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Excerpt from Oral History Interview with Robert Coles, October 24, 1974. Interview B-0002. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) See Entire Interview >>

Reflecting on oral history methodology and the use of tape recorders

Coles shares his thoughts regarding the methodologies of oral history. In particular, Coles focuses on his reservations about the use of tape recorders in oral history. When asked if using a tape recorder as part of his methodology interfered in his work with people like migrant workers, Coles stresses the importance of getting to know one's subjects in order to establish a sense of trust.

Citing this Excerpt

Oral History Interview with Robert Coles, October 24, 1974. Interview B-0002. Southern Oral History Program Collection (#4007) in the Southern Oral History Program Collection, Southern Historical Collection, Wilson Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Full Text of the Excerpt

"Them" is a title of a novel by Joyce Carol Oates …another novelist who does not come from Concord and who has paid attention to migrant farm workers and others in a most exemplary way. Now, what would her methodology be? What is the methodology of an Orwell? I don't know. They have eyes, ears, look, listen, think, write down, come to terms with, understand, write up, write about, go into, try to set forth, listen to, speak about … I mean, we can go on and on until get disgusted and leave. But I think in truth, that it seems to me there is a tradition for this that would antedate the existence of a machine that has batteries in it. Now, if science has come to the point that its being is a function of a machine and its absence is related to the human head, which incidentally devises these machines, then we are in a sorry state … which we certainly are, I can tell you, in the social sciences. And it has been source of confusion and dismay to me that when I talk about my tape recorder in interviews, I am immediately granted attentive ears and focuse eyes and a great deal of respect. If I talk about people whom I have met and am saying something about, then the question comes up, "Well, what is this? Is this impressionistic?" … by the way, the ultimate condemnation … "or is literary observation or mere journalism?" These characters with their protocols and their interview forms, going around asking people to check things off. They talk about "mere" journalism. Well, I suppose that we could get journalism of the "let us now praise famous men" caliber, then we would certainly be able to do away with this building, which would be, I repeat for about the tenth time, one of the more helpful moments, I would suspect, in the history of your town. I would put in a strong plea for the capacity of the human mind, heart and soul to respond to others and to make sense of that and I would hope that we not become captives of tape recorders and all of that stuff. And I would hope that we have the courage of ourselves so that we don't feel necessarily objective, whatever that means, objectivity being a form of subjectivity I hope that you all realize all this neutral stuff that psychiatrists and other pain in the neck phenomena of American life has fostered on us as a secular religion, neutrality, objectivity, impartiality, value free, this and that, numbers, forms, questionnaires. Let's have a study and have the courage to tell those people waving around these questionnaires to go and do something with it. That is a form of liberation, I assure you, that has not yet emerged on the American political scene, but there is always hope, believe me, even regardless of times. Any questions on this cantankerous, snotty presentation?
I couldn't agree with you more, but in our classwork, trying to handle this curious instrument called a tape recorder, and there are just some things when I was reading your book that I was curious about. Number one, did you find the migrant sharecroppers or mountaineers reacted any differently as a group to the tape recorder? Did you find that since this Watergate business has come up that you are getting a different reaction now than you have in the past, and do you think that since you sort of started this whole thing in 1964, and more people are quoting their interviewees directly, that you might stick in more quotes instead of editing it? You know, at the time, you said that we wouldn't understand their jargon and it would distract the reader, but since more and more people are trying to put in quotes, is this something that you would utilize in your work on the Chicanos or your other future work?
Well, I feel that I ought to tell you that I started using the tape recorder because I thought that if I didn't use it, it wouldn't be scientific, it would be based on what I felt I ought to do to be able to continue to do this work. But I was never a great enthusiast of the tape recorder per se. I have tape recorded, I know it, because there are certain people whom I've grown to know and like and I thought it would be nice to be able to listen to them sometimes. I don't think that I have ever learned anything from the use of a tape recorder that I haven't learned much earlier from just being with the people. I do not lug a tape recorder around as part of my work, I should tell you. I do believe very strongly in the Bible and particularly the serpents and doves admonition that Christ gave us, so I'm not beyond guile and this … I am certainly willing to talk about tape recorded interviews knowing that many of the interviews are not tape recorded, in order to persuade anyone that I might be worried about that I am scientist. But I am getting increasingly fed up with that and I am glad to be in a position to feel strong enough to be fed up with it. You can read in between those lines whatever you wish. I hope you'll take a very jaundiced view of my insincerity. But I don't think there has been any difference, because I haven't really used the tape recorder as a constant part of my life. What I have done is gotten to know these people. And what they are therefore impressed with is me, a pain in the neck doctor who they can't quite figure out and who, believe me, at times can't quite figure himself out, notwithstanding all the apparent coherence of those books, which I do not mean to decry per se, but simply indicate that behind the book is confusion and turmoil as well as brilliant insights. And one is entitled to that. I suppose that you don't want to undercut yourself to the point that no one reads your book, which has to do with style. I'm not going to publicly acknowledge that I'm a damned fool. I don't really think that I am a damned fool, as a matter of fact, but I do think it is absurd to invest in people that write these books a kind of brilliant, knowing, day-to-day-confident-this-and-that-formulated-thought-out thing which distinguishes them from the craziness of the writer.