Gathering Oral Histories: Who to Interview?

Like most researchers who set out to use oral history methods, one of the first hurdles I encountered was finding people to interview. The task of seeking interviewees raised two immediate issues, one theoretical and one practical; the former related to deciding who to interview whilst the latter  concerned  how to go about finding them. My next blog will deal with how I found people to interview for my PhD study but initially I thought it might be useful to consider the process of how I went about choosing who I should interview.

The process of identifying my potential interviewee group seemed, initially at least, to be axiomatic – the working title of my PhD, Port Talbot and its Steelworkers: 1951 – 1988, is fairly explicit. However, the task of picking a sample that accurately represented this heterogeneous group of workers across a forty-year period presented considerable difficulties. In the first instance, I had to consider who was and was not a steelworker? Automated productive methods had already made the popular image of a steelworker (spectacled men rolling ingots) something of an anachronism by the beginning of my study period. Although many employees at the Port Talbot works were still directly involved in the physical process of making steel (the ‘production workers’ or ‘operatives’), the running of the plant also necessitated a host of subsidiary and ancillary services: typists, laboratory technicians, draughtsmen, cleaners, drivers, timekeepers, to name but a few. Were steelworkers, then, those employees who worked exclusively on production or did this categorisation extent to anyone who found employment within the plant? In order to further explore this idea of workplace identification I decided to adopt a broad approach, interviewing any person whose employer was the steel company regardless of their occupation. This inclusive policy also allowed me to approach employees of differing rank and status. By interviewing all grades of workers, from temporary labourers to managers, I hoped to gain a sense of the social relationships that existed within the workplace and the underlying power structures that supported them.

I also felt it was important to try and locate steelworkers from across age groups. Two, if not three, generations of workers passed through the Port Talbot works during my study period and this appeared to offer the opportunity to assess changing attitudes towards the nature of work, workplace relationships etc. during a period of salient change in Britain’s traditional industries. Furthermore, I hoped this approach would allow me to compare different age groups’ perspectives of key events in the plant’s history.  It seemed possible, for example, that a worker who was twenty at the time of the 1980 steel strike would remember the dispute differently to an employee who was fifty at the same time.

It would also be wrong to ignore the contribution of female workers to the working life of the Port Talbot steelworks. Although not directly involved in production until the very end of my study period, the number of female workers employed by the plant increased dramatically after the Second World War. Indeed, they comprised a majority of the workforce in certain clerical and catering departments. Their experience of working life in a traditionally masculine industry, such as steel, evidently warrants further exploration. Moreover, the increased number of opportunities available to women within the productive side of the steel industry, particularly by the 1980s, reflects broader changes in the composition of Britain’s industrial workforce that have largely gone uncommented on by historians.

As an ideal sample group, then, my interviewees would encompass both older and younger workers, men and women, manual and staff grades, craft and process workers, militants and moderates. However, oral history is not entirely free from the practical constraints that affect most historical sources. The disparity between the sources we would like to consult and the sources that are available can still make itself manifest. These practical considerations concerned with finding interviewees will be the subject of my next ‘Gathering Oral Histories’ blog.

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