OHS & IHR Seminar Report: Paul Thompson on interviews with “elites”

Posted on 08/11/2012 by


The first Oral History Society and Institute of Historical Research seminar of the academic year took place on November 1st, led by Professor Paul Thompson of the University of Essex.

Thompson, who was founding editor of the Oral History journal and founder of National Life Stories at the British Library, talked about his work interviewing elites. In his research, which has been ongoing for 12 years, Thompson has interviewed 40 important figures in British academic life, including anthropologist Raymond Firth and feminist sociologist Margaret Stacey.

The practice of interviewing “elites” is unusual in oral history, a discipline mostly concerned with people whose voices go unheard, but Thompson believes it is a mistake to concentrate on just one social group. “Interviews with all social groups are useful,” he told the seminar.

He said the preparation of interviewing well known people, whose biographical details and work are known, was different to interviewing “ordinary” people, about whom little or nothing is written.

“When I’m doing community oral history and interviewing a fisherman, for example, all I know is a few phrases someone has told me. I have to do it all on the spot,” he said.

He said a minority of his interviewees were difficult to pin down to fix a time for an interview as “they see themselves as really important and their time is so valuable”.

Thompson also had some interesting views on the interview relationship. As a well known professor and a member of the academic elite he has age and status on his side. But a younger researcher can also use their youth.

“If it turns into a protégé relationship that can be very helpful to a younger person. There are issues about developing empathy and how far difference should be part of your relationship,” he said.

Thompson told how as a young researcher he interviewed former Labour politician Herbert Morrison at the House of Commons. After Thompson asked a question that Morrison didn’t like the former home secretary got out a pair of nail clippers and started to cut his nails. By this point Thompson knew the interview was doomed.

The next seminar, on December 13th, will be led by Professor Lynn Abrams from the University of Glasgow, who will be talking about the lives of post-war women.

Unfortunately we are unable to release a podcast of Thompson’s seminar for copyright reasons. However, we hope to produce podcasts for forthcoming seminars. Seminars are free and include an opportunity for wine and discussion at the end. For more information please go to www.ohs.org.uk/viewnews.php?nlink=105