On 6th January 2015 I attended a Witness Seminar at the Institute for Contemporary British History on the history of the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) in the 70s and 80s, as part of their forthcoming 50th Birthday celebrations. Not only was I interested to hear about how such a high-profile organisation had handled the huge political and policy changes of those particular two decades, I was also interested to see this group form of oral history in action for the first time. Continue reading
On Friday 7th February 2014 I co-organised a workshop at the Humanities Research Centre, University of York for PhD students and practitioner researchers who use oral history or interviewing methods as part of their research. The event was funded by the Humanities Research Centre and supported by the VAHS New Researchers Committee. The day comprised of six papers from PhD students, volunteers and voluntary sector researchers, including myself. The day ended with a roundtable panel where more established researchers helped us to problem-solve and reflect on some of the intellectual and practical issues involved in interviewing methods.
I was really pleased with the mix of papers we had on the day. Myself, David Ellis and Jessica Hammett, formed the first panel. We talked from an academic viewpoint on oral histories. David and I discussed why we had used these methods and in what ways, with Jessica offering an interesting paper on re-using oral histories that have already been recorded for a different purpose.
The panel after lunch offered a different perspective. Susanne Martikke from GMCVO talked about the differences between the ‘Quick and Dirty’ interviewing she has done previously and being involved in a more academic project. Katrina Foxton reflected on her experiences as a volunteer conducting interviews on a local heritage project. Lastly, Lucy Binch talked about the difficulties she experiences doing interviews with people involved in sex work, via a charity she volunteers with.
We had a real mixture of papers and discussion from a range of areas: historians, social scientists, researchers from within the voluntary sector, PhD students, Professors and people who had experiences from more than one of these standpoints. This was one of the real benefits of the day. Not only could more experienced researchers offer their advice, but other people’s perspectives also offered a chance to think through issues from a range of viewpoints, enabling us to learn from each other as well.
One of the strengths of the day was that it provided a constructive place to talk over issues and discuss problems. While we did not always come up with solutions, it was reassuring to know that some of the challenges of interviewing methods are common. We spent time discussing the often overlooked practical issues of interviewing, from arranging interviews to how the way we will present our research, such as in our theses, affects the approach we take.
I was also particularly glad that we spent some time talking over the personal and emotional impact that this type of research can have on researchers. Many described how they felt that interviewing was a unique and intimate interaction which required an emotional engagement with the interviewee as well as a great deal of the researchers attention. Examining the personal and emotional in research was something academic contributors acknowledged was less familiar to them and perhaps something they could learn from their counterparts interviewing within and on behalf of voluntary organisations.
While there were differences in approach, I think these only helped me as they challenged my previous training on oral history and interviewing which had been rooted in academic practice. On this topic, I found Professor Paul Ward from the University of Huddersfield particularly engaging as he discussed shared authority and co-production. This is something I have not thought of much to date, but which I would like ponder regarding my oral histories of youth clubs.
Overall I thought the day provided advice and peer support with the practical, intellectual and emotional aspects of conducting oral histories, while providing a positive atmosphere for discussing this research, which is exactly what I was hoping for.
Some more highlights of the day:
All photographs © Charlotte Clements, February 2014
Today, 25th November 2013, I spoke on BBC Radio Merseyside about my oral history project. I appeared on the Sean Styles morning show, where he talked about the youth clubs he went to and got his listeners to phone in with their own stories. I discussed the people I am looking to interview for my oral histories of youth clubs in Liverpool and also asked people if they had any photos of their time at youth clubs that they would share with me. For the next few days, you can listen again by following this link. My part is about an hour and ten minutes in.
The BBC iPlayer link will not work any more so I have removed it. I am hoping at some point to get the segment uploaded as an audio file on the blog, with full credit to BBC Merseyside of course.
