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Building New Bridges - Bâtir de nouveaux ponts

Jeff Keshen
Sylvie Perrier

8 – Inside Out

The Use and Inadvertent Misuse of Oral Histories

Laura E. Ettinger

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  • 1 A paper based on the second project was published as Laura E. Ettinger, “Mission to Mothers: Nuns, (...)

1In the space of a few years, I did two very different kinds of research projects. One involved interviewing Jews, who, as children, had attended a social settlement house in early twentieth century Rochester, New York, while the other entailed interviewing nuns, who had gone to nurse-midwifery school at Catholic Maternity Institute in Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the 1950s and 1960s.1 This article focuses on oral histories and interviewers’ complex relationships with their subjects by comparing the interviews I conducted for these two projects. In one case, I shared the cultural background of the people I interviewed - that is, I had insider status. My place as a member of the reference group - a Jew - tended to put the subjects and me at ease, but it also discouraged them from defining more precisely their comments or terms. In addition, my own complex feelings about my Jewish identity affected my interpretations of what the subjects said and even the questions I asked. In the other project, I did not share the cultural background of the people whom I interviewed - that is, I had outsider status. As a non-Catholic, I had preconceived notions of nuns, and when interviewing these women, my prejudices, both positive and negative, shaped my questions and my understanding of their responses. When I found them to be adventurous risk-takers, was it because I had assumed them to be women with uneventful lives? When I found one of the nuns to be irreverent, was it because I had assumed nuns to be unquestioning? Because researchers cannot disassociate from their own backgrounds when interviewing and assessing subjects, oral history may present as many problems and questions as answers. This article explores the ways in which interviewers’ biases shape history. I argue that there is no clear advantage to being an insider or an outsider - that both positions have advantages and disadvantages and both create biases. I also argue that the historian is never fully insider or outsider, but has multiple and changing identities vis-à-vis his or her subjects. In addition, oral history, as a dynamic process with living subjects, demonstrates in exaggerated form what goes on in all historical research and interpretation, and thus all historians need to think carefully about their relationships with their subjects.

  • 2 Leslie J. Reagan, “From Hazard to Blessing to Tragedy: Representations of Miscarriage in Twentieth (...)

2Ironically, although this article argues that it is essential for historians to analyze and share their own stories in order to understand the oral histories they create, I had never done this publicly until I presented the conference paper on which this article is based. I had learned what the discipline of history teaches its students: serious historians do not make their own stories central to the histories they write. Historian Leslie Reagan explains that her hands shook as she departed from this disciplinary convention at an international meeting of historians. As Reagan argues, “plac[ing] the author visibly in the forefront... goes against the grain of being an historian: too personal, too vested, too presentist,” and “those who do not conform to the scholarly and social rules of their own discipline may be seen as unprofessional or weak scholars.”2 In fact, even as I wrote the conference paper, I had those unwritten rules in my head and was concerned that the paper was not professional enough. I was excited when during the lively question and answer period at the conference session, audience members of many different backgrounds - Italian-Canadian, Jewish-Canadian, Mexican-American - indicated that they could relate to what I was saying. My story, just like the stories of my subjects, provides a window into understanding bigger, broader issues because my story, about the interviewer’s relationship to and with her subjects, is not unique. It connects to an evolving approach to oral history.

  • 3 David K. Dunaway, “The Interdisciplinarity of Oral History,” in David K. Dunaway, and Willam K. Ba (...)
  • 4 Valerie Matsumoto, “Reflections on Oral History: Research in a Japanese American Community,” in Di (...)
  • 5 Valerie Yow, “’Do I Like Them Too Much?’: Effects of the Oral History Interview on the Interviewer (...)
  • 6 Ibid., 60-70.

