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Dive into Oral History: Understanding Qualitative Research with Patricia Leavy

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Title: Oral History: Understanding Qualitative Research
Author: Patricia Leavy, Ph.D.
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Year Published: 2011
ISBN: 9780195395099

Who is the author?

Patricia Leavy, PhD is an internationally known author (formerly Associate Professor of Sociology, Founding Director of Gender Studies and Chairperson of Sociology & Criminology at Stonehill College). She has published a dozen non-fiction books including the best-seller Method Meets Art: Arts-Based Research Practice, Essentials of Transdisciplinary Research: Using Problem-Centered Methodologies and Fiction as Research Practice. She has also published two novels, the award-nominated American Circumstance and Sense Publisher’s top-selling title, Low-Fat Love. She is the editor for four book series with Oxford University Press and Sense Publishers. Frequently called on by the media, she has appeared on national television, radio, is regularly quoted by the news media, publishes op-eds and is a blogger for The Huffington Post. She frequently makes presentations and keynote addresses at universities as well as national and international conferences. The New England Sociological Association named her the “2010 New England Sociologist of the Year” and she has recently been nominated for a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry and a Special Achievement Award by the American Creativity Association.

What is your book about?

PL: Oral history is a research method. It is a way of conducting long, highly detailed interviews with people about their life experiences, often in multiple interview sessions. Oral history allows the person being interviewed to use their own language to talk about events in their life and the method is used by researchers in different fields like history, anthropology and sociology. My book, Oral History: Understanding Qualitative Research is about how researchers use this method and how to write up their oral history projects so that audiences can read them. It’s important that researchers have many different tools available to study people’s lives and the cultures we live in. I think oral history is a most needed and uniquely important strategy. Oral history interviews allow us to document and chronicle people’s stories; stories that might otherwise not be included in the historical record. As audiences, when we are exposed to oral history projects not only do we learn but in some ways we also bear witness to that which we have not experienced personally. For example, it is through oral history that we have gained first-person survivor accounts of the Holocaust. These stories are history, personal and social history, and it is vital they are included in the historical record. People must be able to use their voice, tell their stories, have their experiences recognized and their voices heard. Moreover, it is so important that people have the opportunity to share their stories and have them documented. There have been large-scale oral history projects after many events, from September 11th to Hurricane Katrina. Many oral history projects are much more confined, but equally valuable. We can learn about different working conditions, living conditions, trauma experiences and much more through oral history. My goal in writing the book was to help instruct students and researchers on how to use this method, how to design an oral history project, and then write up their results effectively.

What makes your book unique?

PL: There are many important books on oral history. My book was the launch title in the Understanding Qualitative Research series with Oxford University Press. I think what makes my book and all of the series books unique is the emphasis on writing instruction for researchers who want to use the method being described. There is very little writing instruction out there for beginning researchers. Students are often taught when to use a particular method and how to use it, but not how to effectively write up their research plan and then later their research results. This is vitally important and with our series we aim to fill a needed gap in the literature. Our books also emphasize how to read and make sense of other people’s research. There is so little written about how to read, understand and evaluate oral history research, for example. I hope this book is useful to students and researchers.

You’re the editor for the Understanding Qualitative Research series. How did that happen and can you describe the series?

PL: Well, I was invited. Oxford University Press is simply as prestigious a press as there is so when they come to your door and invite you to be a part of something like this, you say yes. It truly is an honor to work with them, particularly on a project as large as this one. The story of how they came to me is a good lesson though about the unexpected and creating new opportunities. I had published a co-edited book with Oxford a decade ago, my first book actually. Years later I found myself having lunch with Lori Stone, who was an editor at Oxford at that time. We connected at a conference and over the course of lunch she told me about a wonderful new series she had just developed called Understanding Research. The series has three lines, two in quantitative research and one in qualitative. After my lunch with Lori she emailed me a list of tentative topics to be covered in the qualitative series. Oral history was not on the list so I asked if she would be interested in adding that. She agreed and sent me a short template to use when writing up my book proposal. The template had some language in it that was quantitative in nature and did not make sense for an oral history book. When I questioned her about the template she asked if I could amend it for her to suit qualitative researchers better. I happily did so and soon thereafter she told me that while they had an editor for the two quantitative lines they did not have a dedicated series editor for the qualitative series. That’s how it happened. I was offered the role and gladly accepted. It’s a huge honor to work with Oxford. As it turned out, Lori left Oxford soon after that to pursue other opportunities and Abby Gross took over as the editor I work with. I have been working with Abby for years now, growing the series, and it’s been terrific. We’re both committed to producing a high quality and successful series and we bring different expertise to the table which I think makes it an excellent collaboration. At this point we have released titles on many topics, like the fundamentals of qualitative research, Internet research, interviewing and duoethnography. We have a fantastic book on disaster research coming out in February and many more titles signed and in production. Some of our books have been award-nominated, landed translation deals and been widely adopted in college courses. It’s also been a real treat because I have invited many of my favorite authors and researchers to write books in the series. It’s an honor to be able to help publish the work of people I admire so much, many of whom are leaders in their fields and played a large role in my own understanding of these topics.

Any obstacles when writing this book?

PL: There are always challenges with books like this, deciding what to include and what to omit. The series books are intended to be concise, sleek guides so there is a limit to what can be included. My challenge in this case though was that I strangely had three books come out in the same year, within months of each other. Honestly, I never expected that! I always work on more than one project at once but things happened like finishing one book ahead of schedule, having the production schedule for another book change on me and so forth. I really didn’t plan for it and would not be eager to have it happen again. It was crazy. Right around the time Oral History was released my other nonfiction book Essentials of Transdisciplinary Research (Left Coast Press) and my first novel, Low-Fat Love (Sense Publishers) were also released. It was a whirlwind, especially because the lovely response to Low-Fat Love sprung me into a very busy time promoting it. As a result, I was not able to promote Oral History as much as I would have liked which is a shame because I’m quite proud of the book and I think it could be of use to students and researchers. I’m grateful to have the chance now to spread the word a bit more. So thank you for the opportunity.

Are you working on any new books right now? If so, when do they come out?

PL: I’m working on a few books right now. I’m finishing up another project with Oxford, which is a large edited volume called The Oxford Handbook of Qualitative Research. I was honored to be asked to edit this book. It’s a large task but also a chance to help shape the field. I was able to determine the topics covered and use the introduction and conclusion to advocate for issues I think are important, like public scholarship. The contributor list represents a who’s who of respected and emerging leaders in the field. I was thrilled that so many talented researchers agreed to write chapters for the book. Our approach was to keep the book student-friendly and I think the end result will bear that out. The handbook is also special to me because my daughter, Madeline Leavy-Rosen, made the original cover art for the book. She’s a very talented artist and created what I think is an eye-catching piece of modern art that beautifully captures the themes of the book. I may be biased, but I think the cover art is stunning. Needless to say, this book will be extra special for me with her work on the cover. The handbook is due out in Spring. I’m also working on another research methods book, which is a revised and expanded second edition of my book Method Meets Art with Guilford Press. That book is very special to me and I’m thrilled to have the chance to go back to it and revise it according to changes in the field. I’m also in the midst of promoting my novel, American Circumstance which was published by Sense Publishers. That book was a labor of love and so I’m having a wonderful time sharing it with readers.

You can find Patricia at

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