Andrea Peto, Central-European University Professor's lecture on Oral History methodology
eNews in collaboration with Oral History Institute of Moldova publishes the first (out of 8) lecture of Professor Andrea Peto, Dr. hab. in History on Oral History methodology, delivered at Central-European University within the course of Oral History methodology and technique.
Here is this definition of an interview, and I would like to elaborate on this particular quote: “In order to understand another person’s constructions of reality, we should do well to ask them, and to ask them in such way, that they can tell us in terms, rather than those imposed rigidly apriori by ourselves and the depth that addresses the rich content that is the substance of their meaning.”
If we unpack this quote, we basically have the definition of an interview. We do want to understand other person’s constructions of reality. We will never understand the reality, but we will look at the constructions of the reality, and the way how we are actually getting access to this meaning making process is that we are actually asking the interviewees, but of course, the tricky question is: how do you ask them, right? We ask them in such a way, that they can tell us terms, rather than those imposed rigidly and apriori by ourselves. It means that we have to ask those questions not influenced by our apriori knowledge, but trying to ask a question that is actually opening up a space for the interviewee to try to reconceptualize, to reconsider, reflect on his or her particular position, and to talk about that particular experience. This should not be asking questions which are imposing certain interpretations, categories, facts on the interviewee. You are asking the question “Did you like that particular event?”. That’s a very bad question, because it’s a yes or no question, and it is already influencing the content, it is about liking, and the interviewee immediately starts thinking “maybe I should like it? It’s a yes or a no, there’s a good answer and a bad answer.” Therefore, the open question is a major issue in interviewing, because it often opens ways of conceptualizing the terms, also in depth, which addresses the rich content. The rich content is basically what an interview is aiming for: that you have got a thick description, which is the term coming from the anthropology and sociology, the rich content that is the substance of the meaning. This is a meaning making process, a construction of the reality, which depends on your open question, which is not influenced by certain apriori meanings and which is inviting a very rich story from the interviewee.
This definition of an interview is not always about oral history interviews, because there a lots of different types of interviews. If you look at this particular slide, you will see that there are structured interviews, standardized interviews, clinical history taking interviews, focus on semi-structured interviews, and unstructured interviews.
What are the differences and where do you put oral history in this particular chart of interviews, because if you are going into the supermarket and somebody is asking you “Will you buy this product?”, and you say no, that is already an interview, but it is not an oral history interview. The oral history interview, if you look at this chart, is an unstructured interview, which starts with a particular question. There are structured interviews which, like I have already mentioned, are surveys or certain polls. There are semi-structured interviews like the survey interviews or group interviews. The group interview is when we are talking about a question, and you will have a very particular group dynamic that you have to take into consideration when you are doing an oral history interview, because you are not doing a one on one discussion, but you have the inside dynamic of the whole group. The unstructured interviews are structured by the questions, but the questions are always responding to the stories, which have been told by the interviewee.
When you are looking at all the different types of interviews, the oral history interviews are coming with a set of questions, but these questions are always dependent, always in relation to the different responses that are coming from the interviewee. It is a kind of loop, a kind of reflection, and that is why oral history is such a powerful tool.
Then we are thinking what oral history is, we are trying to define what this particular phenomenon is. This is not easy, because there are several schools and several approaches. This is my approach to oral history that we are using to try and answer this particular question, which is: “Who speaks, what, in which channel, to whom, and with what effect.” We are responding to these five questions, deciding who speaks, and this is your decision, you are inviting somebody to be an interviewee for your project; what, what is your content; in which channel, in what way this is discussed; to whom, because you also have to reflect on your position as an interviewee; and with what kind of effect, what is the impact of this particular project.
When you ask somebody to reflect on his or her particular experience in the past, then this reflection is happening and it has a long-term impact on the individual’s life. Think about sensitive issues. Let me give you an example from my interviews, when I interviewed women who were raped by the Red Army soldiers, and they never talked about this in public. This was their first time coming out as rape victims, and it has a very serious impact on their future lives. Who speaks, what, in which channel, to whom, with what kind of effect. These are the issues that you really have to take into consideration.
Let me give you an example: In the 1970’s, the first survey was done in Hungary about the sexual habits of the youngsters. When they were evaluating the interviews, they found that in a particular region of Hungary, the percentage of virgins turned to be disproportionately high, and they were wondering what was happening in that particular region. They recognized that all of these interviews were made by the same person, who was a tall, pale male, a person wearing a dark suit and a dark tie. He was approaching these women, aged 16, asking: ‘Are you a virgin?’
This is a story that is explaining why discussions are important, because they influence the outcome, they influence the whole project, what you will get from this particular oral history story. Of course, they had to re-interview all of those young women, who were interviewed by that gentleman, who could have been an excellent interviewer in a different context.