3Professional oral history was first developed in the 1930s by Columbia University’s Allan Nevins and Louis Starr, who saw it as a way to collect valuable information about important individuals.3 In the 1960s and 1970s, it changed its focus to various groups, like women, immigrants, people of color, and the working class, who up until that time had been ignored. As part of the growth of social history, which called for a broadening of history to include these groups, oral history became much more popular. Because social historians sought information about people who had left few written records, they tapped into a wider and more diverse set of sources: gravestones, census data, probate records, and oral histories.4 With few exceptions, oral historians in the 1970s did not talk about the complex relationships between interviewers and interviewees. They tended to see oral histories as simply a form of data, just like any other, to be collected. Like other historians, oral historians argued that they were objective. In fact, more than other historians, oral historians were “on the defensive” because they used “the testimony of living witnesses, [and] wanted to show that [their]... method was a rigorous, disinterested pursuit of truth and therefore respectable.”5 However, in the 1980s, historians began questioning the notion of scientific objectivity. Influenced by anthropologists, sociologists, biographers, and feminist theorists, some oral historians now openly discussed their place in the histories they created. They commented on the reasons they chose their project, their feelings about it, the ways their gender, class, race, ethnicity, and age affected their questions and interpretations of the interviewees’ answers, as well as the collaborative nature of the interview.6 Following this trend, by the late 1980s, a number of scholars, especially anthropologists and sociologists, began to write about the advantages and disadvantages of sharing or not sharing the same cultural background as the people they interviewed. However, this kind of analysis has not been done enough, especially by historians. In addition, few scholars have discussed their experiences as both insiders and outsiders.

4When I went to interview the Jews who had gone to the social settlement house as children, my background as a Jew shaped every aspect of the interview. It affected my choice of subject, access to interviewees, the assumptions I made, the questions I asked, the interactions that took place in the interview, and the way I interpreted the interviewees’ comments.

5My Jewish heritage helped my subjects and me to feel comfortable during the interviews. When I interviewed Eva Goldberg, she was 85 years old, and I was 25 years old. As a child, she had attended the social settlement house located in a poor Jewish immigrant neighbourhood in Rochester. Born in 1908 and the daughter of recent immigrants from Odessa, Eva met her friends at “the Home,” as the settlement house was called, every day after school from the time she was eight or nine until she was thirteen and left school to work in a clothing factory. At age 85, Eva lived in a nicely appointed home in Brighton, the suburb to which many of Rochester’s Jews had moved.

6So much about being with Eva in her home was familiar to me. My grandparents and great-grandparents were born in Eastern Europe. Eva was the exact same age as my beloved grandmother, who had died two years before. I also had extensive experience with elderly Jews who were not my relatives. For two years, I had been the program coordinator for an adult day services program at Jewish Family Service in Buffalo. I had enjoyed hearing about the lives of those women and men, and I liked the playful banter I often had with them. I even took pleasure in the rhythm of their speech and intonation in their voices, particular to eastern European Jewish immigrants and their children. I was comfortable, in both my personal and professional life, spending time with older Jews.

  • 7 Micaela di Leonardo, The Varieties of Ethnic Experience: Kinship, Class, and Gender Among Californ (...)
  • 8 Sherryl Kleinman and Martha A. Copp, Emotions and Fieldwork (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, (...)
  • 9 Interview by the author with Eva Goldberg, Rochester, New York, 29 March 1993.

7So, when I sat down to interview Eva Goldberg for an academic project, I felt at ease, and 1 suspect that Eva may have as well. I had told Eva that I was Jewish when we talked on the telephone for our exploratory interview. The comfort level we shared probably helped her to talk, but it might have discouraged both of us from talking about certain difficult subjects, especially given the enormous age difference between us. I found myself in a granddaughter role, similar to the “daughter role” that anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo describes regarding her interviews.7 Invited into the living room, I was given a delicious pastry, told that I should have “a little more, dear, because it’s good for you,” and primed to listen to stories about the “olden days.” Although my role as a surrogate granddaughter gave me an immediate entrée into Eva’s life and made her eager to tell me her life story, she may have wanted to leave out some of the “messy” parts so as not to damage my naive ears. Plus in my respectful “granddaughter role,” I may have prevented Eva from telling me certain things, offering what sociologists Sherryl Kleinman and Martha A. Copp call “instant sympathy,” “where we offer sympathy before we understand what the action or event meant to the participant.”8 For example, when Eva told me that she felt terrible for trying to use what she had learned in the settlement to teach, and improve, her mother, I quickly jumped in. “But that’s what you were taught to do. I mean, I’m sure you were taught to go home and tell your parents.”9 I discouraged Eva from revealing more because our warm, comfortable connection caused me to empathize with her, and because I was deeply uncomfortable with my elder exposing herself so I gave her an opportunity to save face.

