Mitigating the researcher-interviewee power dynamic in oral history through co-production
During the final year of my undergraduate degree, I completed a dissertation on attitudes towards the First World War. Later that year, I began a Masters degree that examined the history of multicultural education in Britain. My change in focus occurred in part because I decided to engage with different methods of research, such as oral history, and to produce a multimedia public output, such as a documentary film.
The idea to focus on multicultural education came about after a chance conversation with a family member about dispersal school bussing, the only British government policy directed towards so called ‘Commonwealth immigrant’ school children during the 1960s and 1970s. In 1965, the then Conservative government recommended that Local Education Authorities spread these children around instead of allowing them to attend their local school. This policy was justified as a means of helping them to learn the English language, and to integrate into British society. However, it was based on racist principles, and created disadvantage for Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic (BAME) children. It was phased out after the Commission for Racial Equality organised a legal case against Ealing Council for their use of bussing in 1976, and eventually came to an end in the early 1980s.
After first hearing about this under-acknowledged aspect of our recent past I decided to interview Black Caribbean and South Asian people who were ‘bussed’ to school in the town of Huddersfield about their experiences.
Initially, I did not put much thought into my suitability for the project, or the need to mitigate my position as a white middle-class male researcher. In any oral history project there is a power dynamic to consider, but my position was especially problematic. Part of the issue was that throughout my life many British people seemed to believe that our society was almost post-racial. Despite the persistence of racial inequality, the dominant neo-liberal ethos tended to see racism as a thing of the past. It was only after starting the project that I realised how little I understood racism, and that it was my privilege in the first instance which led me to assume without reflection that I was an appropriate individual to carry out the work.
The project was nonetheless successful in the end. I passed my MA, won a PhD scholarship, and in 2018 the documentary film I produced from the research was awarded the postgraduate prize in public history by the Royal Historical Society. One reason for the project’s success is that I co-produced the research and outputs with some of the people who featured in the project as interview participants.
Co-production is a methodology that is increasingly being used in various academic disciplines. My MA supervisor, Professor Paul Ward, is a proponent of co-production in history, and he ensured that I utilised it during my degree. Participants in my MA first gave an interview before being asked if they would like to maintain involvement in the project. This took several forms, but primarily entailed the creation of a dialogue between the participants and myself regarding aspects of my primary source materials and secondary reading. During the production of the film the people who featured in it were provided with copies at different stages to ensure that they were happy with their portrayal, and their comments shaped how the film was edited.
Furthermore, participants were asked to sign the documents relating to their participation in the documentary only after they had seen the final cut. This may seem risky, but it was important that the people involved did not worry about how they would be portrayed in something that I intended to share as widely as possible.
Co-producing meant that I could not displace the participants’ perspectives with my own narrative without at least considering their point of view. My conclusions were my own, but they came from a better understanding of the participants’ views and made me more accountable to them.
Co-production will continue to be a key methodological feature of my work, and I would recommend that other researchers doing similar projects at least consider utilising it in public and community history projects. As Paul Ward and Elizabeth Pente state, ‘historians need to blur the boundaries between university and the world outside in exploring the history of communities and identities to ensure that history, as a discipline, can make a difference’ (Ward and Pente, 2017). Co-producing mitigates the power-dynamic between the researcher/s and the community/ies in question, ensures that we engage fully with the various perspectives of our participants, and that we will produce outputs which have a positive impact on the communities for whom we work.
Paul Ward and Elizabeth Pente, ‘Let’s Change History!: Community Histories and the Co-production of Historical Knowledge’, in Katie Pickles et al (eds), History Making a Difference: New Approaches from Aotearoa, (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2017), pp. 94-112.