When you are thinking about your own projects, please think about your position, when you are responding to this particular question. When you are preparing for your own projects, this is the first step: think about your particular questions.
In oral history, lots of historians, lots of anthropologists, lots of sociologists, they all mean different things by oral history. When I am mentioning oral history, I mention these three different elements, and because we are talking about three different issues, that is why it is so complex and sometimes they are all mingling together. Oral history is a specific form of discourse, it is the narrative of the past, and it is a medium of expression. Because all of these three elements are present at the same time, they all require different types of theorizing, and you will see that this is an interdisciplinary rather than trans-disciplinary approach to the past.
Let us start from the last one, because that is the easiest one. It means that the stories are only orally transmitted stories, dealing with sounds and noises. This mediums of expression needs to be recorded, and that requires certain technical skills, we will be talking about the technicalities of recording thee sounds and what to do with them, but basically, these stories are orally transmitted stories. It means that it is a narrative, it means that you need to have all of these narratives and stories analyzed. All of this narrative, the analyses, the narratology and discourses of the past come in very useful to you, when you are talking about oral history. It is also a different form of analyzing the content and it is a very specific discourse, because you have to take into consideration how it is being constructed, that you are asking questions at the moment, asking the interviewee to reflect on his or her past, and that that is an unique, unrepeatable event. You will never get the same answer from the same person again. This is a unique element of oral history, that it cannot be repeated, and it is a once in a lifetime moment.
I do not want to shock you when you are going out to do your filming, but every interview is a once in a lifetime experience. It does not matter if you decided to do a project, and you are interviewing a person three or four times, every interview will be different, every interview will open up a new world.
Oral history is a narrative, it is a discourse, and it is a medium of expression. Why is oral history so popular? There are numerous classes, a lot of people are doing interviews, there are many theses, there are several oral history projects, on the module you can see several links, I have uploaded to some digital oral history projects. Why is oral history a promise? What does it offer to us?
First of all, it is a scientific instrument to create new knowledge, to find answers to questions, which you cannot ask otherwise in order to find answers. It is a possibility of pointing ordinary people as subjects of social change. You can move from this elitist top down, approach towards scientific knowledge, and you can talk about those people who are otherwise not visible because of the politics of knowledge production. It means that you have several possibilities to choose the interviewees, who would otherwise say ’Why are you interested in my life?’. Through those life stories you can conceptualize and talk about the important political issues, you can talk about marginality, the constructions of marginality, you can look at the issues related to that. These ordinary people, as subjects of social change, talks about the concept of agency. These two important terms of oral history are subjectivity and agency. During this course we will be talking about these two concepts separately.
The concept of the singular universe, which is a concept used by Don Lincoln. When you are interviewing a person, you are talking to that person, but he or she is already representing a certain cultural, social and political context. In a sense, oral history is able to do something that really is the dream of all social scientists: to connect the individual with the social. That is why we have a class on the individual and the social, because that is the challenge of how to connect those two perspectives, or interconnections of the two different perspectives.
Oral history is an important scientific instrument, which has a political agenda, and which is trying to talk about moving from this elitist approach to science and interconnections, focusing on the individual experiences.
Oral history is not a new thing. If you have read the readings for today, you know that orality and the transmission of oral stories have been as long as humankind itself. But doing oral history in the meaning that I have talked about in the beginning, the three interwoven discussions, these are going back to the point when first these interviews have been recorded, with a political agenda, in order to analyze those interviews. Several interviews have been done, even the court testimonies can be also discussed as interviews. When we are talking about oral history, it has three phases roughly, but we will talk about them a little bit later, in detail, how the oral history, as we use it now, developed.
The first phase was the beginning of oral history, when they were recording somebody’s stories as it was, claiming the objectivity of the events or personalities, saying that if you are giving an oral history interview about yourself being a part of a political march, that is how it was, that is how it happened. You are recording an authentic story of how it had actually happened. In the first phase, oral historians were sound archivists in the traditional sense of the archives, recording stories to transcribe and put into the archives, producing archive documents to give authenticity to the story. As you know, there is a famous saying in history that when you don’t have sources, you don’t have history, meaning, that if you are producing those stories, you have history immediately. Therefore, the sound archivist phase created those missing documents, because the laboring people, the working class, the women, men and women of color, they were not producing those documents, so the archivists came in, interviewed, and then created those documents which ended up in the archives. Therefore, the sound archivists represent the first phase.
The second phase is related to the movement, the second wave of the 1968 movement, when the emerging of the social groups and social movements are informed by a certain emancipatory political agent, that started collecting stories in order to legitimize their political aims, producing a certain memory politics. That is from the 1960’s, 1970’s, when the working class archives, the army archives, the different issues related to environmental problems are being collected. This is the beginning of these social groups, and there is a connection between activism and academia.
