Jumpstarting an Interdisciplinary Oral History Project

by | Aug 6, 2019

Interdisciplinary oral history provides a rich methodology for research. What’s more, people have been conducting oral histories—both in and outside of the academy—since long before it became a field of study with research protocols. Prior to the 1948 establishment of Columbia University’s Center for Oral History Research, Zora Neale Hurston was conducting oral histories with the Federal Writer’s Project from 1935 to 1937.

Not only do oral history practitioners predate the oldest oral history programs but oral history is much more heterogenous than many programs have historically defined it. Oral histories can take many forms, including embodied practice. Although one form—the interview—has been most often legitimated, there are many non-textual, storied, culturally specific, and grassroots methods of knowledge production and preservation.

Here are a few things to consider when jumpstarting an interdisciplinary oral history project.

Engage with the praxis of oral history

Read, listen to, and watch a variety of oral histories to get a feel for the diversity of the genre. For instance, if you’re interested in public housing, read oral histories that center the words of those living in public housing like Rhonda Y. Williams’ The Politics of Public Housing. Listen to over 100 personal stories of “transgender resistance and resilience” in the NYC Trans Oral History Project. Watch the mini-documentaries put together by Womxn Who Rock on women of color making music for social movements throughout the Americas. Support the completion of Mirror Memoirs, an ongoing collection of individual narratives by, for, and about LGBTQ child sexual abuse survivors of color. Practice conversing with a chosen family member about a specific experience.

As you’re exploring the range of interdisciplinary oral history projects out there, start to engage with the genre’s praxis. Pay attention to how the above-mentioned projects have been conducted and curated. Who is the interviewer and what is their relationship to the interviewee or narrator? (Check out Nia King’s interview on the Imagine Otherwise podcast for a discussion of feminist interviewing techniques.) Does the interview include a transcript for accessibility?

Read the scholarship on the problematics and possibilities of oral history, especially when it comes to working alongside historically marginalized subjects. For example, Rosemary Sayigh holds that Palestinian oral history production has been a key mode of opposition to settler colonialism. Similarly, contributors to the recently published issue of The Oral History Review on “Decentering and Decolonizing Feminist Oral Histories” call for a methodological approach that foregrounds indigeneity.

Participate in a training

There exist a wide range of oral history projects and programs, including degree-granting programs, that offer training (mostly during the summer).

Recently, I participated in a free week-long training provided by the Center for Oral History at the Science History Institute in Philadelphia. Although I had been conducting oral histories for years before embarking on an organized project, I benefited from the training in two precise ways. First, the training helped me strengthen my tech skills. I learned about recording equipment, transcription software, and developing digital archives. Second, the training highlighted the ethical and legal challenges of conducting oral histories that may be published.

In addition to specific trainings, I highly recommend joining Groundswell, a network of folks who “use oral history to further movement building and transformative social change.” Groundswell offers a plethora of online programs and, most importantly, a mutual support system for practitioners to work through challenges at any point in their process.


Last but not least, reflect. Reflection is a critical and continuous part of oral history praxis that addresses the challenges of working ethically and in community accountable (versus solely Institutional Review Board (IRB)-compliant) ways. Although oral history is newly exempt from the IRB’s definition of research, qualitative interview-based studies still require IRB approval.

In addition to the issues raised by the IRB review (such as informed consent), you should reflect on the complex dynamics of power and privilege at play in conducting oral history. What is your positionality vis a vis the narrator? How does your source of funding (re)shape the relationship? Who decided on the project design? Fundamental questions such as these are not only crucial to jumpstarting an interdisciplinary oral history project but also to sustaining it.

Above all else, oral histories hinge on sustained, mutual, and collaborative relationships. Whether or not you’re talking to narrators with whom you deeply identify (and have known for years, as was the case for me), bringing an anti-oppressive framework to bear on doing interdisciplinary oral history is the best way to jumpstart!

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Author: <a href="https://ideasonfire.net/author/tkhanmalek/" target="_self">Tala Khanmalek</a>

Author: Tala Khanmalek

Tala Khanmalek is a contributing writer at Ideas on Fire as well as an assistant professor of women and gender studies at California State University, Fullerton.

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