Reflections on research method and cross-case synthesis

‘Les Trois Ages’ by Gonzalo Borondo – To silence, to blind; to listen, to see: to whom does the past belong?
[mural, Paris, June 2017]
By Lindsey Dodd / / @DrLindseyD

On the final evening of our project meeting in Paris in June 2017, Sian Sullivan and I dined on the terrace of a small backstreet restaurant. The mural ‘Les Trois Ages’ by Gonzalo Borondo, pictured above, loomed over us as we ate. We were struck powerfully by its message, speaking to us, as it did, of the many ideas which  preoccupied our discussions: the silencing of experience and memory, transferred across generations. How aptly the mural seemed to encapsulate the concerns of our project overall and the specific  conversations we had been sharing while seeking to synthesise experiences and findings across our five case research contexts.

How had we set about starting to build our synthesis? For although our case studies intersect in various ways, we wanted to bring them more directly in touch with each other. So in advance of our project meeting, we had devised a set of questions to inform our discussions together. The results of our group discussions are available here.

Being called upon to consider the responses to these questions in concrete ways helped me to develop and clarify certain ways of thinking around my own practice. It is my own reflections on this experience that I share in this blog. While the bulk of what follows was written prior to our project group meeting in Paris in 2017, I have added certain reflections based on my interviewing in the summer of 2017. More on that interview trip can be found here.

The questions we each considered were:

  • How might we describe our research method(s), e.g. our methods of collecting recorded interview material, or of listening to (already recorded) material?
  • In what ways might we ‘classify‘ the type(s) of oral history information you are working with and/or generating in our research? (for example – childhood memories, intergenerational, on-site/in-place, etc) – i.e. one point of articulation might be to be quite precise about a ‘typology‘ or ‘taxonomy‘ of interview/recorded materials we are working with.
  • In what ways do our oral history materials disrupt, reflect, refract or recover established historical ‘truths’ regarding the contexts of our case research?

Some of my reflections on these questions are below.

I] A critical reflection on collecting

  • I use a ‘snowball’ style of interviewee recruitment – making use of local press, other local media, local associations and groups; people recommend each other. This has resulted in what could be considered a skewed sample: those people who have come forward to be interviewed are typically those who had a good experience of evacuation; this self-selected group are thus those who wish to share positive memories and experiences. Yet this group’s experiences have value for the historical record, especially given that their experience of family separation in wartime was a very positive one. (This topic will be explored in an article I am currently writing provisionally entitled ‘Family separation and reconfiguration in wartime France: experience and legacy’.)
  • I do not give interviewees a list of questions in advance, but I do outline in advance what my research interests are, specifically and more broadly. On the one hand I am keen to preserve a certain kind of spontaneity in the interview process; however, I recognise that my desire for this may be at odds with ethical practice which takes into account the possible mental perturbation which surprise in the interview or uncertainty over the interview encounter may create.
  • I try to interview singly, but I have done pair (couple/friend) and group interviews. Pair interviews can be useful; group interviews I find less satisfying, for practical reasons. Both pair and group interviews do serve a certain function, however, in understanding how group dynamics shape the twin processes of remembering and telling (cf Smith, 2016).
  • I do not interview in my native language; this gives me the opportunity to question what might otherwise be taken for granted, but it also means I am likely to miss out certain cultural references.
  • I use a semi-structured interview schedule, but I am flexible in letting narrators drive the direction of the narrative. I am conscious that I need to cover certain ground for my research, but I prefer that the narrative flows from the interviewee, making logical connections which are relevant to their experience and expression rather than my research questions.
  • I aim to give narrators control over the fate of the interview via the process of informed consent: narrators can correct or even excise elements from their interview, should they wish. In practice this happens rarely; and in practice I am constantly aware of the need to produce ethics documentation which satisfies the needs of my university’s research ethics committee but which is accessible and comprehensible to the individuals for whom it is designed. Here is a problem: for whom is the documentation which accompanies an interview designed? This is an issue of an unequal power balance between researcher, institution and interviewee which continues to trouble me.
  • As much power as possible should ideally be with the narrator. In practice this can be difficult to achieve and my goal has never been to ‘share authority’ with my interviewees; recognising the problematic nature of the following statement, my goal is to write history using their words. This is a history which is more inclusive, but it maintains the unequal balance between researcher and researched. I am nonetheless aware in anecdotal ways of the empowering and almost therapeutic of talking through the past with a ‘stranger’ (foreigner, academic).
  • Objects and artefacts can be useful, but can also serve to distract; the interview may become ‘about’ the objects and artefacts rather than an expression of the memories attached to them.
  • I tend to interview, so far as possible, at the interviewee’s home, so they feel comfortable and have access to (e.g.) objects and artefacts which they might wish to share with me. In many cases, interviewing in somebody’s home is to be treated as a guest, and an honoured guest at that; often a meal or a refreshment is offered by the interviewee, who becomes a host and the owner of the space and the timing of events. While this may do something to restore a power balance, it may also compete with the requirements of the research.
II] A critical reflection on listening

