The practice of oral history is the documentation of people’s words, memories and experiences. This research methodology engages historical frameworks and relies on interviewing, transcribing and archiving skills. It is a powerful and inclusive research practice that acknowledges the authority and agency of interviewees, relies on student researchers’ participation and leads to the creation of accessible archives.
Historical and ethnographic research methods complement and support each other in the field of oral history. Ethnographic methods have been used in the study of bureaucratic behaviour and practices across the disciplines of political science, economics, anthropology, public administration, and development studies. Many ethnographers’ relationships with their narrators hinge on assurances of anonymity owing to respondents’ fears of consequences for revealing their observations and experiences. As a result, researchers writing about their participants’ observations provide excerpts and summaries of what they have been told by their interlocutors. The researcher places their own interpretation on words, word choice, inflection, and gesture, in observing, recording, transcribing, and writing up.
Key to this process is the context in which both the research and participant operate. Those who are reflective of their practice acknowledge their positionality – and especially its distinctiveness from that of their participants – and the role it plays in the research. These contexts and the choices made by respondents and by researchers shape how meaning is derived from words, writing, and actions. These interpretations of the respondents’ experiences and words are brought into conversation with the literature, and with broader themes of interest to the researcher in order to comment on issues like corruption, accountability, state capacity, governance, and representation. For example, a 2020 study by Sameen Mohsin Ali investigates how experiences of bureaucrats inform participatory reform failure in Pakistan’s irrigation sector.
Like ethnographers, oral historians pay close attention to the setting, the relationship between interviewer and interviewee, and the contingencies of memory, silence, and subjectivity. But in many ways oral history methods are a departure from an ethnographic approach. Unlike ethnographic participant research, oral history interviews are broad and interviewees are invited to speak at length in detailing their experiences; the oral history interview offers respondents space to expand on their own thinking. Interviews are recorded and transcribed verbatim, and interview recordings and transcripts are made available in a publicly accessible archive. Participants review completed interview recordings and transcripts, and have the option to remain anonymous or even to embargo their interviews. Researchers document the informed consent of participants and oversee transfer of the interview.
The Women in Public Service in Pakistan oral history project was conceived at LUMS in 2019, a product of collaborations between colleagues and students, with women public servants whose professional life histories we sought to document. Interviews collected from 2019 to 2022 centered on participants’ personal backgrounds, education, professional training and workplace experiences, and offered narrators space to share reflections, if any, about government. These structured interviews elicited descriptions of narrators’ families, their socio-economic identity, their education, entry into public service, training and professional achievements, and the intersections of their domestic and professional lives. We foregrounded the experiences, voices, and interpretations of our interviewees.
Researchers participating in the WPSP project, both students and more senior scholars, engage their own networks to identify interviewees and use their own interpretative approaches to analyse the interviews they conduct. The WPSP project supports multiple research streams and documents women’s professional lives in a range of fields of work while also benefitting from the ideas, energy and insights that researchers bring to the project, from Sana Haroon’s expertise in oral history methods to Sameen Mohsin Ali’s research on bureaucratic politics and networks in Pakistan. This collaborative research model has contributed to the longevity of the project and growth of the archive while also supporting new writing and insights in the authors’ own fields.
Sana Haroon, for instance, recently presents the professional life history narratives of 23 women officers of the Central Superior Services (CSS) of Pakistan, alongside an historical account of decentralization and inclusive efforts in Pakistan’s public sector from 1973 that led to the recruitment and advancement of women in the federal bureaucracy. Quotas for women made government more diverse and representative, and educational and length of service benchmarks for recruitment and promotion made advancement more attainable and transparent. The increasing participation of these new officers of state can be seen as an outcome of the 1973 public sector reforms. However, government policy alone is insufficient to account for women’s entry into public bureaucracy and policymaking, from which they had historically been excluded in the region. The paper calls attention to the role of families and academic institutions in enabling women career pathways into the CSS, as well as women’s success and progression in roles that require straddling Pakistani state and society effectively.
Life history interviews offer a means to bridge structure and agency when trying to understand the Pakistani state through the eyes of its women employees. Our interviews cover a range of employees – different career stages, departments, and levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy. As such, they present views of the evolution and functioning of the Pakistani state over time. In foregrounding the narratives of women public servants, this oral history archive offers a unique insight into the lives of employees of the Pakistani state, at work and beyond work. But we are very aware that there is still much more work to be done in collecting and archiving the stories of women public servants in Pakistan. In particular, the range of participants needs to expand beyond Punjab and Islamabad, as well as across different roles, cohorts and age groups of women in public service. Therefore, we see the archive as a beginning, an invitation for collaboration and future research on the state using oral history methods.
The Women in Public Service in Pakistan interviews are archived at the LUMS library. The collection can be viewed in the library reading room by faculty, students and visiting scholars with permission from the project directors. You can apply for access to the archive here: https://forms.gle/rERgDBe2TLT3xFH8A
Sameen Mohsin Ali, Assistant Professor of International Development, University of Birmingham
Sana Haroon, Professor of South Asian History, University of Massachusetts