Recap of Interviewing Interviewers about Interviewing

Andrea Dixon, who received her MA in Oral History and is now a PhD student, says that theoretical understanding will help with oral history’s struggle for legitimacy. Her dissertation research consists of interviews with oral historians about their interview practices and the origins of those practices. “Reflecting about the practice via the practice – it’s pretty meta,”Dixon joked to a packed housePart 1 of her enlightening presentation began with a YouTube clip of Penn State historian Lee Stout exploring the question “What is an Oral History Interview?” Through Stout’s answers, Dixon discussed how oral history is a unique research method that is both process and product, creating new sources. This understanding of oral history is widely shared. But Dixon also urged us to look at the oral history interview as a “communication event” imbued with “symbolic interactionism.” She pointed to the gap between dialogue and communication, teasing out how we can know that the oral history interview is a communicative event.

Part 2 of the presentation is where Dixon delved her dissertation work – interviewing the interviewer about interviewing. She explains that she wants to understand the bedrock assumptions underlying oral history practice, and to see if there are some unexamined beliefs or adherence to theories by oral history practitioners. This is a project that is only feasible and relevant in the 21st century; standing on the sturdily built foundation that oral historians of the past sixty years have built, the next wave of oral historians, of which Dixon is an exceptional member, are able to face larger and more complicated questions than ever before.

Dixon grapples with social epistemology, which, applied to oral history, amounts to what oral historians assume is true about social interactions (like the interview) and the study of whether these assumptions can be proven true. Dixon discussed the matter of narrative depending on coherence (or the allowance of incoherence) as well as the dependence of intersubjectivity on subjectivity, performance on language and memory on self. For oral history to be accessible and understandable, users need to understand these relationships. And the accessibility of oral history is one of Dixon’s primary concerns. She asks the question; how accessible is oral history? And conversely, how is oral history accessible? Dixon sees oral history as an emancipatory enterprise which can and should be used across academic genres. A deeper study of the epistemology of oral history has the potential to lead to a better understanding of the sociology of knowledge.

Dixon stated that all epistemology is still responding to Descartes: “what if what we know turns out not to be true?” She talked about knowledge as “justified belief” and about how oral historians have had secondary status because of subjectivity. “Social epistemology – why does it matter for us? Because it is crucial that we engage critically on the bases of our practice… as oral historians, we are really studying what it means to be human – a different kind of truth.”

Post by OHMA students Sara Wolcott, Ellen Coon, and Ellen Brooks.