I have been strongly influenced by the Oral History Reader style of  listening and analysis, rather than anything which may come out of a social science or qualitative research method camp. My listening is multi-layered, and comprises various elements.

  • I listen for descriptive information about past places, people, things and events. I consider this to be the ‘historian’ in me. I want to build up pictures of the past, I want to access historical detail. I listen too for sensory descriptions – what people heard, smelled, felt, tasted, and what they saw.
  • I listen for emotion, feeling and sentiment, in the described-past and in the narrating-present. I also pay attention to my own emotional state during and after the interview. This is a dimension of my work which has been recently influenced by reading Michael Roper (2014); I was particularly struck recently by his assertion that we should be attentive to the unexpressed emotional content, and we should not be afraid to remark it. Emotions are not only a) expressed baldly (‘I felt sad’) or b) inexpressible (‘narrator breaks down in tears’). They are discernible within reasons for remembering, reasons for telling, ways of telling. They are the most powerful drivers of human behaviour – not just responses to but precipitators of action. Much work on the history of emotions works via the historicization of emotions (what was ‘love’ for a person in seventeenth-century England?), but I have always found that this dehumanises people in the past, making them unrecognisable to us in the present: a particular problem when teaching the past ‘as another country’ where people ‘do things differently’. I was struck by Roper’s comments on species similarity and the psychoanalytical underpinning of certain, universal emotional states: fear, desire etc. I am certain that emotional meaning is often encapsulated in anecdotes; for this reason I prize anecdotes, which are often so readily dismissed. I hold that these little, exemplary stories are always told for a reason, and that reason is always to communicate an emotional truth to the listener which may remain unarticulated in words but which is conveyed through what the teller hopes is a shared understanding of what such a situation would feel like to the listener. They are droplets of meaning.
  • I listen for retrospective analysis and interpretation, at the personal, group and national levels. This is one of the ways in which I value the contribution that ‘ordinary people’ make to our understanding of our shared pasts. We might call this the ‘meta-narrative’ – the present voice which interprets the past. It is through listening to how people make sense of their own position inside the past that they expand our knowledge. It is not just the prerogative of the professional scholar to interpret the past, and should not be. I have found myself uncomfortable with certain versions of the past put forward by professional historians, and I am interested to see how people who lived through those times in the past understand those versions of the past in relation to their own experience. While many ordinary people may not the overview of the past which a professional historian does, they do have the capacity for contrariness (inner contradiction, messiness) which scholarly historical interpretations abhor, given their requirement to generalise, categorise and codify, but which tally with our ‘real world’ in far more ways.
  • I listen for space, silence, occlusion, omission and error. I try to understand why silence might occur, and if errors are committed I do not see them as invalidating the whole; I try to understand why they have been made. This is an evident allusion to the works of Luisa Passerini (1989; 2003) and Alessandro Portelli (1997), among others. What I affectionately term ‘Portelli moments’ in my fieldnotes – clear examples of misremembering – are useful pathways into meaning.
  • I listen for intrusive external narratives and discourses. This dimension of my listening hooks into sociological understandings of collective memory and social memory. I remain unconvinced by a reading of collective or social memory which denies the agency of the individual. Elsewhere in my work I have described collective memory – that is, public and often national commemorative practices – as a ‘steamroller’ which flattens in deleterious ways individuals and their experiences. I struggle to reconcile totalising ideas around collective memory with my own remembering of my own past.
  • I listen to the grammatical structures used inside narrative expression. Portelli has written about the use of pronouns in remembering – the different memory layers introduced into the narrative by I, one, we, and so on. Another example which I have remarked in my own work is around the attribution of certainty via conditional tenses and conditional expressions; these reflect the interviewees’ own understandings of the veracity of what they are conveying. Compare, for example, a memory  introduced by ‘it was’ to one introduced by ‘I think it was’, or indeed ‘It might have been’: interviewees are perfectly capable of describing in language the nature of their own memories, even when this is not a conscious process.
  • I listen for narrative tropes, characterisation and recurring motifs. Inside narratives, interviewees make use of a range of shared storytelling tropes appropriate to their own cultural milieu. They may speak in a tragic or comic mode; they may use stock characters, such as heroes and villains; they use narrative structures around problematics and resolutions inside their anecdotes; their stories may be coming of age stories or stories of dissent and resistance which fit into larger storytelling traditions. Such motifs might occur within a story or across a set of stories (relating, then, to typicality of story kinds); I accord importance to recurrent motifs. I also listen for gendered dimensions of narrative.
  • I listen for ‘shared possibilities’. I have found this idea, drawn from Alessandro Portelli’s work, particularly valuable. Such ‘shared possibilities’ are articulated in narratives not as ‘what is or was’ but as ‘what might have been’. When a narrator identifies possible outcomes to events or actions which did not happen, but which might have done, we see inside the imagined futures belonging to a past time. Such possibilities are ‘shared’ because they did happen to others – e.g. the ‘near miss’ story in bombing narratives.
  • I listen for agency. I reject interpretations of past events which assume patterns of behaviour are determined (by class, race, gender, age etc) and that historical actors have no agency, even children. Agency exists, even in instances of conformity, and this should be recognised.  Listening for the attributions of past agency interviewees attribute to themselves is an important means of understanding how an individual positions themselves in the world, then and now. In other cases, people remove agency from themselves, for example by assigning outcomes to God or to fate; again, questioning them meaning of this is a valuable line of enquiry.
III] Reflecting on the classification of memories

