Review of Oral History: Understanding Qualitative Research, Patricia Leavy, Oxford, 2011.

Oral History: Understanding Qualitative Research is a useful and accessible guide for anyone interested in the implementation and design of an oral history project. Although sociology is the academic tradition through which Leavy writes, the author’s work echoes the interdisciplinary space that oral history has come into in recent years, and includes contributions from the fields of anthropology, history and ethnography. The author takes an epistemological position in which the relationship between the researcher and the participants is taken to be relevant and is treated as a subject of investigation. From this starting point, oral history is understood as a process in which meaning is generated at different times: in conducting the interview, in the inter-subjective relationship that develops between the interviewer and interviewee, and in the analysis of the oral narratives, which also produces a dialogue between the researcher and the source.

Firstly, Leavy demonstrates from a methodological point of view the steps to be undertaken in order to carry out a research project on oral history. She takes us on a detailed tour through the entire process: from the choice of subject matter and its contextualisation, to the selection of the participants and the presentation of the project to them. Next, Leavy brings out the complexity of the conditions of implementing the interview, using examples from different situations. Finally, she raises the problem of the analysis and interpretation of the testimonies, advocating for interview transcripts and providing us with guidelines for how to codify/systematis the meanings of the narrations.

Secondly, Leavy proposes that an exhibition that is created as a result of an oral history research project has to be considered through various methodological problems. It means that the researcher has to define the framework through which interpretations of the data can take place, as well as which participants are chosen and the type of interview conducted. In short, the researcher’s choices must be justifiable from a methodological standpoint. Leavy provides numerous examples of how to perform this work.

Thirdly, Leavy gives us guidelines for preparing and presenting the results of the research. She focuses on two styles: one, analytical and two, what she calls ‘impressionistic’. One of the most important issues raised by Leavy is the need to strike a balance between the voice of the researcher and the oral testimonies given. Analytical style and how it is to be used is described in minute detail. For researchers editing their work for the first time, this section proves to be especially useful. Regarding the impressionistic style, Leavy describes this as a form of narrative display where the researcher emphasises his/her role as a storyteller in the work produced. From this perspective, she shows us how to use different literary narrative resources in order to illuminate the full importance of the stories.

Leavy dedicates the book’s final chapter to raising useful formulas in order to assess the achievements and the quality of work produced through oral history. Leavy also provides a selected and updated bibliography on the subject and a good list of references on different skills and approaches in the field of oral history.

In short, I believe Leavy’s book to be faultlessly up-to-date on the modes of carrying out qualitative research. Young researchers and all those who choose to direct their research career to memory, subjectivity and life stories have in Patricia Leavy’s book an invaluable resource.

Dr. Miren Llona

University of the Basque Country/Euskal Herriko Unibertsitatea

[email protected]


Review of Turn the World Upside Down: Stories of Leftist Activism in Latin America, Gerardo Necoechea Gracia, Patricia Pensado Leglise (eds), Buenos Aires: Imago Mundi, 2010, 352 p.

For over two decades, oral history or oral sources have been considered as valid tools and not mere trivial questions for the writing on contemporary history.

Oral history – many times emphasised as such by those who practice it with remarkable passion – speaks of that which we cannot always hear. To put it simply: oral sources come to us as a possible vehicle for the humiliated, defeated, subordinated, mutinous and disobedient. They are for people of every lineage, colour or offense, so that their voices, their versions of events and their memories can be heard. Is this a kind of posthumous justice, a symbolic scene of atonement that history offers to the defeated? Perhaps. But it is also a tool to be used to build a point of view, a perspective. Does this mean that oral historians must not talk to the leading groups, to the government-elected, to the bourgeois? No, but in a distinct manner, it has chosen to collect the voices of the masses, of revolutionary organizations and of the persecuted – that which reveals the theoretical alternatives of the masses.

That said, our goal is to go through the pages of an explicit product of Latin American oral history: the book Turn the World Upside Down: Stories of Leftist Activism in Latin America, edited by Mexican historians Gerardo Necoechea Gracia and Patricia Pensado Leglise. As a kind of vector which charts a North-South course over our continent, the work brings us the testimonies of life and activism of Mexicans, Nicaraguans, Brazilians and Argentines.

Jilma Romero Arrechavala, a Nicaraguan herself, brings us Gladys Báez’s testimony. Through these testimonies, the life paths chosen by this Sandinista activist are called into question. It also takes us through the process of politicisation that Báez went through, and the choices that would change her life forever. Her family, her neighbourhood, her education, her gender problems, and her first contact with politics are not only developed as a natural life process, but also within the context of the Nicaraguan Revolution itself. The 60s and 70s were marked by debates about the revolutionary path – to be armed or not, the uprising and the prolonged popular war – as well as daily life in the midst of rural guerrilla warfare, the influence of the Cuban Revolution, Vietnam, and at home, the Somoza dictatorship.