I am looking for people to interview for my PhD research on youth clubs in South London (principally the present day boroughs of Lambeth, Southwark and Lewisham) and Liverpool between 1958 and c.1985. If you had anything to do with youth clubs in these places, at these times, I would like to invite you to participate in my research. I am interested in the memories and experiences of people around youth clubs. What were the clubs like? Who went to them? How were they run? What did young people think of their local youth clubs? How did the people who worked or volunteered in clubs see young people?
While my research focuses on voluntary youth clubs I would like to hear from people involved in local authority clubs and church-run clubs as well.
The people I am looking to talk to might have been:
- youth club members
- youth leaders
- youth workers
- detached youth workers
- members of management committees
- office staff
If you think this might mean you and you may be willing to be interviewed you can find full details by downloading the Information Sheet. I can also arrange to call you to discuss the project. Making an enquiry does not commit you to an interview, but I sincerely hope you will consider sharing your experiences with me.
For further details of how to participate in the project, please contact:
Charlotte Clements: email@example.com
On Saturday 12th October 2013 I attended the above event at the British Library, organised by the History of Feminism Network, in association with the University of Sussex and the Raphael Samuel History Centre. Though not on a topic I research, it appealed to me due to the link with a fascinating oral history project Sisterhood and After and as someone who has been watching feminist campaigns making headway in recent months; Everyday Sexism, women on banknotes, No More Page 3 and end online misogyny to name the examples that come to mind.
The day involved sessions where academics and feminists from the current generation talked with women from in and around the 1970s Women’s Liberation Movement (WLM) on topics such as women’s history, reproductive choices, sexuality, race, class and work.
One of the cross-cutting themes of the day I think I will continue to think about is the relationship between academia and activism, which were often treated as binary opposites. Though some did see activism and academia as compatible, that it was possible to be researching, publishing, teaching and campaigning, there persisted a sense that the two were not fully reconciled. Catherine Hall said that women had been marginalised by the academy as History professionalised and amongst some of the academics there there was some agreement about sexism within the academy today. Perhaps here is where ‘activism’ as outside the academy comes in. I do worry about whether sexism remains and what that means for a woman who hopes for a career in academia. I am also aware that I would not describe myself as an activist and I think I’ll be pondering this distinction for a while to come.
This debate began in the first session on women’s history and carried on throughout the day. That discussing women’s history came first, with Catherine Hall and Sally Alexander, underlined the importance of history within the Movement past and present, which is why it was so apt to see Lucy Delap of History & Policy as an interviewer in that session. The WLM was described as ‘historically minded’ and some older women described how for them feminism had begun with an exploration of the ‘history of ourselves’. As a historian this session raised lots of questions about memory, identity and history, forgetting, subjectivity, and the role of women in academic history today. Sally Alexander said the issue of women and history was twofold; firstly in doing our own histories and secondly of being aware of ourselves when doing historical work (and of course the link between the two), which I think is a good way to put it in such a brief conversation. I do not have the answers to the questions posed by this history of women’s history in terms of perspective, politics, methods and who ‘does’ history, but this session gave me a way of thinking about my own historical research that I have not really had since the obligatory undergraduate session on women’s history delivered very much from within the academy many years ago.
The ‘intergenerational’ element of the event had attracted me to it in first place as someone whose research looks at young people and touches on generational issues. However, in the event, I wanted to hear more of a conversation between generations rather than younger women asking older women questions. The organisers said this is something they hope to do in a future event, but I felt there was room for more of it in this one. I am left with less idea than I would like of what young (academic) feminists think today about some of the topics up for discussion.
Within the day, I thought I saw the best and worst of feminism. The things that make me want to identify as a feminist and the conflicts which feminism continues to wrestle with. There was a moment of quiet sadness and rage as Denise Riley read out the Urban Dictionary definition of ‘Pramface’, which came close to being a moment of unity, but other than that conflict and tension were apparent. Many acknowledged that in the history of feminism there had been tensions and that listening and understanding had sometimes fallen short of the ideal. Unfortunately this seemed to reproduce itself on the day, and there were a couple of times where I thought people needed to listen more to what was actually said, rather than hearing what, perhaps, they expected to hear. Instead we had some awkward moments where things needed clarifying and restating to people who had already taken offence to something that had been said without perhaps the clearest contextualisation.
