Trust and relationship building

The issue of trust and relationship building is central to any engaged research, but perhaps more so when the research involves peering into the private lives of citizens as many oral history projects do. Annemarie Turnbull (2000) has explored the difficulties of establishing an oral history project with people who are not part of a geographical community, in particular gaining access to potential interviewees or getting potential interviewees to become interested in the idea of the project. With an unknown researcher, many people are understandably reticent about agreeing to a project that involves exploring their personal or professional lives. In communities that have experienced significant trauma, the issues surrounding ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’ can be amplified as potential interviewees have an ingrained mistrust of outsiders, particularly researchers, who they believe cannot fully understand the context and could misinterpret or misuse the information gained for their own purposes (Burnette, Sanders, Butcher, & Salois, 2011; Lundy & McGovern, 2006; Thomas, Donovan, & Sigo, 2010). Linda Shopes (2007) has identified many oral history projects relate to marginalised groups within society and there is an inherent social inequity between the researcher (often from a middle class, privileged background) and those being interviewed. Even in communities where social class differences are less apparent, the relationship between the researcher and community members needs to be negotiated along intellectual, cultural and purpose lines.

In the Love, sweat & rewarding years project, Sarah followed a more traditional oral history process and was primarily responsible for the collection of the stories. However, as an insider, she had ready access to members of that community through the Kindergarten and was a well- known and trusted member of the community, through visitations and talks at the Burnett Heads Progress and Sports Association meetings. This prior connection with the community meant that many of the issues outsider researchers have in regards to generating interest in the project were not experienced (Lundy & McGovern, 2006). However, Sarah was very aware that in representing the experiences of people within her own community, she was placing herself in a position of trust; that by speaking to her, members of the community were signalling their trust in her capability to represent them in the history being created. Indeed, in many respects the risk involved in this venture can be much greater for insider than outsider researchers because insiders generally remain residents in their communities so getting that history ‘right’ can impact on future relationships outside of the project. Thus, an important part of the project was communicating openly throughout the duration of the project by writing a monthly article for the community newsletter to report on the progress of the project and invite feedback. Additionally, each draft manuscript was read and checked by a well-respected community elder.

Cathy and Wendy, on the other hand, were not members of the Theodore community. They had been working as researchers with the community for over 12 months prior to establishing the oral history project, so were not unknown, but they were certainly aware of their outsider status. However, in this case, the researchers acted more as facilitators of the process with the decision-making resting firmly in the hands of the community. In this respect, collaborative or community oral history projects reflect the community development and empowerment approach more associated with PAR (Shopes, 2007). The community members who conducted the interviews were insiders, while the researchers remained outsiders and acted more in an advisory role for much of the process. As noted in the introduction of Anyone who drinks the Dawson water, ‘Dr Wendy Madsen and Cathy O’Mullan provided guidance on how to conduct an oral history project and assistance with writing. However, the majority of effort has come from the people within the town’ (2014, p. 2). The benefit of this approach is that outsiders can bring a different perspective to the project that insiders may have difficulty in doing as they themselves can carry the same cultural baggage of their communities (Lundy & McGovern, 2006). The disadvantage is the ‘moral jitters’, described by Linda Shopes (2007), experienced by conscientious external researchers in regards to ensuring the process is nonexploitive and non-patronising and that benefits flow to all concerned.

In all cases, Linda Shopes’ (2007) advice is that taking time to know the interviewees and community, listening carefully and asking questions to draw out the stories, and being more concerned with the quality of the relationship rather than the number of interviews undertaken demonstrates respect for the individuals concerned and for the project and history being recorded and developed. Time is required to establish a presence in a community and trust can only be developed over time and through interacting with people honestly and with integrity. In this way, the oral history projects outlined here provided an avenue whereby trust and relationships were enhanced and in doing so, community resilience was increased. Conversely, clumsy negotiation of these relationships could clearly negate any benefit that may come from such projects.

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