Different Ways to Interpret Life Stories: IHR/OHS Seminar Review

Posted on 20/12/2012 by


In the second of this academic year’s Oral History Society and Institute of Historical Research seminars on December 13th, Lynn Abrams, professor of gender history at Glasgow University, spoke about her oral history interviews with women born in the 1940s, focusing on two ways of interpreting their narratives.

Lynn UBC April 2011Abrams (right), who is also the author of Oral History Theory, conducted 25 interviews with women born between 1939 and 1949, a generation she chose because these women bridge the gap between the Second World War and second-wave feminism. Her interviewees came from both the middle and working classes and were from a generation whose professional and educational prospects were brighter than their mothers’.

Abrams conducted one life story interview with each subject, with each interview lasting between one and two hours. She used two models to interpret the interviews: the first was the “epiphanic moment”; and the second was the “coherence system”, a term coined by US academic Charlotte Linde. Abrams described the epiphanic moment as one of “intense subjectivity and intense realisation, often triggered by a trivial event but with profound significance”.

“It’s a moment of self recognition that occurs both in the narrator’s life experience but also in the very moment of the oral history interview. It’s expressed not just in the words said but also the way in which they’re expressed,” said Abrams.

The coherence system is a “narrative device used by narrators to form a life story in order to achieve continuity and make it understandable to the listener”, said Abrams. Here, the value of education as the key to advancement in life and the principles of gender equality, were the coherence systems used.

For one of her interviewees a marriage breakdown was an epiphanic moment. For another, it was her arrival at art school. Abrams played an audio clip featuring an interviewee who, when recounting her early life, referred to herself in the third person and spoke in a low voice . However, after describing her epiphanic moment – the breaking off of her engagement and her move to Spain – she began to speak more loudly and confidently and she became “I”.

An example of a coherence system was an interviewee who, despite a life characterised by upheaval including working in Geneva and being forced to flee her home in Iraq with her Iraqi husband, used her grammar school education as the “key to her narrative continuity”.

Interestingly, few of Abrams’ interviewees were active in the women’s movement and Abrams’ questions about this provoked “severe unease”.

“The majority of my interviewees’ expressed guilt, embarrassment or silence when asked about their relationship with the women’s movement or feminism,” said Abrams.

After the seminar discussion focused on this lack of engagement and Abrams said there could be many reasons: including the fact that the women felt that they had benefited from feminism and felt no need to engage or that they were too busy with career and families to take part. Interestingly, said Abrams, many expressed the view that their daughters were not benefiting from feminism as they had to do everything: both work and bring up their young children. The majority of Abrams’ interviewees had stayed at home when their children were small and had then resumed their careers.

The next seminar takes place at the Institute of Historical Research in London and is a good opportunity for discussion and to meet other oral historians. Anindya Raychaudhuri from the St Andrews University will be presenting his seminar, ‘My other mother’: Separated families and mourning as agency in narratives of the 1947 Indian partition. For more information go to http://www.history.ac.uk/events/seminars/325