8My cultural background affected my ability to gain access to interview subjects in the first place. I learned about former settlement house attendees by using connections of connections. Although I was not well connected within the Rochester Jewish community and did not belong to a synagogue in Rochester, I knew from personal experience how Jewish communities worked. I knew to contact the synagogues, the synagogue sisterhoods, Jewish Family Service, the Jewish Federation, the Jewish newspaper, and the Jewish nursing home. Personal contacts within the Jewish community had also given me access to interviewees. I suspect my Jewish identity probably helped to give me easier access to interviewees once I called them or visited them. My interviewees may have made erroneous assumptions about my Jewish background, assuming that I grew up in a much more culturally Jewish household than I did. I let these assumptions stand, sometimes even finding myself dropping true references to my Jewish upbringing that resulted in my gaining access. However, I felt somewhat uncomfortable using my Jewishness; in many ways, I felt that while I was assumed to have “insider” status, I really had “outsider” status. I was not religious, and I did not feel myself to be very culturally Jewish. I grew up in a predominantly Christian area, and I was the only Jew I knew outside of my immediate family and my Hebrew tutor until I went to college. I married a Catholic man, although a Catholic who did not identify as such. In a sense, I felt myself almost to be an outsider peering in at these Jewish immigrants, eager to learn about this culture that was, and yet was not, mine. My ambivalent relationship with Judaism helped me to choose this project, and it dramatically affected my feelings about it.

  • 10 Gerald Sorin, A Time for Building: The Third Migration, 1880-1920, The Jewish People in America, V (...)
  • 11 John L. Aguilar explains that acculturated “ethnic scholars” may have negative biases as they “may (...)

9Even while feeling like an “outsider” to Judaism in some ways, my Jewish heritage could not help but influence the way I understood what my interviewees said. My interviewees were eastern European Orthodox Jewish immigrants. The directors of the settlement, on the other hand, were German Reform Jewish women who had lived in Rochester for decades, and had assimilated into American life. The eastern European immigrants’ customs, dress, manners, and behaviour embarrassed the German Jews; they were seen as strange and unacceptable in this new American setting. When huge waves of eastern European Jewish immigrants arrived in Rochester from the 1880s through the 1910s, the German Jewish women felt that something had to be done to help their coreligionists and to make them less conspicuous in their new homeland.10 The settlement house enabled these German Jews to accelerate their coreligionists’ assimilation while emphasizing their own status as Americans. My own background mirrored, in many ways, both the experiences of the German and eastern European Jews. My ancestors came to the United States from Poland and Russia between 1880 and 1920. I spent my childhood years hearing from my mother about how German Jews looked down upon her parents and grandparents. Yet I grew up as a third and fourth generation Jew in a Christian suburb of Baltimore, who sometimes felt embarrassed by distinctively Jewish Jews. In fact, I am embarrassed to admit that I probably had some of the same feelings about my coreligionists that the German Jews had in the early twentieth century.11 Did my own eastern European heritage make me too quick to find fault with the German Jews running this settlement house? Or perhaps did my embarrassment with Jews who enjoyed, expressed, and sometimes advertised their Jewish identity lead me to sympathize too quickly with the German Jews?

  • 12 Charlotte Baum, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel, The Jewish Woman in America (New York: The Dial Pre (...)

10My Jewish background also discouraged the interviewees from defining more precisely their comments or terms because they assumed that I would understand. Although as mentioned earlier I had a Hebrew tutor, and although I probably know a few more Yiddish words than the average American, I do not speak Hebrew or Yiddish. Yet many of the interviewees used Yiddish in conversation. In particular, Eva and a few former immigrant children referred to the founders, directors, and teachers of the settlement as Deutscheshe Yehudim. I did not understand the meaning behind this phrase. I learned later that Deutscheshe is Yiddish for German-like, and Yehudim is Hebrew for Jews. Eastern European Jews used the term Yehudim, the formal Hebrew rather than the familiar Yiddish, to mock the German Jews’ airs to social superiority.12 Looking back, I cannot believe that I did not ask my interviewees exactly what they meant when they used the phrase, Deutscheshe Yehudim, but I was embarrassed to admit that I did not completely understand what they meant - as though this might call attention to something Jewish that I somehow should have known.

