My First Interviews

In the last two weeks I have carried out my first ever interviews as a historian. I have read many books on oral history theory but no amount of reading could have prepared me for how I felt when I sat face-to-face with the people who had trusted me to write the history of their life.

As I am researching the 1995-98 dock dispute in Liverpool, my interviews took place in the CASA- it was only right. Prior to meeting my first interviewee, I had carefully chosen what to wear to ensure I looked professional enough to convince people that I had some sort of right to be involved in a project like this. My fears melted away as I greeted a lovely gentleman who had already got a pot of tea ready for me. I know he could tell I was terrified and I had already told him on the phone that he would be my first ever interviewee. After a little small talk, I shakily took my Dictaphone out of my bag and asked if it was okay if I started recording. This caused some unease as it really is a reminder that this is not just a chat for both parties involved. Anyway, after a couple of minutes the Dictaphone faded into the background- unfortunately the sound of seagulls did not- and I was thrown into a world full of amazing characters, story lines and life mottos.

Sometimes- and by sometimes, I mean often- I question myself and why I’m going into academia. Who am I to try to write the past? But, sitting in the CASA surrounded by such a rich history, talking to lovely, patient and extremely impressive people reminded me that they are the reason I want to do this. How can we let life pass us by without recording the importance of daily life?

Besides learning a lot about my general interviewing technique and Dictaphones, I have five key reflections I want to outline from these early experiences:

  1. Constantly considering what I want to ask about next whilst having a conservation was exhausting.
  2. Being in awe of the interviewee and listening to their achievements through their humble viewpoint made me feel wholly inadequate.
  3. Asking what seemed like an obvious or stupid question provoked some of the best answers. If you don’t ask, you don’t get.
  4. People are kind. When I showed an interest, nodded my head and let them try to work out/recall/finish their story, they appreciated it and told me more.
  5. Post-interview elation is a thing. As my interviewees said their goodbyes and walked away. I had to sit for a while and think about the gold mine I now had stored in my Dictaphone.

Oral History Workshop

I recently attended an oral history workshop at the University of Liverpool. I have read all the theory and practice books available and, to be honest, I thought my attendance was largely to tick a box on the numerous applications I have had to make in order to carry out my own interviews in my research. This was not the case.

Although I have planned out my dissertation research strategy, I realised I have not given much thought to what my interviewees will actually say. When I sit down in front of men and women and ask them how the 1995-98 lockout on the docks made them feel and how they relate to others who went through the same struggle they will not give me answers in pre-packaged, academic form. During this workshop, I really considered the extent to which my transcripts will include stumbles, pauses and slang terms and how I would really cope hearing upsetting stories. This last concern has worried me as if I do get upset during the interviews, I may look unprofessional or even rude- how could I, an MA student from Nottinghamshire, truly understand how they were feeling? Perhaps, if this does happen, my interviewees will alter what they are saying so they do not upset me. I am hoping a day or two composing myself prior to the interview will help prevent an outburst on my part at least.

A PhD student helping to run the workshop, Dan, showed us an example transcript and explained that he had been lucky to have a ‘natural story-teller’ interviewee. I really hoped for somebody like this as he was describing their interviews but I realised quickly this may not always be the easiest type of interview to guide. I have planned for a 1-2 hour interview with 4 people. How can somebody really tell their story in a 2 hour slot?

The day made me question my well-structured plan in a way that really brought oral history back to its roots. In my bid to understand what memory studies and narrative theories have to say about the interview process I had lost sight of the true value of oral history- the human side. I can read all the books I want but I am certain now that none of my 4 interviews will go the way I expect them to. Whilst this is quite a terrifying thought, I am also very excited. Plus, I finally got the hang of my Dictaphone this week.

History and Microhistory

Ever since reading Andrew Popp’s ‘The Broken Cotton Speculator’ I have been keen to use the approach of microhistory and I recently got my chance.[1] I took the moment Robbie Fowler lifted his Liverpool top to reveal a t-shirt with a message of support for 500 sacked dock workers in a European Cup Winners Cup match on the 20th March 1997 as my focal point. I wanted to move this between multiple contexts to demonstrate that the moment had a number of meanings to different groups in society. Although I understood what went into the top and its meanings, structuring this essay was extremely difficult.

The problems with structure arose as soon as I situated the top as a reaction to the forces of neoliberalism, deindustrialisation and globalisation (three powerful processes with masses of theory and debate attached to them).[2] Not only did I have to delve into this but I had to look into local structures of masculinity and class amongst dock workers and football fans. The former were fighting for their jobs in the face of deindustrialisation, the latter were in crisis as the corporatisation of football clubs turned fans into consumers in order to boost profits. The final ingredient was the nature of Liverpool itself and a notion of exceptionalism discussed by authors such as John Belchem and Brian Marren.[3] At the centre of the explosion was just one t-shirt, everything overlapped and untangling the webs was not an easy task- I am still not convinced that I did it justice.