Herein lies, to me, both the greatest strength and greatest potential weakness of feminism old and new; the lack of unity and huge diversity that can come under the banner of ‘feminism’. It allows feminism to offer something for everyone, but risks its scarcity of common ground being its downfall. In my opinion, this fluidity, and the conversations about contentious issues are key to the way feminism has the power to challenge social inequalities, but there needs to be an acceptance of disunity and differences rather than an attempt to create common ground where there is none. The call at the end for ‘full feminism’ where ‘no woman gets left behind’ for me, means precisely that, and goes beyond feminism into every issue facing society today.
The tensions in the event; between activism and academia, over intersectionality and over generational understandings of feminism, were awkward, keenly felt by many and left unresolved. I left the event feeling confused, frustrated and hopeful at the same time. I am sure I wasn’t the only one. Right at the start the organisers, Sarah Crook and Signy Gutnick Allen, remarked that the Women’s Liberation Movement was never a single movement, that it was more like a series of heated conversations. I think feminism today is still exactly that and ‘In conversation with the Women’s Liberation Movement: Intergenerational Histories of Second Wave Feminism’ certainly showed this in microcosm.
In conjunction with Bridget Lockyer, a colleague on the Voluntary Action History Society New Researchers Committee I have been involved in organising an upcoming event on Oral Histories of Voluntary Action. This is especially timely given that ethical approval for my own project came through last week and I will embarking on my own oral histories very shortly. The event is hosted and funded by the Humanities Research Centre at the University of York.
Oral Histories of Voluntary Action will be held on 7th February 2014, at the University of York, and will be free to attend. It will bring together new researchers who have used or are considering using oral history methods to explore the history of voluntary action and voluntary sector organisations. It will be interdisciplinary, welcoming submissions from history, social sciences, social policy and public policy amongst others.
Papers will focus on new researchers’ experiences of using oral history methods within the field of voluntary action history research. As one of the organisers I am most looking forward to hearing about the range of projects oral history is being used for and talking to fellow PhD students and early career academics about the nuts and bolts of how projects are carried out.
As one of the co-organisers, if you have any queries you can leave a comment below, contact me on firstname.lastname@example.org or you can email my fellow organiser, Bridget Lockyer, email@example.com
Today I received the notification that the Research Ethics Committee for my department at the University of Kent have granted me approval to conduct oral histories with people in and around the youth clubs I am researching for my PhD. This committee assesses proposals from staff and students planning to undertake research involving members of the public to ensure that the research can be undertaken safely and ethically by all involved. In my submission to them I considered issues like lone working, making sure interviewees understand what it means to give informed consent, and how to make sure the information I gather is kept securely.
Going through this process involved a lot of paperwork: a comprehensive form, sample interview questions, sample consent forms, and sample information sheets. (All of these will be up on the blog soon.) However, the paperwork, though onerous, was necessary and the more work I did on it, the more I realised this. An interviewee will be sharing valuable experiences with me. Many of these will be comfortable memories, but there is a chance some of them will not be. It is my responsibility to be trustworthy, to have considered all possible risks in the research, and to have the highest respect for people who give their time freely to aid my research. Having my research cleared in this way means I can reassure my interviewees that the research is being conducted to high ethical standards and that I have considered their needs extensively. Hopefully it also means I have flagged up and resolved potential issues before getting started.
I am glad that I can now move on to the next phase of the oral history project; finding participants and arranging interviews. I have plenty ideas about who I am looking to talk to and what I want to ask them, and I am excited to now put some of these plans into action. I can do this knowing that my university have considered my consideration of the above issues ‘exemplary’. Watch this space for information about the participants I am looking for, as well as an event I am organising which aims to bring researchers like myself together to talk about doing oral histories of voluntary action.