In this piece, Nialah Edari discusses how Terrell Frazier’s work contrasts the ways in which we contextualize sociology and oral history by looking at how he applies both approaches in his assessment of the participants within his research. This article is the third in a four-part series exploring Terrell’s recent OHMA Workshop Series lecture, “Becoming an Organizer: Narrative, Identity and Social Action.”
Before this semester, I had an incorrect understanding of what oral history was because I had often associated oral histories with storytelling. Therefore, when I initially signed up for the OHMA Workshop Series, I was quick to categorize the course as one situated within the framework of storytelling.
After this semester’s series of lectures, I realized that oral histories were much deeper than just the storytelling that often gets associated with it. As I recently extracted from Adam Reich’s talk on his research on Walmart, oral histories can also get confused with qualitative interviews. Analyzing the findings from the OUR Walmart campaign, Adam acknowledged that some members of his team conducted too many of the supposed oral histories as qualitative interviews, failing to frame these conversations with Walmart employees to get the best information possible.
The next week, when Terrell Frazier—another Columbia sociologist—presented his work, he explained how it was primarily rooted in and informed by the tradition of oral history. After his presentation, Terrell was asked by the member of the audience, “What is the difference between sociology and oral history?” He responded that sociology is linear and oral history is not.
Terrell makes a clear distinction, noting the importance of oral history as opposed to the standard methods of extracting and obtaining information utilized in sociology. His work was rooted in the qualitative and observational aspects of oral history versus the use of units and hard data.
Terrell did not collect standardized demographic information before interviewing his subjects; instead, he utilized what he was able to extract from the interviews and curated alternative ways of identifying his subjects through word clouds.
Often, we are inclined to define individuals based on marked identities. Terrell refrains from that by allowing his subject to tell their stories and using the words they decide to use to address these individuals.
The participants in Terrell’s study were all coming from the LGBTQ people of color community, and he found that their intersectional identities brought them access to many repertoires of struggle. Intersectionality shaped these individuals’ identities.
While Terrell used sociological theory to identify that weak ties may exist where individuals are loosely connected and to find structural holes where individuals within the networks were entirely separate, these findings would not have been possible if sociology was the only means of executing the study.
The use of oral history as a standard ethnographic method enabled Terrell to enhance his research and garner authentic, genuine, and more thorough responses from his participants. Terrell mentioned that organizers often have a linear story or response whenever they are interviewed. These reactions frequently begin with their life story, what brought them into the work, and enemies of progress.
However, once you incorporate oral history into the reflection process, it takes many of these exceptionally prepared and articulate organizers out of their comfort zone, and encourages them to reconsider the narrative. Terrell’s work has similarly allowed me to reflect and reminds me never to forget my intersectional identity.
To learn more about Terrell’s work, visit to the INCITE website.
Nialah Edari is an undergraduate student in the Department of Africana Studies at Barnard College. Her most recent research was situated around Senegambi-congo dance and its influence on the contemporary dance form of twerking, which is rooted in and derived from the African-American community.