Rambling and subjective -the stuff of History?

A pioneering study in oral history and the recovery of ordinary people’s memories
A pioneering study in oral history and the recovery of ordinary people’s memories

My previous post may have suggested that I spend all my time in archives working on my academic pallor, this was slightly misleading, occasionally I venture out into the world and talk to people…

 Recently I’ve been recording oral histories with people who have made their careers in the field of social enterprise. Recording someone’s personal memories and experiences so they can be stored and revisited by subsequent generations is a daunting task for both researcher and participant. Participants often worry about how valuable their testimony will be for historical research, which has left me wondering how best to reassure them that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers.

Oral history is the process of recording someone’s life story so that it can be stored as a historical record. This technique was established in the latter decades of the twentieth century as groups of historians turned increasingly to social history and the study of the lives of the working class. It has often been advocated as a useful technique for capturing the testimony of those whose lives are overlooked in the great sweeps of History and has been an important part of the development of women’s history and studies of migrant people.

Today, oral or life history interview techniques are not only used by historians but by many other researchers interested in collecting qualitative interviews. The appeal of this form of data collection to researchers is its aspiration to let participants talk as freely as possible, for them to lead the interview, and have the opportunity to have their views and experiences recorded. I use the term aspiration, because the researcher always has a role in shaping this encounter and pointing the participant in certain directions. Researchers are likewise aware that interviewees want to do a good job and that may also shape their responses on tape.

This brings me to my recent work. I do my best to reassure oral history participants that I’m interested in their experiences that an oral history interview is not a test of how well they remember recent history. However this often does not put people’s minds at ease. One participant, on reading the transcript of their interview replied that it was ‘difficult to understand how something so rambling and subjective can be of value’ to research. In turn I replied that rambling and subjective was perhaps a good description of History.  Upon reflection, it may have been more accurate to say that I think historians should take more notice of the rambling and subjective. That the most valuable testimony for researchers is not succinct answers to the questions posed, but the answers that meander and deviate and ultimately open up new questions. It is precisely the point of doing oral history, that we don’t yet know what will be important for the telling of history in the future, but we should have access to a range of voices in order to being to piece together the story.

Perhaps this tells us something of people’s perception of History, that it remains in their minds the story of kings and queens, and lists of dates, rather than the story of people just like themselves that we can all claim to be part of and even direct.

In search of ‘The Answer’

The wall of conceptual models which has 'helped' to 'guide' my 'thinking'
The wall of conceptual models which has ‘helped’ to ‘guide’ my ‘thinking’

“But what is social enterprise?”

“Well, it’s ambiguous”

“And what is health?”

“Well, it’s vague”

“Please explain…”

The above exchange has taken place on numerous occasions over the past year, with me having played both roles depending on who I’m speaking to. This post is about some of those conversations.

The first took place in my job interview. I was the respondent, sweating while giving textbook answers about the different methods of delivering social impact and the difference between salutogenesis and pathogenesis. Things often seem easier when you think you know the answer, so I learned what I thought were the answers.

And then I became the questioner, to establish what I considered a necessary foundation before the real work started. I had just started my first job in research, entitled ‘A contemporary analysis of social enterprise as a public health intervention’ and I needed to know what those things meant. As is often the way in academia, very soon you realise that everything you thought you knew (the aforementioned ‘answers’) is in actuality full of gaping theoretical holes. As I tried to wade through the mountains of literature, all contradicting each other, all I wanted to know was “What is it?” because I thought that was how you found the answer, and I thought that’s what I needed to do.

But what if it wasn’t? Everyone has theories and opinions, some of them are written in journal articles and some aren’t. So without an answer (and fearing being asked the questions in case I was found out) I ventured out into the field, once again playing the questioner but with a very different perception of the answers I received. People at the top of the public health and social enterprise sectors seemed far less adversarial than academic papers and theories. They compromised and welcomed differences, taking on differing views and opinions. They didn’t have answers to the questions, and often they weren’t looking for them. They were far more concerned with what worked, and how, and less about what it’s called.

So what about a new approach? Don’t ask the questions at all? And don’t worry about the dearth of answers? Use an accepted definition of social enterprise as a means to an end, use a theory of the ways in which health can be improved, find examples where the former does the latter, and ask how they did it. This involved examining why and how certain processes were undertaken, who was impacted and in what ways. What has emerged are a number of processes undertaken by organisations that could be considered social enterprises, leading to a number of outcomes associated with health.

This tentative result appears unremarkable, it doesn’t even answer the initial questions. But it has the potential to form a contemporary analysis of how social enterprise can act as a public health intervention, which is, fundamentally, what I’m employed to do. So when someone asks me the questions again, and I answer them as above, I’ll do so with much more confidence than I did in my interview. It’s funny how academia does that, makes you very proud of knowing less than when you started. But crucially, leading you towards what you need to know.

Seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary…

group 2

As a PhD researcher and member of the CommonHealth team I’ve been working closely with groups of women who have come together, with the support of a social enterprise, to share skills, save and lend together, provide peer support and eventually form small scale businesses. I’ve taken an ethnographic approach to my research which has consisted of in-depth interviews, informal conversations and participant observation. In less formal terms- I’ve laughed, cried, chatted, been embraced by and (sort of) learned to sew with a group of women who have given a lot of their time talking to me about their lives. It has been a series of ups and downs, trials and tribulations which I’m sure will be the subject of this blog at some point in the future. For now I’ll focus on a seminar I attended earlier this month which served as reminder of why I chose to take this approach to research despite the emotional ups and downs!

Earlier this month I presented some my preliminary findings at a seminar ‘Social Enterprise as Lived and Practice: The Methodological Potential of Ethnography’ organised by researchers from University of Liverpool, Glasgow Caledonian University and the University of Leipzig. It was an exciting day, with a chance to meet other researchers in the field of social enterprise using the same methodology as me. The CommonHealth programme is made up of an inter-disciplinary team, so I’m keen not to place ethnography at the top of some kind of research hierarchy but it was exciting to be surrounded by people extolling the value of ethnographic research and gave me a chance to reflect on my own research. I’ve always been aware of the potential of ethnography, but I’ve sometimes been unsure of how to articulate it.

Stefanie Mauksch from University of Leipzig started the day with an introduction to what she saw as some of the potential contributions ethnographic research can make, specifically to the field of social enterprise. She argued that ethnography offers the chance to move beyond the grand narratives of social enterprise and engage with the complexities involved in organisations seeking to balance social and commercial aims. Stefanie re-introduced me to the 5 operations of ethnography as defined by prominent ethnographer and anthropologist John Comaroff which I’ve been reflecting on since the seminar. Comaroff talks about the importance of seeing the extraordinary in the ordinary which requires ethnographers to explore and unravel the cultural processes that lie behind the norms we might take for granted.

So it’s this that I’ve been thinking on the most since the seminar as I engage in analysing and writing. I’ve been trying to think critically and focusing on the idea of looking beyond what is taken for granted and exploring the processes that have created that which is taken for granted. Is it cultural, political, social, economic? Chances are it’s a combination of all of the above! It is this inquisitive and critical approach which has always attracted me to anthropology and ethnography. I’ve been starting to wonder whether this can this be a principle from which all research begins? Or is this somehow specific to ethnography? What would a quantitative study look like if this was the start point?Or is it, that regardless of the methods, this where our research questions can (should?!) start from? We can engage morecritically in the social world, whatever our methods, if we ask what it is that has created that which we take for granted.

The archive and the rabbit hole

When Alice famously fell down the rabbit hole she entered a world of continually altering perspectives. Her journey of discovery and wonder is in some ways like the best archival research.

There’s a little bit of magic in the archival research process…

De_Alice's_Abenteuer_im_Wunderland_Carroll_pic_03

Picture this: I’m on the train to Edinburgh with Sociology-beau. This is unusual because I normally drive to Glasgow for work, but today I’m headed to the National Archives of Scotland so we have the opportunity to talk about what we’re going to do that day. When I tell him I’m going to the archive he fakes a yawn –this makes me laugh, but reminds me that there’s a massive gap between my experience of archival work (joyous exploration) and others perceptions of it (dusty yawnsville).

As I sit down in the archive I’m struck that this is the first time I’ve been here since I did the research for my undergraduate dissertation (on Domestic Service in 18th Century Edinburgh) and the memories of that first research experience come flooding back. Then I was untying little packets of women’s correspondence, deciphering spidery handwriting and peeking into women’s diaries. The nature of the material was highly personal and opening up these parcels the lives of these women suddenly became immediate and tangible. All the background reading I’d done started to make sense.

From that first experience I’ve been hooked on archival work ever since and have worked with a huge range of materials, letters, film, newspapers, lace patterns to name but a few. For my post-doctoral research I’m working with the Social Enterprise Collection (Scotland). What’s especially exciting is that as it’s the first project to make use of the material, so there’s massive potential to open up the boxes and uncover a myriad of events, people and ideas that our present-centred society has too hastily forgotten.

But I digress, back the NAS I’m looking at material related to multi-purpose co-operatives in the Highlands and Islands in the 1970s and 1980s. In the newsletters there’s great optimism and enthusiasm and I’m struck by the diverse activities of the groups that were establishing themselves across the Region –some were more successful than others, but even in failure there’s energy generated from the learning experience. I think this is what is special and perhaps misunderstood about archival research, finding data in this way not only challenges you to think again about your subject (all good data collection methods should do that), but it transmits something of the energy of the past, and that energy becomes part of the historians interpretation of that time.

The archive isn’t just well-organised stacks of paper; it’s a portal to an abundance of human experiences. Follow the white rabbit this Easter people, embrace the archive!

Welcome to our blog

We are all researchers working on the CommonHealth Research programme at GCU. Here we hope to share with you what we’re doing and how we’re going about it, a peek into our daily preoccupations and caffeinated epiphanies! We each work from different disciplinary perspectives: history, sustainable development, and  social anthropology, but are all interested in looking into social enterprise as a public health initiative.

You can find out more about out research here:

http://www.commonhealth.uk/work/

And more about us here:

http://www.commonhealth.uk/team/

We look forward to telling you more about our research, happy reading!