As well as discussing the challenges of archival research for imperial and global historians, the Network also encourages to researchers to reflect on their experience of fieldwork and different methodological approaches. In this post, Emily Bridger, a PhD candidate at the University of Exeter, discusses her experience of oral history research in her study of the role of female children and youth in the anti-apartheid struggle:
The ability of oral sources to unveil the voices previously “hidden from history” is unrivalled by any other methodology. This advantage is particularly notable in Africa, where colonialism and authoritarian rule have obscured the histories of much of the continent’s population and left gaps in archival records. Yet the methodology is not without its limitations: memories are subject to decay and distortion over time; personal memories that do not fit popular public narratives will be altered to corroborate with what is publically acceptable or commemorated; and uneven knowledge-power relationships between academic and subject can perpetuate the colonising structure. Yet when used simply to fill the gaps of the archive, oral history’s greatest benefits are overlooked. By listening to oral testimony against the grain, and interpreting the meanings of silences, secrets, and subtext, historians can gain unique insight into the subjective meanings of history: what is remembered, by whom, and, most importantly, why.
My current research on the involvement of female children and youth in the anti-apartheid struggle relies heavily on oral sources. Since student and youth organisations in South Africa were forced underground in the 1980s, members were reluctant to commit any important information to paper and have thus left few traces in archival records. To gain insight into the activities, motivations and ideologies of young politicised women, I conduct unstructured interviews with former activists in the township of Soweto, located outside Johannesburg.
The township of Soweto, a central site in South Africa’s struggle against apartheid
I find my oral history research to be both a rewarding and frustrating experience. As a foreigner in South Africa, my research comes with some inherent difficulties: I frequently mispronounce names of people and places; I spend a large amount of time lost in the maze of unmarked township streets; and occasionally fear for my safety. Conducting research with foreign subjects also involves a number of methodological complications. All of my interviews are conducted in English, which despite being spoken by interviewees is nevertheless a second or even third language for most. This limits the expressive and symbolic language used in testimonies, and also biases my own thesis towards those informants who express themselves particularly well in English. My position as a white middle-class female from a British university undoubtedly influences the content of informants’ recollections. At times, confusion arises over who – my interviewees or myself – ultimately has authority over the historical narrative produced.
Yet most interviewees have been remarkably candid, recounting memories of their difficult childhoods, their involvement as both perpetrators and victims of violence, and their hopes for and dissatisfactions with the new South Africa. Most seem to be proud of their time as political activists, and do not shy away from talking about difficult subjects. Generally, I am welcomed into family homes, offered tea or food, introduced to children and grandchildren, and occasionally shown historical family photographs.
My first contact with a former student activist was made through a South African sociologist who worked with youth groups in Soweto in the 1990s. Luckily, my first interviewee happened to be the president of the Each One Teach One Foundation, an organisation that among many other objectives seeks to preserve the legacy of student activists in the anti-apartheid struggle. The foundation has since proved invaluable to my research by providing me with contact details of former youth activists. In addition, I use a snowballing technique, in which interviewees are asked to provide names and contact details for any other potential candidates. While aligning yourself with an organisation can raise issues over academic independence, it is an incredible time saver when attempting to conduct a large amount of interviews over a short period of time, particularly in a foreign country.
The next stage in the process – contacting informants over the phone – often proves the most difficult. Many former activists are currently unemployed, and my attempts to make contact are regularly impeded by phone numbers that are out of service. When I do get through, I am occasionally told they are “too busy” or simply do not like to talk about the past, or I am met with heated questions in regards to my credentials and motivations.
During meetings, I initially allow interviewees to speak uninterrupted, as this encourages them to talk in detail about what is most important to them. I also find that by providing them with narrative agency early on, they are more likely to give detailed responses to specific questions towards the end of the interview.[i] I do not prepare set questions but rather a general list of topics to cover. This list is quickly adjusted to match the tone and responsiveness of the interviewee. If I can tell that an informant is particularly uneasy or concerned about my motivations then I avoid potentially isolating questions. I also save more sensitive topics for the end of the interview once a relationship between us has been established.
After transcribing comes analysis. Why do informants make a statement only to contradict it later in the interview? How is it that two informants’ recollections of the same event can clash completely, or, in other cases, be all too similar? Following a postmodernist turn in oral history in the 1980s, it was argued that historians should not simply mine oral testimonies for facts “like currants from a cake”.[ii] Rather, they should appreciate their subjective nature and use testimonies to explore hidden forms of consciousness, emotions, and the connections between private and collective memories.
Members of the Congress of South African Students (COSAS) – South Africa’s most prominent student movement in the 1980s – marching
The tendency I see most is for informants to place themselves at the centre of historical events, at times overstating their political influence. Such exaggerations do not detract from the interview, but actually reveal tensions between personal and public memories. Student activists’ contribution to the liberation movement in the 1980s is often overlooked in academic and public accounts of the past, particularly for female activists, whose efforts and sacrifices have yet to be acknowledged in public or scholarly narratives. Consequently, women are much more forthcoming in interviews than men, particularly when speaking about their involvement in collective violence. Their desire to stake a claim in their country’s history is evidenced by their eagerness to be interviewed, their wish to share copies of their interview transcript with family and friends, and their description of themselves as being fundamental to the liberation movement.
Each oral history interview is a different experience, even when interviewing someone for the second or third time. The location, time of day, attitude of the interviewer and countless other factors will influence what is divulged, as memories are not simply stored but created in a specific time and place in a dialogue between the researcher and their subject.[iii] Seemingly insignificant decisions such as where to meet or how questions are phrased can completely change the historical account produced.
There are many details involved in the oral history process that are left up to the researcher. I personally prefer to interview people in their homes, as this is often where people are most comfortable and it also provides opportunities to meet family members or friends. Many informants ask to have copies of questions in advance, or of the transcript after the interview. Both questions make me uneasy, as I do not personally want informants to prepare scripted answers in advance, or to revise their recollections later. For more quantitative research, giving each informant the same survey to fill out can be beneficial. While allowing informants to speak more freely for qualitative analysis is preferable, certain details such as age, place of birth, and family history generally need to be covered. Whichever interviewing technique you choose, make sure you have ethics approval from your institution, and gain written consent from your informants. I also make sure that each informant has my full contact details, and always ask their permission to contact them again for a follow-up interview if necessary.
For further information on oral history theory see:
Frisch, Michael. A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1990.
Perks, Robert and Thomson, Alistair ed. The Oral History Reader. London and New York: Routledge, 1998.
Portelli, Alessandro. The Text and the Voice. New York: Columbia University Press, 1994.
Samuel, Raphael and Thompson, Paul. The Myths we Live By. London: Routledge, 1990.
Thompson, Paul. The Voice of the Past: Oral History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978.
Information on ethics approval at the University of Exeter can be found at:
[i] For more on this technique see Sean Field, Oral History, Community, and Displacement: Imagining Memories in Post-Apartheid South Africa (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012).
[ii]Elizabeth Tonkin, Narrating our pasts: The social construction of oral history (Cambridge University Press, 1995), 6.
[iii] Joan Sangster, “Telling our Stories: Feminist Debates and the Use of Oral History,” Women’s History Review 3 (1994): 10-11.