  • 13 Interview by the author with Sister Anne Cauzillo, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 7 September 1995.

11Less than three years after I interviewed the elderly Jews about the social settlement house, I interviewed people who did not share my cultural background. These people were nuns who lived at the Motherhouse of the Medical Mission Sisters in a suburb of Philadelphia. Prior to my trip to the Motherhouse, I had never met any nuns. As a result, I felt very free to ask naïve and very basic questions because I did not think that the nuns would assume that I had extensive knowledge of their world. I had assumed nuns were universally dowdy, formal, strict, and boring. I had mostly heard about nuns from the many people my parents’ age who had gone to Catholic school and talked about being afraid of various nuns, their rules, and their rulers. When I went to interview the sisters, I tried to be conscious of my assumptions. I may have tried too hard to think positive thoughts about them because I feared that my biases would get in the way, or that at the very least I did not really understand the sisters. My first meetings with the nuns eased my fears, and caused me to re-think my assumptions. Seventy-one-year-old Sister Anne Cauzillo, in particular, challenged my preconceptions. Sister Anne had graduated from Santa Fe’s nurse-midwifery school - the institution I was researching - in 1961. I liked her instantly. She was smart, critical, analytical, and playful, and more than that, she was irreverent and had an almost wicked sense of humour. Because I liked her, I was hesitant to delve into subjects about which I suspected we did not share the same view or which I thought might be offensive; for example, I asked her very little about birth control. I also felt as though I was betraying her when I left our interview in my car with a pro-choice sticker, parked next to the Motherhouse. Like the other Medical Mission Sisters, Sister Anne had spent much of her life in medical missions in developing countries. She lived in Ghana from 1953 until 1967, except for her brief time in Santa Fe. Sister Anne explained that while working in maternal health care in Ghana, she and the other nuns were against herbal medicine. They saw themselves as the “GGG girls-God’s Gift to Ghana,” replacing superstition and herbal folk remedies with scientific medicine. As she commented wryly, “The drug companies loved us. We saw problems after women had taken herbal medicine. Now we like herbal medicine.”13 After leaving Ghana, Sister Anne returned to the United States to get a bachelor’s degree in nursing at St. Louis University, and then went to work once again in maternal health care in an isolated village in Nigeria for four years. Sister Anne called those four years “fun” and “very hard.” She said that there was “something very earthy” about the experience, where she lived far into the bush - 12 miles from the main road, and 60 miles from a city. I wonder looking back if I was too quick to be impressed by her self-reflectivity, by her dry humour, and by the adventures she had while helping poor people throughout the world. When I saw her as an extraordinarily adventurous and rough-and ready kind of woman, was it because I was comparing her to the strict schoolmarm vision of nuns that I had in my head?

  • 14 Telephone interview by the author with Sister Catherine Shean, 18 August 2000.

12Sister Anne and I did not share age, religion, or ethnic background. While I had purposely revealed my Jewish heritage to my elderly Jewish interviewees, I had no special desire to reveal my Judaism to the nuns. One found out about our religious differences when she explicitly asked about my “church affiliation”; even though I was interviewing her, she understandably was assessing me.14 But in some ways, I was not completely an outsider with the nuns. We were all women who were interested in maternal health care, and we were all women who carved out a place and space in our lives that gave us independence. I knew, though, that when these nuns came of age, the barriers facing women were much greater than the ones I had faced. And the nuns I interviewed were, in many ways, much more independent than I was, living in developing countries for extended periods of time, moving around frequently, and devoting their lives to helping the poor. I admired the way their lives contrasted with mid-twentieth century expectations for women, and the way their commitments reflected their passions. The high regard that I developed for these women provided me with a comfort level that I had feared I would not have, but it also may have led me to see them through rose-coloured glasses.