Figure 1 suggests the way in which I have been thinking about the functions of memory and remembering as it occurs in my research for this project. The graphic proposes a means of thematic comparative analysis which drills down through the five case studies, rather than proceeding on a case-by case basis.

Functions of memory, with examples

Figure 1 illustrates the way in which memories collected for this project can be seen as functions of four interconnected factors: 1) aspects of the identity of the individual involved, and the relative importance of those aspects in and around the interview; 2) the social context in which the memory was laid down as experience which happened in the past, and the multiple further social contexts in which it is reiterated, down to the interview and perhaps beyond;  3) the kinds of events the individual experienced in the past, and has subsequently experienced; 4) the purpose underlying the interview taking place, both objectively (as requested by the interviewer) and subjectively (the motivation for volunteering to be interviewed).

What is worth noting is that the oppositional understanding of memory as either personal or collective – as either souvenir or mémoire – is not an organising principle here. Each category cuts through and across the personal and the collective.

The following examples elaborate on this categorisation from the perspective of my own research project.

Identity – e.g. childhood memories: the specificities of how childhood memory works, what is likely to be remembered, what is not; how we identify the ‘hooks’ onto which memories are hung (e.g. emotion, sensory experience). My future work will focus in detail on how interviewees express memories of their childhood, why these memories are remembered and recounted, what such memories have in common with each other, how they emerge in narrative, and how they can be used by historians.  These kinds of memory occur as a function of the identity of the teller. In this case, the identity is generational – relating to the age at which the memory was laid down. Identity-driven memories may exhibit commonalities because of that identity.

Social context – e.g. family: memories are transmitted between family members; often a story is not the narrator’s own memory, but a family memory; being able to accept ‘stories about’ as well as stories by’ is an important dimension of my own research, which does not necessarily accord prime position to the ‘eyewitness’. I recognise the value of the transmitted memory too. We are not solely interested in the experiences of individuals, but in the ways those experiences are passed on over time, how they grow in resonance and power into the present. These kinds of memories occur as a function of the social group within which they are told and circulated.  

