SOC 531: Community
Oral History
Oral History
• Morris uses a method that has come to be
called oral history
– this is used by historians who are now
allowed to study the recent past
– the interviews with key informants are often
not as formal as sociologists might like
• historians sometimes act more as journalists than
as social scientists
• there is, in fact, a fair degree of interdisciplinary
confusion if not animosity on this point
Historians vs. Sociologists
• Historians insist that names and dates are
recorded accurately
• sociologists are often inclined to disguise
the identity of their sources
• historians complain that sociological data
are thereby useless
– can't identify names
– can't connect names and dates
Historians and Sociologists
• historians often claim that they use
waivers to protect against lawsuits (which
satisfies universities and publishers)
• sociologists often complain that historians
– violate the rights of their subjects
– ask leading questions
– produce potentially embarrassing information
– that can be directly attributed to the
Sociological Oral History
• Morris (and Hogan) offer more or less
open-ended interviews with key informants
• they use snowball samples to identify
knowledgeable sources
• but they also acquire considerable
background before conducting interviews
• Morris uses archival materials and
secondary sources
Key Informants
• Hogan uses participant observation
(beginning with his friend, "Tom")
• In both cases, as sociologists, they
– had specific questions they wanted to ask
– had considerable knowledge of who the
subject was and what their experience was
• based on organizational records and secondary
sources, for Morris
• based on observation, for Hogan
Key Informants (continued)
• Morris explains (p. 328) how he acquired
this background knowledge before
conducting interviews
• Morris explains (p. 329) how he
triangulated sources to guard against
selective memory and bias, more
• Hogan (Appendix A) describes his
observations and independent sources
Archival Sources
• Aside from these sociological tricks of the
trade (or research methods)
• Morris and Hogan rely on multiple
methods, including organizational records
available in local archives or from the
organizations themselves
• multiple methods are characteristic of
community studies (Whyte is the exception
Archival Sources (cont.)
• Archival methods have, traditionally, been
somewhat mysterious
– historians require that graduate and even
undergraduates use archives
– but they rarely teach course on archival
Sociologists are now incorporating archival
methods in their methods courses, both
quantitative and qualitative
Archival Methods
• We will talk more about archival methods
when we read Walton
• Aside from this, there is some discussion
of archival methods in Hogan (1990)
– better sources in sociology include Charles
Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution (1978),
Roberto Franzosi, From Words to Numbers
Oral History (sum)
• Oral history combines
– interviews with key informants
– archival material for context
• Sociologists and historians agree on
issues of validity
– need to triangulate sources
– need for background information and context
before interviewing
Oral History (sum)
• Sociologists and historians disagree
– on anonymity and protection of respondent
– on reliability and bias associated with
• ad-hoc or undocumented methods of selecting
subjects or asking questions
• journalistic as opposed to sociological methods of
probing for information (directive or nondirective)
• legalistic versus sociological approach to problems
of interviewer effects
Oral History (parting comments)
• Morris offers a questionnaire from his
interview with Rev. Ralph Abernathy
(Appendix C)
• Hogan will pass around his fieldnotes from
an interview with Tom's Boss (more
focused: good development, enlightened
developers, your project, changes over
time, the city, and the Natural Community
Conservation program).
Oral History (final)
• You who envision yourselves doing
participant observation
• should think about using key informants
• should think about using archival and
secondary sources
– before you interview your informants
– before you participate

SOC 531\Oral History