Same Team: The Problem with Agreement in Oral History

In “That’s Not What I Said: Interpretative Conflict in Oral Narrative Research,” Katherine Borland details a disagreement she had with her subject (also her mother). Borland’s mother told her a long story about betting on horse racing alongside her father, a man that challenged her ability to do so in the first place. Borland then submitted her interpretation of this story to her mother, who responded that “your interpretation of the story as a female struggle for autonomy within a hostile male environment is entirely YOUR interpretation. You’ve read into the story what you wished to — what pleases YOU.” This seems like every researcher’s nightmare, especially given that the subject in question is also family. Borland argues that, while her feminist reading did not betray the original narrative, neither did it allow the story to remain her mother’s alone. She notes that this cross-pollination ultimately resulted in “a true exchange,” rather than a study of one memory — and, by extension, a life — by a third party.

Central to Borland’s argument is the mistaken commonality of experience based on gender, magnified by the unreliability of memory across decades. It is true that, when we interview someone, we presume to have something in common with them; for example, if I’m studying coal miners in Colorado, my subjects most likely had something to do with a related issue — hence, we have that interest in common (Kathleen Blee even admits her surprise at how “normal” former KKK members seemed in her interviews). This “shared” purpose can easily create a troublesome sense of familiarity. When Borland assumes her mother’s identification with a narrative that challenges gender boundaries, she groups interviewer and subject in the same ideological camp based solely on gender; in Borland’s mind, they’re on the same team.

So, we (almost) always choose subjects that share our interests, but we have to be careful not to project our own ideas. This is easier said than done. Say I’ve devised a junket of interviews for my dissertation project. In order to know who to interview, I’ve got to know what topic I’m pursuing. To get to this stage, I’d have to possess some semblance of an argument — however conjectural it may be. In order to get funding to perform these interviews, I’d also need to have a somewhat polished statement of my goals/arguments/ideas/intervention. In other words: we come to oral interviews with a purpose, lurking behind which is some kind of hypothetical argument/theoretical bias. How do we separate the topic of the interview from our ideas about the subject?

Last week I gave a paper in Los Angeles about the suburbanization of Yosemite (1950s/1960s). By definition, talks like these stress presentation of one’s own theoretical approach; I was invited because I had a supposedly unique take on a popular California destination. Yet when I was approached by audience members afterward, most of their questions were not questions at all — they were reminiscences. It struck me that Yosemite’s beloved status might be a strength of my research (it gets people’s attention) as well as a glaring weakness (people aren’t all that analytical about treasured memories of childhood camping trips). How can I facilitate an exchange of information without merely lapsing into discussions of a mutual interest? People that have spent long periods in Yosemite are almost unfailingly those who enjoy it. How do I escape a self-selecting interview bias? How do I find people that don’t like Yosemite, and are willing to share with me their (ideally well-articulated) reasons why? If I have a unique (and somewhat cynical) take on an iconic landscape, how do I choose interview subjects that can help my understanding — as opposed to merely reify existing themes that I’m trying to overturn/interrogate?

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