I settled on dividing my analysis in two. The first half began with a brief discussion of the political and economic structure in the 1990s, then I looked into class, masculinity and football and the final section discussed a notion of Liverpool exceptionalism. This clearly outlined the main normative systems governing the meaning of the t-shirt before I moved on to the second half of the analysis which moved the t-shirt between these to demonstrate the interaction between agency and structure in creating meaning. I found myself reading about Calvin Klein in the 1990s (the dockers t-shirt borrowed the ‘CK’ logo), how all-seated stadiums undermined a traditional sense of masculinity at football matches and the influence Irish immigrants had on Liverpool’s culture.

Throughout this piece of research I truly realised the importance of the historian’s choices in writing history. I could have used the t-shirt to discuss fashion trends and ‘culture jamming’, I could have slotted it into the history of football regulation and I could have used it to demonstrate how Liverpool developed a unique sense of separateness from the rest of mainland Britain.[4] Discovering meaning in history depends just as much on the historian’s context as it does the historical context. The reason I struggled to write this essay was because I was focusing on uncovering as many different contexts as possible to produce a piece of microhistory. This differed to my usual approach to research in which I have already narrowed down the historian’s context to class, gender and emotions at work.

I must remember to always approach sources with an open mind, ready to accept that all social action is the result of ‘constant negotiation, manipulation, choices and decisions in the face of a normative reality which, though pervasive, nevertheless offers many possibilities for personal interpretations and freedoms’.[5] I also must also remember not to choose such a large topic for a 3000 word assignment.

[1] A. Popp, ‘The Broken Cotton Speculator’, History Workshop Journal, 78 (2014), pp. 133-156.
[2] I had to tackle the agency/structure debate in terms of Marxist and Foucauldian perspectives whilst outlining what each process entailed. For theoretical discussions see: P. Anderson, ‘Origins of the Present Crisis’, New Left Review, 1.23 (1964), pp. 33-50; E. P. Thompson, ‘The Peculiarities of the English’ (1965). Available from: https://www.marxists.org/archive/thompson-ep/1965/english.htm [accessed: 11th December 2016]; M. Foucault, The History of Sexuality I: The Will to Knowledge, trans R. Hurley (London: Penguin Books, 1978), pp. 92-102 and R. Gagnier, Subjectivities: A History of Self-Representation in Britain 1832-1920 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), pp. 8-14. For definitions of the three processes see: J. Tomlinson, ‘De-industrialisation not Decline: A New Meta-narrative for Post-war British History’, Twentieth Century British History, 27.1 (2016), pp. 76-99; C. Fuchs, ‘Neoliberalism in Britain: From Thatcherism to Cameronism’, Triple C, 14.1 (2016), pp. 163-188 and R. Hine and P. Wright, ‘Trade With Low Wage Economies: Employment and Productivity in UK Manufacturing’, Economic Journal, 108 (1998), pp. 1500-1510.
[3] J. Belchem, Merseypride: Essays in Liverpool Exceptionalism (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2006) and B. Marren, We Shall Not Be Moved: How Liverpool’s Working Class Fought Redundancies, Closures and Cuts in the Age of Thatcher (Manchester: Manchester University press, 2016)
[4] ‘Culture jamming’ is covered brilliantly in N. Klein, No Logo: No Space, No Choice, No Jobs, 10th anniversary ed. (London: Fourth Estate, 2010), p. 281.
[5] G. Levi, ‘On Microhistory’, in P. Burke (ed.), New Perspectives on Historical Writing (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1991), p. 94.

 

The Affective Historian

History and emotions have been awkward bedfellows for too long.

I have just finished the first year of my part-time MA in Cultural History at the University of Liverpool, so for me the last 12 months have consisted of a long struggle to understand the purpose and meaning of history. This has been especially difficult as the dark cloud of postmodernism constantly looms ready to strike at any conclusion that I come to. Can we really know anything about how our historical subjects experienced the past? My answer to that question is yes and that this relies on a basic understanding of emotions. History is emotional and always has been.

My final assignment this year asked me to discuss whether history is impossible without the historian’s imagination. Constructing my argument sent me round in circles trying to explain how historians approach sources, I always returned to the point that ultimately all interpretations are created by the historian rethinking a source in their own mind. When trying to access the meaning or lived experience of the past, this clearly does not entail looking at mere ‘facts’ in remnants of the past and piecing them together. An emotional identification is crucial. Rosenwein describes emotions as being the result of our values and our assessments. She also highlights that these values and assessments are created and perpetuated by culture, or ‘emotional communities’ as she terms it.

