Note from the Editor:
Here at History Matters we really do think that, well, history matters. We’re also aware of the huge range of ways history can be done, and histories can be told. From accounts of great, influential people, to stories of everyday life. From big data analysis, tracking changes over decades, even centuries, to micro-histories of individual people and communities.
All of these vastly different ways of approaching history allow us to better understand the past, its people and its events – and how all of these have shaped our present. So, over the next few months, we’re going to be running a series of blogs by people telling us about their research, about how they’re doing history, and the stories they’re trying to tell. Our first blog comes from Hannah Leach, a PhD student in the Department of Language and Linguistics at Sheffield.
Don’t tell anyone, but I’m not a Historian. I’m doing a PhD in Linguistics. But, I am embroiled in research of a historical nature, as I’m working with an oral history archive. I wanted to share my experience of using oral history sources in research – to explain why the resources and the people behind them matter to me, and how they’ve helped shape and transform my research, taking it in directions I hadn’t expected. In short, I wanted to talk about why I think oral history matters.
My PhD is in sociolinguistics – the study of how people use language to navigate social relationships and situations. Specifically, it’s in dialectology, the study of how regional dialect varies and is used by people to construct identities, both individual and group. Even more specifically, I’m studying Stoke-on-Trent (my hometown), and how the accent is intertwined with the city’s industrial history.
Stoke was once the world centre of ceramics manufacture, grown from the backyard potteries of the seventeenth century into an industry which employed two thirds of locals. 1 For tens of thousands, being a Stokie was synonymous with being ‘in the Pots’ (or being associated with someone who was), and according to many, the accent originated in the potbanks. 2 However, in a story which echoes that of many other Northern cities, a combination of deindustrialisation, outsourcing and politics accompanying the collapse of the industry has led to the city now being the fifteenth most deprived region in the country, with the pottery industry a shadow of what it once was. 3
After being accepted at Sheffield I got in touch with the Potteries Museum and Art Gallery, to see if they could lend any assistance. They casually mentioned that they had a 350-hour oral history archive consisting of audiovisual interviews with people who grew up in Stoke and worked in the pottery industry, and did I think that might be a useful resource?
I stopped short of kissing their feet.
There I was, with a vast, high-quality dataset handed to me on a plate. I couldn’t believe my luck. 4 However, I soon realised that some files weren’t great for my purposes – speakers had creaky voices, rendering acoustic analysis problematic; other speakers talked over the interviewee; some biographical information didn’t match up, so my speakers weren’t demographically comparable. I know, my perfect files were slightly flawed and my diamond shoes are too tight, but if my methodology was going to be thoroughly scrutinised, it needed to be robust.
In the end it did me a favour. In sociolinguistics we strive to access the most natural speech, to focus on how real people use language in real situations. However, the moment we try to record speech, it becomes unnatural, and the moment we decide who we want to analyse and in what situation, it doesn’t reflect reality. Working with this archive has meant that my research will be a reflection of a real speech situation – real people, saying real things. The archive has shaped my research and made me carefully consider my methods and reasoning, and for that I’m really grateful.
I’ve now spent about five months transcribing, coding and working with the oral history interviews. 5 I’ve listened to stories of loss, struggle and poverty, as well as passion, creativity and joy. I’ve heard about Oaky Joe, the filthy and corrupt ice cream man, and a gent who used to throw his wooden leg down the stairs to silence his noisy children. I’ve heard about outdoor toilets, long work hours, family loss, childhood best friends and every possible intricacy of ceramics work.
I’ve also spoken to the curator of the archive. She told me about how she often had to convince the interviewees that their stories were worth telling. They’d shrug it off: no, there’s no point listening to me; I’m just rambling, stop me if I’m going off on one; I never really did anything, nothing important. I’ve heard it myself on the tapes. These examples of lived history often don’t get their due attention, with focus instead on the stories of victors, celebrities, the privileged. This type of archive gives us an opportunity to lift these ordinary stories to the same level.
Emotional attachment to research is often stigmatised (as well as highly gendered). But after working with this archive, I can only echo the sentiments of the curator: “these people, I sat in their homes, and they told me sometimes really, really personal stories…I feel very responsible, that I have to protect them”. These people volunteered their time and their lives to the archive, and being able to use their interviews in my work is a huge privilege. I care about them, a lot, and I think it makes my research more sensitive and interesting, and me a better researcher.
Hannah Leach is a Wolfson Postgraduate Scholar in the Department of Language and Linguistics at Sheffield University where she’s doing a PhD on the language and identity of Stoke-on-Trent. You can find her on twitter at @ and read from more from her on her blog, So long as it’s words.
Image 1: Pottery in the Making: the work of J and G Meakin Pottery, Hanley, Stoke-on-trent, Staffordshire, England, 1942 [Wikicommons].
- R. Imrie, ‘Industrial change and local economic fragmentation: the case of Stoke-on-Trent’ in Geoforum 22.4, (1991) pp. 433-453. ↩
- This is probably not completely the case, but it is the common perception. ↩
- Don’t argue with me on Stoke not being Northern, I’ll fight you. And see Department of Communities and Local Government, ‘English Indices of Deprivation’, (2011) available at https://www.gov.uk/
government/statistics/english- indices-of-deprivation-2010, accessed August 2014. ↩
- The high-quality thing is a) really important for acoustic phonetic work and b) rare when working with oral history. Naturally, recordings made in the past tend not to be of flawless quality, due to the technology used and the situation of recording, which was focussed on opportunity and authenticity more than sound quality. Yet these archive recordings were lengthy semi-structured interviews, recorded with lapel microphones, with full biographical information provided. ↩
- Having opted not to use automated programmes to process my audio data. I’ve done conference papers about this – not enough room to elaborate here but happy to talk about it at length if anyone is interested. ↩