In this post, OHMA student Steve Fuchs (2016) explores the role oral history plays in helping sociologists better understand social movements. This article is the first in a four-part series exploring Terrell Frazier’s recent OHMA Workshop Series lecture, “Becoming an Organizer: Narrative, Identity and Social Action.”
The oral history can provide a unique understanding of social movements—struggles to undo an unfair disadvantage of a class of people, fight racial bigotry, advocate changing laws or overcoming oppressive economic forces—and give an “on the ground” perspective for sociological analysis.
This intersection was highlighted during our Workshop class in which Terrell Frazier discussed the role oral history can have in understanding the collective impact of movements and how these personal narratives can provide context and perspective behind movements.
Frazier is currently a doctoral student in Columbia’s Sociology Department, but from 2011 to 2013 he was Director of Education and Outreach at the Columbia Center for Oral History. This time seems to have provided the basis for not just the substance of the work he does but even how he approaches his research.
As Frazier noted, “Thinking about the usefulness of the life history method and how to execute that shapes the frame of the research work I do but also allows me consider, ‘Where is the opportunity for people to speak for long periods of time, narrate their own experiences at length? And how does that looks like within the discipline of sociology?’”
Before he came to the Center for Oral History, Frazier spent time working for the national Freedom to Marry movement. Perhaps this is where his appreciation of the value the life history method can give to a movement began, “I had been doing a lot of story collecting and story telling, but it had been movement-oriented which in some ways are completely separate from letting someone narrate the fullness of their life history.
He continued, “You are working within the context of the movement and of course movements have aims. If the aim is to raise awareness then you are going to communicate stories in a certain way—edit in a certain way to tell the story that best advances the goals of the movement.”
In Frazier’s view, there is tension between telling the story for the movement for its agenda and political gain versus the opportunity to tell the fullness of each narrator’s stories. Yet, by embracing the discipline of oral history and employing the life history method. He notes, “This allows you to tell not just the nuance and complexity of the movement, but also people’s experiences. You have the virtue of someone sitting there talking about their life at length which is full of complexity. People tell stories about advancement and promise, but also challenges and difficulties. Roads not taken.”
So what is the value of the life history method? How does it serve to help in understanding movements? Taking a biographical approach gives the narrator the opportunity to recall events over a lifetime, providing a longitudinal framework of past events and historical context that can help in analysis.
How does one capture a lifetime of rage and love, real life examples of hostile action against a community, and actions of resistance in such a deeply felt personal way? In many ways, oral history interviews can capture the raw emotion—nuances of speech and emotion—unlike other forms of interviewing.
Oral history lets us see how so many of these stories are similar, private stories that needed to become public stories that lead to action and movements. Narrator stories contain the situated knowledge of a community’s struggle, knowledge that is produced in political struggle. Oral history allows us to make that knowledge explicit and public.
We know what oral history can deliver in narrative, emotion, and reflection, but can a life history approach deliver on data? How does one take this personal history into account for analysis? We know oral history is not precise and much of the science of sociology is dependent on quantifiable data.
Yet, oral history is becoming an increasingly key component of the research toolkit sociologists can use, information that provides insights and contextual analysis beyond the data. Here the life history method can capture narrative details and individualized reflections/recollections over a lifetime of experiences never accessible via a sampling survey or quantitative data set.
Ultimately, movements arise to seek collective action, to change outcomes, but they are rooted in personal struggles as well. Perhaps this intersection of oral history and sociology can serve to give us that personal and historical context, and provide for a deeper emotional connection otherwise unavailable.
To learn more about Terrell’s work, visit to the INCITE website.
Steve Fuchs is a part time student at OHMA and is also C.E.O. of True North, Inc., a digital advertising agency in NYC and San Francisco. He graduated from Syracuse University in 1979 and serves on the Board of Advisors to the S.I. Newhouse School of Communications.