To illustrate why this is relevant I’ll use an example from Kate Brown’s Plutopia (a brilliant book that I would recommend to everyone and not just because of its short chapters).  In Plutopia, Brown uses official documents and oral testimony to pave the way for a deeper understanding of how and why two very dangerous plutonium plants on different sides of the globe created communities contented with their time there, despite terrible working conditions. As early as the 1940s researchers were aware of the dangers of plutonium production but little was done to alter the poor systems in place to protect workers due to the demands of the imminently approaching Cold War.  As Brown terms so poignantly, ‘public relations gradually overtook public health’ (2013: 68). Different ranks of people possessed varying degrees of knowledge and accidents were normalised in a high-risk nuclear environment. The lack of knowledge of the majority of the workers in these situations clearly altered the meaning of their daily lives. The inhabitants of these isolated plants were able to enjoy the benefits of quality housing, good schools and other pay-offs because of the ways in which the plutonium plants at Hanford and Ozersk constructed the nature of the work they were carrying out. Brown herself states that the breaking stories about radioactive contamination in the 1980s and 1990s dropped ‘like a curtain, cutting their lives into separate acts’; the first half involved unrelated illnesses and fertility problems and the second was consumed by the ‘fear that all one’s problems were due to contamination’ (2013: 199).  This demonstrates that only culture can tell us what threats are, we will have emotions based on what we know to be a threat and consequently, a lack of knowledge among the workers helped shape their understandings and emotional reactions to their time working in Hanford and Ozersk. The control of knowledge is power and in this case this power impacted how people felt towards their lives and invested meaning in it. Brown could only have got to this conclusion by considering how the different value systems in place at the time would have impacted emotion.

Understanding emotion in the past is only one side of the coin. The historian’s own emotions are the other. The construction of Plutopia was clearly informed by Brown’s own feelings towards nuclear weapons and their impact on the environment. In an interview, Brown stated that her motives for the book were founded upon a desire to expose the high levels of radioactive contamination emanating from both plants due to their design and why this topic has been cloaked in silence. Previous historiography on nuclear culture has charted politics, official decisions and largely focused on the view from above. Thus, her decision to focus on twinned ‘plutopias’ in both the United States and the Soviet Union seeks to position the dangers and contradictions of nuclear weapons above ideological distinctions, if these transcend the boundaries of the Cold War then nuclear weapons appear disreputable. Both plants created ‘plutopias’ in order to sustain workers and consequently paid off their workers with good houses, schools and leisure activities. They both monitored their workers carefully to ensure illnesses remained at a certain level ensuring production did not suffer and took shortcuts which resulted in disastrous contamination of human bodies and the environment. Linking together official documents and oral testimony was very deliberate and research on this topic could have taken an alternative route. For instance, focusing on the construction of the sites or using oral testimony alone to chart the increasing awareness of health problems and environmental contamination. However, Brown creates a history which champions the perspectives of those who have suffered and condemns those in power for letting it happen. This was the result of her feelings towards the dangers of creating nuclear bombs shaping the ways in which she decided to piece together history in her own mind.

I am using this blog to write out my ideas as often formulating essays and research projects can seem like I’m trying to untangle hundreds of threads which have been impossibly meshed together. Writing these entries will help me focus, reflect and conjure new ideas. Additionally, as I believe that writing history requires the use of the historian’s emotions, I think it is only fair that mine can be accessed. Transparency in the writing process is key in light of heavy criticisms that subjectivity renders history worthless. I hope that as I write I can also demonstrate that subjectivity actually serves to expand the boundaries of history if historian’s are willing to embrace it.

See:

Brown, K., Interview with TalkingStickTV (2014). Available from: <https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O6Ys8ii6r_M&gt; [Accessed: 19th May 2016]

Brown, K., Plutopia: Nuclear Families, Atomic Cities, and the Great Soviet and American Plutonium Disasters. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Hughes, J., ‘Deconstructing the Bomb: Recent Perspectives on Nuclear History’, British Journal For The History of Science, 37.4 (2004), pp. 455-464 <http://www.jstor.org.liverpool.idm.oclc.org/stable/4028643>[Accessed: 31st March 2016].

Rosenwein, B., ‘Problems and Methods in the History of Emotions’, Passions in Context: Journal of the History and Philosophy of the Emotions (2010), pp. 1-32. Available from: <http://www.passionsincontext.de/>[Accessed: 4th May 2016]