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Oral History Blog Post #2: Outsider Looking In

One of the fascinating parts of being an oral historian is the dynamic that exists between the interviewer and the subject. There’s a concept of emic and etic perspectives in the social sciences that are important to note when conducting research within a community. The emic perspective is one of the insider – say I was a longtime speed skater and I interviewed roller skaters-- that would give me an insider’s perspective. An etic perspective, on the other hand, is one of the outsider. My perspective as an oral historian in the case of the roller skating community, is an etic one. I inline skated as a kid, but otherwise have not been a part of the community in any meaningful or long-term sense.

Being that I was the museum’s archivist previously does give me a good background knowledge of the history of roller skating, and through conducting the oral histories, I’ve been getting more and more personal testimony on said history. I received my Master of Arts in Folklore in 2019 and chose that subject because community and conceptions of community fascinate me. I love to see how different groups form tight bonds, construct ideas of who is and isn’t a part of a group, and also just generally add meaning in their lives through their community.

It might seem a little lonely being an outsider looking in at a group they’re not a part of, but it does make for an interesting perspective. Things that an insider might take for granted are noted more easily by an outsider researcher, similarities and differences stand out between other groups of people, and there really is something so special about meeting and talking to so many people you would otherwise never cross paths with. I don’t come into my interviews with any preconceived notions about the person I’m talking to, being that I don’t have any biases toward people from a certain time period, place, or type of background they may have within the community. I just come in wanting to hear their story and learn more along the way!

Some research certainly benefits from an insider’s perspective to be sure, emic and etic perspectives are not superior to one another, just different. The Oral History Committee has been integral to reaching out to a variety of individuals, so that no major groups are left out. Having people involved with roller skating help me make connections has been integral to my success in this project, being an outsider means making connections inside is incredible important to a project’s success. Roller skating is not just for athletes and the fact that I’ve talked to people from backgrounds in rink management, rink operators, recreational skating, athletics, coaching, sports administration, roller skating business, and skaters involved with the entertainment industry goes to show how many different facets there are to how roller skating can be a part of your life. With my outside perspective, it’s been fascinating to learn about how these different backgrounds intersect and connect with one another. Community and identity are dynamic, and that is certainly the case with roller skating!

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