Making memories: equal pay and learning about oral history

This (10th November) is Equal Pay Day 2016, the point in the year when women in Britain effectively stop earning relative to men. I’ve just come across an abridged oral history from 2006 reflecting on the fifteen year equal value case for NHS speech and language therapists. It features Pam Enderby, whose landmark case was successful at the European Court of Justice. Appropriately for an oral history project she observed, “what’s fascinating is everyone’s got a slightly different memory.”

dsc_0002Calling up different experiences, images, emotions and stories from past life and making sense of them from the present is the business of oral history. I joined other PhD students from across Scotland at an excellent University of Strathclyde oral history training day last week. The methodology clearly has wide appeal as, while I’m researching practice change in speech and language therapy, I was joined by people from disciplines including music, anthropology, politics, history, literature and sociology.

We learned that oral history is usually used to explore areas of life that are not well documented, or where particular perspectives have been excluded. As memory is not well suited to reconstructing an accurate past, oral historians instead harness it as a powerful way of interpreting what events in the past have come to mean for the people who remember them. This may be more varied and diverse than we expect.

The way we record memories is partial, and depends on what else is going on at the time, or what captures our interest. We retrieve memories in different ways, often helped by visual and sensory cues, or going back to particular places. In oral history interviews, interviewees also decide what to remember and how to tell it. This is always influenced by how they relate to the person who is interviewing them, and what other events have happened around the time of the interview.

One of the most interesting discussions for me was how memory is dynamic. This means our memories continue to adapt or change depending on how the same event, idea or experience becomes talked about and remembered publicly or collectively. While this can give some people a framework for talking about their experiences, it may make recall difficult for those who struggle to make what they remember fit the popular imagination.

The excellent Where Methods Meet series of videos shows that research methods often have much in common, and much to offer each other, and that’s certainly the case for oral history. In addition to well-developed ideas on memory and the social nature of an interview, I learned from the training day that oral historians have particular expertise around the ethics and logistics of archiving data, as well as engaging communities through research.

In the equal pay oral history, Margaret Evesham has interesting memories on the contrast between therapists who had rich husbands and those who were single parents, and Pam recalls the injustice of a male clinical psychologist colleague earning considerably more with less of a research portfolio. Lesley Cogher remembers feeling guilty when she was awarded the settlement, until the Union solicitor said, “You can’t run a health service on the backs of underpaid women”. In a review of oral history in Scotland, Angela Bartie and Arthur McIvor noted a gap on the meaning of work in the professions, so I hope there will be more opportunities to explore speech and language therapy in this way.

Using oral history in social science research: a workshop for PhD students was organised by the Scottish Graduate School of Social Science. It was held on 4th November at the Scottish Oral History Centre, University of Strathclyde and led by Arthur McIvor, Erin Jessee and Alison Chand.

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