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Oral history as a research methodology: advice and guidance

Historical photo of nursesAn increasingly popular approach

Oral history is becoming an increasingly popular research method, generating a historical resource on a range of subjects that may not be represented in the written record. For example, in nursing history, it can be a useful source of knowledge about the development of nursing techniques and clinical practice, and on nursing as an activity or skill. Oral history can inform us what it was like at different times to be a nurse or to receive nursing care.

The popularity of oral history as a research tool was revived in the 1980s by the rise in interest in social history and ‘history below’, which spawned historians of civil and trade union rights and feminism, who saw oral history as a means of empowering people who were hitherto hidden from historical records.

Strengths and weaknesses

There is much discussion among historians about whether an oral history collection constitutes a historical source in its own right, and about whether it can substantiate or refute other sources. Oral historians argue that it has a different credibility from the empirical evidence of documentary sources. Some approach the discipline from a psychological perspective and argue that those events which we experience with the most intensity will be more elaborately encoded in the system of memory, which means we recall what is most important to us. This makes oral history a very personal account of the past, which is one of its strengths, but also its major weakness, rendering it open to the criticism that it lacks objectivity.

Image of a group of nurses on St George's Hospital's Wright Ward

Despite these criticisms, oral history is an excellent method of creating a collection that captures the culture of an organisation or profession at a particular time in its history, providing insight into events. The life stories of the individuals who worked in an organisation can be used to build an organisational narrative: that is, the fund of information and stories about the past that are frequently repeated and in the successive telling are polished, embellished and modified by changing internal and external influences. From data of this sort, a picture of the values and relationships that were a part of the collective experience can be built.

Some key points for undertaking an oral history of nurses

Oral histories of nurses provide access to student and working lives that are often invisible in the history of healthcare development and institutions. They help reconnect nurses to nursing communities, and provide rich descriptive data which helps us understand the past, interpret the present and discern the issues, options and ways forward for the future of nursing.

Experience has shown that there are several key points to consider when planning oral history research, such as our Nurses’ Voices projects.

First, define a focus or theme for the project. This could be a specific hospital, particular groups or professions within the hospital or some particular element of a working group such as neuro-surgical nursing which could span several hospitals. The focus of the project will inform your participant recruitment and selection process and help to develop the themes you choose to explore. If possible, do some background research using any books, archive documents, public records or websites that are available.

When you have identified the group of nurses you wish to interview, consider how you can make a personal approach, such as through a League of Nurses meeting which will give you an opportunity to introduce yourself and explain the project and topics that might be covered in the interviews. For many people, being interviewed and speaking into microphones is a daunting prospect, but personal contact and encouragement from others can help reassure potential participants.

Black and white image of a group of nurses from St George's Hospital in 1957

Building relationships during the interviews is extremely important. Making use of peer interviewers supports this and is recommended. The location of the interview is also important and needs to be somewhere the interviewee will feel relaxed and comfortable.

While interviewers should have memory jogging questions ready, it is important to allow people to tell their story using their own words, and so interviewers should not over prepare or be too limiting in their questioning.

Interviewers should take care not to finish the interview and then rush away. Memory jogging takes time, as does talking through copyright and clearance forms. It is important to leave the project contact details, in case there are further queries or concerns.

Finally, participants appreciate being kept informed of the progress of the project and of the outputs.

Carol McCubbin, 2010