level of purity and the authenticity of quality of these documents has always been the point of contention among academic historiographers. For this reason, oral historiographers have sought to unravel some of the doubts which have been casted upon the authenticity of this approach. Traditional historiographers, whose works are based on written documents, believe that oral documents are always production of historiography from the very beginning.  The narrator and the historiographer (interviewer), both seek to draw a specific map of the past of which they have similar viewpoints. Therefore, the authenticity of the oral document is questioned. In other words, the narrator, while being moved by a specific question and feeling ambivalent towards the event, begins to tell a story.  This production is actually nothing but the combination of his observation and personal thoughts which he refines during the interview. This is pretty much why the oral historiographer cannot have a concrete existence and whatever produced from the very beginning is oral history.
In response to this viewpoint one can argue that this is precisely why there does not exist such a thing as pure document; meaning, existing collection in all three common forms (official, semi-official and, unofficial) bear the burden of the discourse of the event. In all situations, first the historiographer and then the reader should acknowledge the fact that a past event can never be accessed immediately and thoroughly. Hence, not only oral documents can be recognized as much as written documents, but also, because of the relative flexibility of research in oral historiography, oral document might have some privileges. Although in oral presentation of events, the process of refinement of a passive mind is influenced on the one hand by the discourse of the time and on the other by ideology and culture, the interviewer can bring the unsaid and hidden angels by effective questions to production and history.
Last Word:
Oral history plays a significant role in preserving the memories of the generation of the revolution and, extraction and revision of the reasons behind the contemporary transitions in Iran, especially during the past three decades. Expansion of oral history as a primary and supplementary resource for historiography is necessary as an instrument to raise the bars for the young generation and make them conscious. Therefore, it is important that academic circles, especially the Iranian Ministry of Science and Research acknowledge this approach and establish the independent discipline of oral history.  Therefore, in order to enrich oral history and its interdisciplinary essence, it is important to conduct workshops and courses at undergraduate and graduate levels in the discipline of history and, establishing oral history as an independent discipline.

Works Cited
1. Norouzi, H. A. (1383). Oral History: Experimental Pragmatics, Reliability and Research Applications. Contemporary History of Iran (29), p. 252.
2. Nouraei, M. (1383). A Report of Oral History Seminar and Workshop in the University of Isfahan. Contemporary History of Iran , p. 351.
3. Nouraei. Ibid.
4. Norouzi, Ibid. p. 358.
5. Hasan Abadi, A. (1385). Oral History in Iran. Organization of Libraries, Museums and Documents Center of Astan Quds Razavi.
6. Adib Haj Bagheri, M. (1386). Qualatative Research Methods. Yashra.
7. Jafari, K. (1383). A Talk with Donald Ritch on Oral History. Studies and Researches Centre for Resistant Culture and Literature.
8. Niknafs, S. (1384). Historical Studies and Researches Quarterly. Ganjine-ye Asnad.
9. Adib Haj Bagheri. Ibid, p. 23.
10. Adib Haj Bagheri, Ibid, p. 35.
11. Adib Haj Bagheri, Ibid, 35-37.
12. Nouraei, M. (1385). An Introduction to Theoretical and Practical Problems of Oral History. Historical Studies and Researches Quarterly , pp. 147-148.

Fa’ezse Tavakkoli
Translated by: Jairan Gahan



 
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