Health Communication, Interpersonal Communication , ,

Using Oral History in Public Health

Public health prides itself on being interdisciplinary – but there’s always more to learn. I recently discovered a field of study whose department at UNC was looking to collaborate with public health students. This discipline is called oral history, and the Southern Oral History Program at UNC is a pioneer in its field.

Oral history works to preserve narratives by interviewing, recording, and archiving life stories. The narrator is often from a part of society whose voices have been silenced, and wants to contribute his or her life story to historical archives. For this reason, unlike with traditional qualitative interviews in public health, the narrator’s identifying information is often attached to his or her story. When oral historians use life stories in their research, the narrators play an important role in ensuring that their stories are portrayed accurately. They also receive a copy of their interview, preserved in a written format, for themselves and future generations.

Oral history would be especially useful in conducting public health needs assessments, seeking community expertise for solving a local health problem, finding more robust quotes for supporting policy movements, or discovering the experiences of living through a particular outbreak or natural disaster.┬áPublic health research already uses qualitative interviewing techniques, but could greatly benefit from more collaboration with oral historians. We traditionally go into interviews with pre-established questions about specific health topics. We may get some background of the participant’s life, but hearing this as a narrative rather than a response could help us build a deeper understanding of the person sitting across from us.


  • Laurie Hursting

    We talked about this a bit with the flu pandemic of 1918, since this year marks the 100th year anniversary. Are there health topics that serve oral history better than others?

  • Hannah Tuttle

    Really interesting article Maddy! As someone who has a lot of experience in qualitative research experience I think oral histories would be a great method to involve the community in to the research process.

  • Josh Boegner

    Great article! As someone who focuses on qualitative research methods, I concur that there is a greater need to incorporate oral histories into public health research and practice. Along with the Southern Oral History Program, the Jackson Center in the Northside neighborhood of Chapel Hill focuses on capturing oral histories, and could be a place of interest for you as well!