Events experienced – e.g. trauma: the nature of events experienced may create shared and common features of the memory process and the memory structure and texture, such as fragmentation, or constriction. They evidently affect the nature of what is recounted. Children’s traumatic memories are understood as having qualities particular to them.  These kinds of memory occur as a function of what the person has lived through, and typically involve the perpetration or witnessing of violence or abuse, or experiences of loss and displacement. They exhibit commonalities of narrative and of content.

Purpose of telling – e.g. restorative:  anyone who agrees to be interviewed, or indeed who shares their memories publicly, has a motivation to do so. In a restorative mode, the motivation is to restore one’s own story to the historical record, from which it has been removed, occluded or ignored. There may also be a motivation in the collection of these interviews which derives from the interviewer, such as restoring voices to the voiceless. In both cases, restoring voices implies a challenge to or debate with another version of the past, which is being rejected. These kinds of memory occur as a function of a present-time motivation, and typically exist in situations of oppression, persecution or silencing.

IV] Reflecting on disruption, refraction and recovery

Currently, I can identify two kinds of disruption emerging from my research:

  • Disruption which stems from the interviewees themselves: ordinary people who lived through a particular set of events feel that their experiences are not being represented, or have been misrepresented, by versions of the past which dominate. Thus, their interviews are conscious articulations of anger which seek to challenge dominant versions of the past which constitute the ‘regimes of truth’ accepted by a given society about the nature of particular events and actions in the past.
  • Disruption which stems from my attempt to disrupt the hegemonic grip of historical interpretations which, by common and self-referential accord, operate within existing frameworks – even if they adapt and develop those frameworks – around resistance and collaboration in wartime France. I seek to permit a version of this past to be told which does not revolve around resistance and collaboration, and may not even mention them, or Vichy; and to understand the period 1939-1945 as a period of world war rather than 1940-1944 as a period of occupation and collaboration.

I can see refraction occurring in a particular away:

  • My research gathers numerous perspectives on the same set of events (the experience of displacement and family separation via evacuation in wartime France), producing a kaleidoscope of perspectives, which split apart a single narrative and shine light into experience from multiple directions. My aim is to produce work which is polyvocal and multi-perspectival, and which refuses to commit to generalisations and categorisations of human experience, but seeks to find a way to permit a multiplicity of standpoints to co-exist – in history as in ‘reality’.

Finally, the processes of recovery present inside my work at present include the following:

  • I am making use of oral histories already collected (and often buried in relatively inaccessible archival collections), and collecting others myself. I see this as ‘recovery’ because the voices of childhood experience have rarely been brought into serious discussion by professional historians. Thus this is an act of recovery. Childhood has been discussed in relation to policy and ideology, and in terms of childhood (e.g. education, child rearing, toys and games) but rarely in terms of experience, of being a child.
  • I baulk at understandings of children in the present and past which refuse them agency or which presuppose them as malleable objects in a dominant adult grip. Numerous examples, in archives and oral sources, demonstrate aspects children’s past behaviour, thought processes and actions which show them as active beings in their own worlds, able to act in response to, and to influence, their close environments. This is history very much from below and a valorisation of some of the most disregarded historical actors – whose wellbeing is paradoxically at the heart of so much human endeavour. Thus this research is also an act of subject recovery.

These, then, were the ideas which I took with me to the project meeting in June 2017, and which formed and informed part of our discussion together; some of the outcomes of that discussion are also available on this blog.



Passerini, L., Fascism in Popular Memory. The Cultural Experience of the Turin Working Class (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987 (Translation of Torino operaia e fascismo (Laterza, Roma-Bari, 1984)); also ʻMemories between silence and oblivionʼ, in eds Katherine Hodgkin and Susannah Radstone, Contested Pasts: The Politics of Memory (Routledge, London, 2003), pp. 238-54.

Portelli, A., ‘Philosophy and the facts: subjectivity and narrative form in autobiography and oral history’, The Battle of the Valle Giulia: Oral History and the Art of Dialogue (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997).

Roper, M., ‘The unconscious work of history’, Cultural and Social History, 11.2 (2014).

Smith, G., ‘Remembering in groups: negotiating between ‘individual’ and ‘collective’ memories’, in The Oral History Reader, (Routledge, 2016; 3rd edition).

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