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Author Interview: Marella Hoffman

We caught up with Marella Hoffman to discuss her book, Practicing Oral History to Improve Public Policies and Programs. Read on for our exclusive interview to find out what inspired Marella to write the book.

How would you describe your book in a sentence?

It's a practical, hands-on tool you can use to help make measurable improvements to the society around you, while future-proofing your own career - why would you not give it a go?

Why does this book matter?

It's a tool for these times. With so many public crises looming, we need everyone involved now - participating and bringing their own gifts to the table, rather than just standing back complaining about what decision-makers do on our behalf. This book shows you how oral histories are being used to improve a kaleidoscope of public programs, from child famine relief to climate change policies, Alzheimer's treatment to flood management. And it opens up almost unlimited career opportunities for those with oral history skills. 

Oral history and testimony seems to be booming.

Yes, definitely. With social media, amateur reportage and the 'self-oriented' trend in society, oral testimonies are mushrooming as a communication channel in their own right. But in this era of 'fake news', it's crucial to share a methodology that keeps oral history ethical and authentic. The book shows you hundreds of gripping examples where this is being done, and explains how you can do it yourself. 

Why were you the one to write it? 

I worked as an academic at Cambridge University before working with government and NGOs, creating and delivering public policies and programs. There, I saw that oral testimonies - when properly gathered and presented - were the powerful missing ingredient that can get the right things done. So I learned the oral history method and spent many years applying and adapting it successfully for public programs. I'm sharing that methodology now so that anyone can use it, even if they've never worked with public policy or oral history before. It's time to learn - we need all hands on deck now! I have the necessary track record in academia, politics and publishing. But I think mainly, I have a knack for making complex material accessible and effective, without diluting its meaning or integrity. 

What makes this book different?

It' a juicy read with lots of laughs, unforgettable characters and surprising twists. It's essentially a journey of learning for the reader - learning through experience - so you do come out of it changed. It leaves readers equipped to actually do something about the issues that matter to them. The sense of not being able to do anything about social problems is the curse of our times, and this book shows you a way around that.

What current trends should readers be keeping up with?

My readers are students, practitioners and teachers of oral history, and professionals in any field of public service who want to improve their campaigning, policy-making or service-delivery. I see three key trends they need to be aware of. First, as the problems facing society now are so multi-factorial, our work must be at least to some extent transdisciplinary. Second, with a sort of end-game ahead for future generations, we must pass on to our students tools they can actually use to make a living in the complex world ahead - a living that will actually benefit that world. And third, we need to provide generative learning - learning that imports positive practice from elsewhere and shares out our models so they can be adapted by others for different uses in their own contexts.
I think these networked, synergistic ways of handling knowledge are the way forward. So my book revitalises oral history methodologies so that people can use them to future-proof their own projects and careers.

About the book

Practicing Oral History to Improve Public Policies and Programs

Practicing Oral History to Improve Public Policies and Programs

By Marella Hoffman

The use of contemporary oral history to improve public policies and programs is a growing, transdisciplinary practice. Indispensable for students and practitioners, Practicing Oral History to Improve Public Policies and Programs is the first book to define the practice, explain how policy-makers use it, show how it relates to other types of oral history, and provide guidance on the ethics and legalities involved.

About the author

Marella Hoffman is a Fellow of the Royal Anthropological Institute, and has lectured or held research awards at universities in France, Switzerland, Ireland, the US, and at Cambridge University. She was for a decade chief editor of a public policy magazine for government in Cambridge. Her other books are Asylum under Dreaming Spires: Refugees’ Lives in Cambridge Today (2017); Savoir-Faire of the Elders in the French Mediterranean Hills (in French, 2016); and Magnets (2007). Her work also appears in international collaborations Human Rights and Good Governance: Building Bridges (2000); Location and Dislocation in Contemporary Irish Society: Emigration and Irish Identities (1997); and Cross-currents in European Literature (1993). Visit www.marellahoffman.com