13These two sets of interviews - one where I had insider status, and the other where I had outsider status - graphically demonstrate the extent to which biases pervade all oral history work. Insider status offers some advantages; outsider status provides others; but both present problems. On the plus side, the insider status gave me a way to find and gain access to subjects, and once I was with them, it provided me and probably my subjects with familiarity and a sense of ease. On the minus side, insider status can lead to a quickly defined, familiar role, such as the granddaughter role, with all of the assumptions and barriers accompanying that. Also, being an insider discouraged interviewees from explaining their language and meaning because they assumed that I would understand them, and made me reluctant to ask questions. Finally, my ambivalent relationship with the part of the identity that I shared with the interviewees shaped my interpretations of what the interviewees said. On the other hand, the outsider status gave me freedom to ask basic questions because I was not concerned that the elderly nuns would think that I should be an expert on nuns, Catholicism, or sister-nurse-midwives. However, because my illconceived assumptions and ignorance about nuns may have led me to overcompensate by being too positive, ultimately I may have measured them against an inaccurate yardstick.

  • 15 Diane L. Wolf, “Situating Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork,” in Wolf, ed., Feminist Dilemmas in Fiel (...)

14While insider and outsider status convey advantages and disadvantages, the truth is that oral historians are never fully insiders or outsiders. Often they identify with some aspects of their subjects, and not with others. Sometimes an oral historian is what one researcher called a “halfie,” that is, someone with two very different identities, or even multiple identities.15

15Interviewers’ multiple identities constantly affect the oral history they create. By definition, oral history is an interaction, a kind of dance where the interviewer and interviewee affect one another. Oral historians need to understand the ways their multiple identities might affect that dance, rather than pretending that they bring nothing to it. Of course, knowing the ways that one might affect the dance requires a fairly deep self-knowledge. It is not simply navel-gazing, but necessary for oral historians to engage in self-reflection to understand the way they shape the research they do, the questions they ask, and the history they write.

  • 16 Yow, “‘Do I Like Them Too Much?’” 56, 71.
  • 17 Ibid., 79.
  • 18 Margaret D. LeCompte, “Researcher Roles,” in Margaret D. LeCompte et al., eds., Researcher Roles a (...)

16While recognizing that it is impossible to eradicate bias, how can oral historians avoid the more egregious problems caused by their biases? Historians need to do more than just idly speculate about their insider or outsider or multiple statuses after a project is completed. As Valerie Yow explains, “although this matter of researcher influence on the research is often mentioned now in oral history literature, it is not often dealt with in any detail.” Yow argues that oral historians need to move the relationship between interviewer and interviewee from “corridor talk” or “the side show” to centre stage.16 They need to ask themselves questions to understand their relationship to the interviewee, the interview process, and the project they are doing, such as: “What am I feeling about this narrator?” “What similarities and what differences [between the narrator and me] impinge on this interpersonal situation?” “In selecting topics and questions, what alternatives might I have taken? Why didn’t I choose these?”17 One way to direct this introspection is to keep diaries, like ethnographers do, of interviewers’ feelings and reactions before, during, and after their interviews.18 By raising self-awareness, such diaries would help to prevent oral historians from approaching their subjects and interpreting their subjects’ words in unintentional ways.

  • 19 Kathryn Anderson and Dana C. Jack, "Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses," in She (...)
  • 20 Ibid., 11-26.

17Another way to mitigate the biases inherent in the insider or outsider status of the interviewer is to learn - really learn - how to be a good listener and how to pay attention to all aspects of the interview process while it is happening. Dana Jack explained that her training as a therapist helped her when conducting oral histories because she had learned how simultaneously to listen to others and pay attention to her own responses.19 I would argue that all oral historians would benefit from that kind of training. It would help oral historians to ask more effective questions, as well as to understand better the subjects’ understanding of their experiences, their feelings, and what the subjects are not saying. In addition, therapeutic training would help oral historians to listen to themselves, paying careful attention to their own feelings, responses, confusion, certainty, comfort, and discomfort.20

18But I would go farther than encouraging oral historians to ask self-reflective questions and get training in good listening. I think that publishing information about interviewers’ complex relationships with their subjects is important because it does away with the pretension of objectivity and it provides context for the author’s ideas and interpretations. It is becoming more common for anthropologists and feminist scholars to put this kind of information in the introduction or afterward of an article or book, although few historians do this. It would be more radical to include the self-reflective information throughout the article or book. But then how does one keep this from being too intrusive and perhaps too narcissistic? To include this material in the body of the work might shift the focus inappropriately to the writer. However, current practice has not yet found fully effective or honest ways to reveal this important information.

