Early in my PhD I had a conversation with my supervisors about locating the relevant sources for my research. We knew it would be a challenge and it was a significant factor in how I chose my case studies. While the main youth associations in London and Liverpool had both deposited significant amounts of material in the London Metropolitan Archive and Liverpool Record Office respectively, until the bulk of the research began it was hard to know what individual club archives would be found, and indeed what state they would be in. Finding the stories of individual clubs, members and workers was one of the reasons I wanted to do this research and so I also chose to do oral history, but I hoped that some clubs would still have documents from the last few decades. 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 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.