From Brazil, Marieta de Moraes Ferreira and Alexandre Forte bring forth two distinct and important life experiences within the framework of Brazilian politics in recent years – that of the Workers’ Party. The first interview is with Avelino Ganzer, a gaucho farmer and migrant. Together with his family, he went to the Amazon territory in the early 70s, under the settlement policies put in place by the ruling dictatorship that had begun 1964, after the coup d’état by Costa e Silva displaced Goluart. With Ganzer’s testimony, we are privy to not only the political limits of the Brazilian dictatorship (or it’s farcical nature) but also the difficult lives led by small and medium farmers in modern times in relation to large landowners, the State, the Workers’ Party, as well as the local and international market. These are current issues that we see reflected in the public sphere with the actions of the Landless Rural Workers’ Movement (MST) in Brazil.

The other interview is Benedita da Silva or ‘Bene’, a black woman who lives in the favelas. Bene is an original Workers’ Party leader originating from the Chapéu Mangueira favela in the district of Leme in Rio de Janeiro. One wouldn’t hesitate to characterise this district as a private gated community, with a private supply of water, electricity, gas, a sewer, and all the basic services that you find in upper class accommodations. These services are lacking in all the various types of shanty towns that Latin America has in abundance: slums, favelas and young populations living in new areas. With her extensive political history – as councillor, MP, senator, and the first black woman governor of the State – Bene’s testimony reveals not only the difficulties of being female, black and poor in the various areas she works in, but also the symbolism of this polysemous world of territorial activism in Brazil and Latin America, where the influences of Marxism, feminism and the varied religions of Christianity and Umbanda intersect.

From Argentina, Pablo Pozzi presents us with voices that are already recognised as classics in the field: voices of members of the Workers’ Revolutionary Party – People’s Revolutionary Army (PRT-ERP), one of the armed revolutionary organizations which developed further in the Southern Cone of Latin America between the late 60s and mid-70s. The testimonies of Hector and Silvia traverse the central themes of the PRT-ERP’s trajectory and their ideological influences: Vietnam; the Cuban Revolution; Che Guevara – his choice of armed struggles as well as his links and implementations with and within mass organizations; labour unions; neighbourhood collectives; women collectives; student movements. Also, attitudes towards the return of Peronism within the Government and to the inaugural election of 1973; the social origin of the PRT-ERP’s members and cadres; the Monte Company in Tucuman (ERP); and finally, the debates with the armed Peronists and the reasons for their defeat.

From Mexico, Patricia Pensado Leglise provides us with two very encouraging testimonies, one of Alfonso Vázquez Rebolledo and another of Edna – ‘the armed communists’. The first one is of Rebolledo, the son of Adolfo Sánchez Vázquez, a Spanish Marxist intellectual in exile in Mexico after the Spanish War. The interview brings out the practice of American semi-intellectuals in the 60s and 70s, who became radicalised in the heat of mass struggles. These struggles not only featured the working class but also a new wave of students that began to formulate change for the social origins of university students all over the continent, and for their political power. They were also influenced by international phenomena such as the May 1968 protest in France, the war in Vietnam (or the American War, as the Vietnamese call it) and the Cuban Revolution.

Edna’s testimony sheds light on an unknown and relatively underground event, deep ground for stakeholders in Latin American history: the attempt to establish a guerrilla movement in Mexico between the late 60s and the mid-70s, during the same time as the mass movement. The Mexican Government repressed this attempt at a much smaller scale than what happened in the Southern Cone, but that doesn’t discount the rudimentary tools of State terrorism used in other parts. It is these points which motivate the two reflections on the role of Mexico in the 70s, especially in relation to South American exile: 1) the existence of a double standard, that is, an open policy of exile, as well as repression towards the internal political and social conflict, and 2) very little record of these conflicts, as Edna reveals. Her story is in memory of the numerous South American exiles in Mexico, of untold stories, despite them being contemporary events.

Without further ado (as it is now your turn to read the book, which we highly recommend), we welcome the publication of this volume of oral history, an essential guide for tracing – just like the local guides of la pampa – the legions of the defeated and the hungry, or, as Carlo Ginzburg once said, for knowing more about who built Thebes of the seven gates.

Alejandro Falco

Faculty of Social Sciences at the University of Buenos Aires