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This book is a product of a research project called ‘voices of youth’ carried out - page 21 / 125

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A Lost Generation: Young People and Conflict in Africa

series of issues, drawing on direct personal memory and experience’ (2001:1). Such interviews may broadly address a particular discussion topic (such as the respondent’s experiences of climate change, their opinions about current events, or their expectations for the future). However, beyond this they are open-ended and unstructured, and might touch on an unpredictable range of issues, just like an

everyday conversation.

Although oral testimony is in essence a simple tool, mirroring the sorts of conversations people might have in ordinary circumstances, the communications skills they require need deliberate thought and a lot of practice, if they are to be put to use as effective research skills. This is especially the case where fieldworkers are accustomed to doing other, more quantitative types of research. A particular difficulty is the open-ended nature of the OT interview; the task of the researcher in this type of interview is not to quiz people for information, but to undertake a joint exploration, with the respondent, of a particular topic.

OT allows those whose voices are not normally heard to express their experiences, sentiments, opinions and perceptions. The reality they describe is their reality, and not the reality as assessed by development agencies, governments or policy-makers. It is expressed in ways that are ‘real’ and ‘true’ to the respondents, although they may appear to others to be inconsistent and sometimes factually inaccurate. It has particular strength when a method is needed that:

  • gives narrators the courage to address sensitive political and social topics that are hard to address through other methods

  • offers confidentiality and security in a protected space where respondents can talk about sensitive or emotive matters, or matters that could have legal or other consequences which respondents wish to avoid

  • provides a voice to those who are too often ignored or spoken for

  • empowers, rather than extracts information from those who are normally excluded

  • permits wide-ranging scoping of an issue that not much is known about already

Oral testimony has drawbacks as a research method, and is not appropriate for every research project. In particular, it is not likely to be useful when the purpose of the research is to establish exhaustively verifiable facts. One of the main difficulties of interpreting oral testimony material is that it raises questions about the purpose of research and about the nature of truth. If the purpose of a research exercise is to uncover, for the benefit of the researchers, the facts of a particular situation, OT may not be the best method, and the researchers may be better advised to use more conventional methods such as social surveying. What OT can do, however, is to bring to light the perceptions of people who are most directly affected by a

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