19Not only is it important for scholars to analyze and write about their relationship to their research. Teachers must develop their students’ ability to recognize and question their biases. They could require students writing research papers, using oral histories or any historical sources, to include a section on “My relationship to this research project,” or “How who I am has shaped this paper.” I suspect such a requirement would lead to better student papers because students would be forced to reflect on the process of understanding history. I want my undergraduates to know about historical issues, to do good research, and most important, to understand how bias shapes the collection, creation, and presentation of historical information, and for that matter, any information.

  • 21 Sociologist Nancy A. Naples argues that the insider/outsider division is a false divide because “w (...)

20Finally, I would argue that these insider/outsider issues exist not only in oral history, but in all kinds of history. The interaction between interviewer and interviewee in oral history simply makes explicit what goes on in all historical projects. All of history is an interaction between historian and subject. All historians come to a project with insider, or outsider, or multiple statuses and these statuses change as a project continues.21

  • 22 Laura E. Ettinger, Modern Midwives: The Birth of Nurse-Midwifery in America (Columbus, OH: The Ohi (...)
  • 23 For one well-known historian who describes this experience, see Kathryn Kish Sklar, “Coming to Ter (...)

21While writing a book that used mostly sources other than oral histories, I have experienced the impact of changes in status first-hand.22 When I started the project, a history of nurse-midwives in the United States, I identified as an outsider because I am not a nurse-midwife, and sometimes that created wariness (“You don’t understand because you’re not one of us”), and sometimes respect. However, in the nearly ten years that I have been doing research on nurse-midwives, my relationship to the project has changed. I have spent much more time with nurse-midwives, both for this project and for my own health care, than I had previously. In particular, I went through pregnancy and childbirth with two wonderful nurse-midwives. At the same time, through my historical research, I have come to see nurse-midwifery as an underutilized solution to many maternal health care problems in the United States. Thus, personally, politically, and professionally, I am more invested in nurse-midwives than ever before. I feel as though I have a relationship with what I have often called “my” nurse-midwives, the ones I have written about, even though I have met few of them and most are long since dead. I suspect that the process I just described happens to many historians.23 The changes in my relationship with specific nurse-midwives and to my research project mean that I ask different questions now than I did eight or nine years ago. These changes also mean that I interpret and present the information differently. I do not cover up things about nurse-midwives that might be perceived as negative, but my greater investment in them leads sometimes to greater disappointment in the negatives, although even this changes. When I wrote my dissertation, the precursor to the book, I was very disappointed in nurse-midwives for not being able to buck the American health care establishment. Now, I have more empathy for the difficult choices they faced, even though I am still sometimes disappointed in them. I use the example of my own ongoing work to show the ways in which all historians, not just oral historians, can have complicated relationships with their subjects. I began with outsider status, and although I still have that, I now have a bit of an insider perspective, at least personally and politically.

22Oral historians, whether insiders, or outsiders, or both, need to reflect critically on their own personal histories as well as on the ways their insider/outsider status has affected the creation of oral history. That self-knowledge helps oral historians to understand the ways they identify and do not identify with their interviewees, and more generally what they bring to the interview exchange as well as how they affect and respond to it. In addition, the lens of insider/outsider status helps us to understand not only the exchanges that occur in oral history, but in all history. The more we understand our complicated relationships with our subject matter, the better historians we will be.


1 A paper based on the second project was published as Laura E. Ettinger, “Mission to Mothers: Nuns, Latino Families, and the Founding of Santa Fe’s Catholic Maternity Institute,” in Georgina Feldberg, Molly Ladd-Taylor, Alison Li, and Kathryn McPherson, eds., Women, Health, and Nation: Canada and the United States Since1945 (Kingston and Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2003), 144-160.

2 Leslie J. Reagan, “From Hazard to Blessing to Tragedy: Representations of Miscarriage in Twentieth-Century America,” Feminist Studies 29, no. 2 (Summer 2003): 371-72.

