Application of oral history to economics: Family Economic History

This page is authored by Manijeh Sabi
Department of History & Society and School of Management
The Sage Colleges
Author Profile
This material is replicated on a number of sites as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service Project
Initial Publication Date: October 6, 2013


The purpose of this assignment is to apply an interdisciplinary approach to collect information regarding a variety of economic topics. The assignment will connect an oral history approach to the examination of economic concepts such as opportunity cost of attending school, economic crises (depression, recession, inflation and unemployment, etc.), and standard of living over time. Particularly, students will interview parents, grandparents, or family members from older generations regarding the types of work they performed, economic decisions they have made, and the economic conditions while they were growing up. The project develops a student's ability to understand and integrate these concepts from a variety of perspectives and real world situations.

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Learning Goals

At the end of this activity, students should be able to:
- Conduct oral history interviews
- Understand how interviews and personal testimony can provide information on the experience of older generation
- Describe the impact of economics on personal life
- Compare and contrast past and present economic decision making
- Compare and contrast past and present economic events
- Compare and contrast past and present economic conditions
- Compare and contrast past and present career trajectory
- Learn why the past matters and understand the path dependency
- Relate economic conditions to choices regarding education and careers

Context for Use

The assignment connects an oral history approach to the examination of introductory economic concepts and is designed for an introductory macroeconomics course as a field exercise and experiential learning. It is designed for classes of any size and can be cross listed with history courses. Instructors who teach economic concepts such as opportunity cost, economic crises (inflation and unemployment, etc.), and standard of living over time will find this exercise quite useful. The assignment entails students to interview parents, grandparents, or family members from older generations regarding the types of work they performed, family background and structure, economic decisions they have made, and the economic conditions while they were growing up. The project develops a student's ability to understand and integrate basic economic concepts from a variety of perspectives and the real world situation. I have created this assignment for an Economics of Social Problems course, which is an introductory course designed for non-majors. The majority of students in this course were history/education majors. However, it is also appropriate for an introductory macroeconomics course.
From the beginning of the course, the instructors need to prepare students for interviews by reading about oral history techniques (see the description below) and discussing the topics they need inquire. I believe one hour is sufficient for a discussion of oral history and the importance of testimonies of the older generation. After explanation of several economic concepts, such as opportunity cost of attending college, inflation, unemployment, and wages, students should be ready to proceed with their interviews. Students should understand that they need to work on their own to engage their parents and possibly their grandparents and write about the results of their interviews. Also, students who live on campus can conduct interviews remotely by telephone, Skype, Face-Time or other methods that enables real-time, interactive communication. It takes about one hour to prepare students for the project.

Equipment: Students need a recording device for interviews. Instructors should spend half an hour on using the equipment or other digital devices for recording and possibly presentation. However, I notice that students are quite familiar with using different types of equipment. All students in my class had a laptop, IPad, IPod, or cell phone adequate for the purpose this assignment.

Basic information regarding oral history:
Oral history as a form of pedagogy is not commonly used in economics. The current interviewing projects, such as Chicago Economics Oral History, are concentrated on famous and influential economists. But oral historys scope has broadened and historians now have recognized that the everyday memories of ordinary people, not just elites, have historical importance in understanding various concepts and events.
Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History *
According to Judith Moyer, an educator and historian, oral history is a "systematic collection of living people's testimony about their own experiences." She has developed a detailed guide to oral history. Topics include an explanation of how and why to collect oral history, guidelines for planning and conducting an interview, including initial research, choosing equipment, and asking relevant questions.
*Judith Moyer (1999). Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History. Online, available at:

Below are some suggestions for best practices for oral history:

- Ask questions that require more of an answer than "yes" or "no."
- Start, for example, with "why", "how", "where."
- Ask easy questions first, such as brief biographical questions.
- Be flexible. Watch for and raise topics introduced by the interviewee, even if the topics are not among your initial list of questions.
- Don't interrupt a good story and be a good listener.
- Look at the interviewee and show you are interested in his/her responses.
- Ask follow-up questions and then ask some more.
- End the interview at a reasonable time.

Description and Teaching Materials

Here is the detailed instruction I provided for students for this assignment:

Assignment Procedures: Application of oral history in economics: Family Economic History
A Family economic history is a chronological discussion of economic decisions and choices made by your ancestors that have affected your current economic circumstances or conditions. This activity is a biographical sketch that emphasizes economic decision-making and its consequences. Please follow the following steps:

In order to find information, you should interview your parents and grandparents (if possible) and ask relevant questions. Please contact me, if it is not possible to contact your parents/grandparents. Your investigation must include a description of economic conditions of the times (e.g., war, migration, immigration, depression, prosperity), which you believe influenced the economic choices of your predecessors. In presenting your family economic history, you do not need to disclose real names or write about issues you do not feel comfortable about, but include sufficient factual details and circumstances.
1)You need to record your interviews or log the interviews (written script of your interview).
2)Based on your interview, you should write a 6 to 7 page paper (typed, double-spaced, one inch margin). If you use reference materials you must acknowledge all sources in a reference page. Include a cover page with your name and other relevant information. In your written paper, you should construct a family job tree to trace your family economic history - going back two or three generations, demonstrate your understanding of relevant economic concepts, compare and contrast past and present economic conditions, how socio-economic factors influence decision-making, and how choices made by your ancestors have affected your current economic circumstances or conditions.
3)In addition, you can combine your narrative with digital content by using Digital storytelling. There are several tools to create a digital record of the information. For the purpose of this assignment, I suggest the following:

a) Dipity ( Dipity is a free digital timeline website, which organizes the content of your family economic history by date and time. You can create visually engaging timelines that integrate video, audio, images, and text.

b)Slidestory ( Slidestory is a new way to combine pictures and narration.
Interview preparation guides for students:
1) You should prepare for the interview, not so much by preparing questions, but by thinking about topics you want to explore. Find out about the economic condition during the time period that interviewees were growing up, educational opportunity, types of careers and work, salary and wages, etc.
Sample of questions for the interview can be:
- Where were you born?
- Where did you grow up? How about your parents and ancestors?
- How many brothers and sisters do you have?
- Tell me about your education. Did you borrow money to go to college?
- Tell me about types of work you have done.
- Tell me about your wages and salaries – (Note: You should also use the following inflation calculator to compare wages/ prices to current values
- Have you experienced unemployment? How long? Did you receive unemployment benefits?
- Do you own your home? Tell me about the mortgage rate.
- Tell me about important economic events you remember.

Please add some of your own to the above list. Make sure you ask follow-up questions: Why? Could you tell me more about that?
2) Explain that the interview is a project for an economics class and you would like to interview her/him about her/his economic experiences. The interview will be a resource for a class paper.
3) Explain the nature of the interview as a recorded life economic oral history.
4)Tell her/him that the interview is expected to take approximately one hour.

5) Please note that interviewees should voluntarily give their consent to be interviewed and understand that they can withdraw from the interview or refuse to answer a question at any time. Explain that nothing will be done with the interview without the interviewee's explicit, written permission (use the Release Form as a guideline).
Release form: Participation in an interview is voluntary, and the interviewee maintains rights over their comments. A transcript of the interview should be sent to the interviewee.

Teaching Notes and Tips

The assignment will connect an oral history approach to the examination of economic concepts such as opportunity cost, inflation, unemployment, and standard of living over time. Interviewing people from older generation(s) helps students to connect their own lives (and those of family members) to economic concepts covered in the course.

Instructors interested in using this assignment should know that some students may feel uncomfortable to reveal information about their own family or they may have no parents or grandparents to interview. The instructor should make it clear that students do not have to reveal any sensitive information. Also, they can interview an older friend or a neighbor instead.

Also, digital storytelling, the practice of combining narrative with digital content, is gaining importance in the educational field and many students like to incorporate technology for their assignment. I introduced two of these online programs. If interested, you should check the following link for the list of some of the best free digital storytelling tools for teachers:

While it would be quite interesting to have students discuss their interviews using a learning management system, it may be difficult for some students to discuss their family economic history in public. Instead, the instructor can make a summary of general economic trends from one generation to another.

Also, your institution may require IRB approval for this type of project. I have collaborated with an oral history expert in my college. For our purposes, use of a release form is acceptable.
Finally, the instructors should make sure that before the mid-term students have contacted the interviewees and have made arrangements for conducting and recording the interview.


The following rubrics can be used to assess the oral history (interviews) and the stated objectives:

Assessment rubric (Acrobat (PDF) 35kB Oct22 13)

References and Resources

- Baum, Willa. Oral History for the Local Historical Society (American Association for State and Local History). Altamira Publication: 1995.

This book is a classic in the field of oral history. Willa Baum provides a practical a practical step-by-step guide for gathering history from the people who have lived through it. The book explains how to start an oral history project, how to select the correct equipment, and how to interview people.

- Moyer, Judith. Step-by-Step Guide to Oral History (1993, Revised 1999), online (available at:

There are many useful resources oral history on the Internet. I found the Moeyr's website to be particularly practical. She provides detailed guidelines for conducting an oral history project, required paper work, and a comprehensive bibliography.

- Sitton, Thad, George Mehaffy, and O. L. Davis, Jr. Oral History: A Guide for Teachers (and Others). Austin: University of Austin Press: 1983.

This teacher guide offers specific information on how oral history can be integrated into school curriculum. The authors provide helpful guide for using oral history, offer ideas for projects, and ways to carry on an oral history project in a classroom.


This site provides a list of some of the best free digital storytelling tools for teachers.

- Oral History Association (

Useful site for general information regarding best practices for oral history.

- Dipity site:

This site creates interactive time lines using text, images, and video. It is easy to use and most appropriate for Family History Assignment.