The third phase begins when you see oral history become an academic discipline. There is an institutionalization, there are certain practices that have been developed, and it is pleasing certain ethical issues, like what can you do with that particular oral history interview. From the 1980’s onwards, the research of memory and memory study, which looks at memory as a mediation, a construction and a performance, changed the way that scholars and activists look at these interviews. They are no longer looking at these stories as authentic stories, but they were trying to think about them as stories of the production of a certain meaning making process.
What makes oral history different? Why is oral history particularly interesting and useful to your projects? This is why I am so happy that you are doing projects around oral history.
First of all, because of the researcher, because of you, because of what you are doing. You are involved in this political project of doing certain research on certain topics, that will actually make a difference, not only politically, but also your questions making the meaning. By asking your questions, you are initiating a story, so you are particularly involved in this process. Content analysis is the way you are analyzing the interviews. The research method, that you are positioning as far as class, race, gender and ethnicity concerns, the intersectional approach of looking at the interviewees and the project, looking at how the certain subjects were constructed in relation to different forms of discrimination, because that is your topic that you are interested in.
What makes oral history different? The relationship between the events and the meanings. There are two terms that I would like to introduce to you: the concept of fabula and the concept of plot. The concept of fabula is the logical sequence of story, like, you were born, you went to school, you went to the university, you got a job, then you got fired, you got another job, and you got fired again. That is a fabula. The plot is when you are actually asking the interviewee to talk about this particular fabula. How the story material arranges to tell the story. For example, going back to this banal example of interviewing this particular person: “Tell me about your employment experiences.”. I am sure that this person will not start his story with being fired several times, because nobody wants to be presented as a failure or a bad story. Then you have a plot, which itself is the story for the analysis.
If I can refer back to the definition of oral history, then, by analyzing the fabula, the plot, the whole discussion of what is happening during the oral history interviewing process. We will be talking about this very interesting and complicated relationship between the fabula and the plot during this course, because they are all influenced by different structures, political and symbolic factors, but the events and the meanings are those that you can discuss and analyze in oral history, while doing an oral history project. Not the events, you will never know what had happened, but you will know what kind of meaning making process is happening when you are doing the interview.
To give you an example, there was this research project by Andreas Gobac, who was a faculty member at the Jewish Study program, who interviewed those politicians who, on the 4th of November 1956, asked for refuge in the Yugoslav embassy in Budapest, Imre Nagy and others. The youngsters who were in that group, the children of the politicians, were interviewed about ”the history for two hours”, they learned that they can leave the Yugoslav embassy, until the moment that they recognized that they will be abducted by the Soviets, and they will not be getting the free passage to Yugoslavia as they hoped, but they would be taken to Romania. This ”history of two hours”, was told by those youngsters who came to Yugoslavia with their parents very differently. Every person remembered differently when they heard the news, what kind of buses were there, what kind of curtains. This shows that memory is not a reliable source of facts. It is a reliable source of meaning making process.
With this example I would like to go to this point about the political agenda: when you are choosing a project, it means taking a side, because you have millions of possibilities of choosing a projects, but you choose one particular course for a good reason. This good reason is a political reason because you think that these stories should be told. That political endeavor, political involvement makes oral history different, because you have a project, you want to influence the public discourse, the academic discourse, you want to influence the discussion on that particular topic by involving those who have previously not been involved in that particular topic. You are doing it through your questions, therefore your participation matters.
Therefore, I cannot imagine a better and a more interesting endeavor than doing an oral history project.
I would like to finish with this note, and if you have any questions, feel free to ask."
European Comparative social and gender history, gender and politics, women’s movements, qualitative methods, oral history, Holocaust
Hungarian Republic with the Officer’s Cross Order of Merit of The Republic of Hungary (Magyar Koztarsasagi Erdemrend Tisztikeresztje) (2005) Bolyai Prize of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences (2006)
Institute for Human Sciences (IWM) (Vienna) Visiting Fellow, 1997
University of Toronto, Center for Russian and East European Studies, Visiting Professor, 2000
Jean Monnet Fellow, European University Institute, Florence, Italy, 2001-2002
University of Buenos Aires (Argentina) Visiting Professor, Erasmus Mundus Action 3 Fellowship, 2010
University of Frankfurt, Germany, DAAD, Visiting Professorship, 2010-2011
Sodethorns University, Center for Baltic, Easter European Studies Center, Stockholm, Visiting Professor, 2010
Lectureship UNWLA in women's studies at Ukrainian Catholic University, Lviv, Ukraine, 2012
Teaching Fellowship at USC Shoah Foundation, Los Angeles, USA, 2013-2014
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