3 David K. Dunaway, “The Interdisciplinarity of Oral History,” in David K. Dunaway, and Willam K. Baurn, eds., Oral History: An Interdisciplinary Anthology, 2d ed. (Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 1996), 8.

4 Valerie Matsumoto, “Reflections on Oral History: Research in a Japanese American Community,” in Diane L. Wolf, ed., Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork (Boulder: Westview Press, 1996), 161.

5 Valerie Yow, “’Do I Like Them Too Much?’: Effects of the Oral History Interview on the Interviewer and Vice-Versa,” Oral History Review 24, no. 1 (Summer 1997): 56-60.

6 Ibid., 60-70.

7 Micaela di Leonardo, The Varieties of Ethnic Experience: Kinship, Class, and Gender Among California Italian-Americans (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1984), 37. Di Leonardo discussed something similar in the complications inherent in what she called the “daughter role” she had in her interviews with fellow California Italian-Americans. Di Leonardo explained that this “already established role” created an easy rapport between her and her informants, but it had its limits, as the informants put her into a certain position and judged her actions and comments based on their assumptions about that position. She did not like, for example, being scolded by one interviewee who said: “You mean Mommy and Daddy allowed you to have Thanksgiving away from home?”

8 Sherryl Kleinman and Martha A. Copp, Emotions and Fieldwork (Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1993), 47.

9 Interview by the author with Eva Goldberg, Rochester, New York, 29 March 1993.

10 Gerald Sorin, A Time for Building: The Third Migration, 1880-1920, The Jewish People in America, Vol. 3 (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995).

11 John L. Aguilar explains that acculturated “ethnic scholars” may have negative biases as they “may reject or feel ambivalence toward their group and its customs.” John L. ed., Anthropologists at Home in North America: Methods and Issues in the study of One’s Own Society (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 22.

12 Charlotte Baum, Paula Hyman, and Sonya Michel, The Jewish Woman in America (New York: The Dial Press, 1976), 180.

13 Interview by the author with Sister Anne Cauzillo, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, 7 September 1995.

14 Telephone interview by the author with Sister Catherine Shean, 18 August 2000.

15 Diane L. Wolf, “Situating Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork,” in Wolf, ed., Feminist Dilemmas in Fieldwork, 16-17.

16 Yow, “‘Do I Like Them Too Much?’” 56, 71.

17 Ibid., 79.

18 Margaret D. LeCompte, “Researcher Roles,” in Margaret D. LeCompte et al., eds., Researcher Roles and Research Partnerships, Vol. 6 in Ethnographer’s Toolkit (Altamira Press: Walnut Creek, CA, 1999), 66-69.

19 Kathryn Anderson and Dana C. Jack, "Learning to Listen: Interview Techniques and Analyses," in Shema Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai, eds, Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (New York: Routledge, 1991), 19.

20 Ibid., 11-26.

21 Sociologist Nancy A. Naples argues that the insider/outsider division is a false divide because “we negotiate and renegotiate our relationship” to the “people whom we are interviewing through particular and ongoing everyday interactions.” Nancy A. Naples, “A Feminist Revisiting of the Insider/Outsider Debate: The ’Outsider Phenomenon’ in Rural Iowa,” Qualitative Sociology 19, no. 1 (Spring 1996): 103. Anthropologist Renato Rosaldo argues that ethnographers (and social critics, his focus) often belong to many different, shifting, and overlapping communities. Renato Rosaldo, Culture and Truth: The Remaking of Social Analysis (Boston: Beacon Press, 1989), 168-95.

22 Laura E. Ettinger, Modern Midwives: The Birth of Nurse-Midwifery in America (Columbus, OH: The Ohio State University Press, forthcoming 2005).

23 For one well-known historian who describes this experience, see Kathryn Kish Sklar, “Coming to Terms with Florence Kelly: The Tale of a Reluctant Biographer,” in Sara Alpern et al., eds., The Challenge of Feminist Biography: Writing the Lives of Modem American Women (Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1992), 17-33.


Assistant Professor of history at Clarkson University, Potsdam, New York, is the author of Modern Midwives: The Birth of Nurse-Midwifery in America (forthcoming, Ohio State University Press), as well as several articles. Her interests include gender and the professions, the culture of childbirth, the structure of American health care, and oral history

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