Application of oral history to economics: Immigrant Economic Experiences

This page is authored by
Manijeh Sabi
Department of History & Society and School of Management
Author Profile
This material was originally created for Starting Point: Teaching Economics
and is replicated here as part of the SERC Pedagogic Service.

Initial Publication Date: October 12, 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 development concepts such as push and pull factors related to immigration decisions, job opportunities in the host country, and issues related to brain drain. In addition, students will be able to explore other relevant migration concerns such as assimilation and discrimination. The project develops a student's ability to understand and integrate these concepts from a variety of perspectives and real world situations.

In brief, students will interview local immigrants from less developed countries (LDCs) regarding their experiences in the process of resettlement. This activity is designed for an economic development course, but it can be easily adapted to other courses involved with immigration issues such as labor economics, international economics, and economies in transition.

Used this activity? Share your experiences and modifications

Learning Goals

At the end of this activity, students should be able to:

- Conduct oral history interviews and gather first-hand stories about immigrant experiences
- Transfer an oral interview to a written paper
- Understand how interviews and personal testimony can provide information on the economic experiences of immigrants
- Describe the types of work immigrants from LDCs are engaged in (skilled vs. unskilled)
- Relate immigrant experiences to push and pull factors in the process of relocation
- Determine local immigrants' common experiences regarding assimilation and discrimination
- Compare and contrast differences between the country of origin of local immigrants and the U.S. regarding: educational opportunities, jobs, gender roles, and living conditions

Context for Use

The assignment connects an oral history approach to the examination of economic concepts and is designed for an economic development course as a field exercise and experiential learning. It is designed for classes with 20 to 28 students and can be cross listed with history courses. The assignment entails students to interview local immigrants from LDCs regarding their experiences in the process of resettlement.
The project develops a student's ability to understand and integrate economic concepts from a variety of perspectives and the real world situation. This activity is designed for an economic development course, but it can be easily adapted to other courses involved with immigration issues such as labor economics, international economics, and economies in transition. The questions provided below are examples for an economic development course and would need to be adjusted for different courses.

From the beginning of the course, the instructors should prepare students for interviews by teaching about oral history techniques (see the description below) and discussing the immigration topics students need inquire. I believe one hour is sufficient for a discussion of oral history techniques and the importance of testimonies of the immigrants. After explanation of several relevant concepts such as brain drain, push and pull factors in the process of relocation, reasons for relocation, and the impact of immigrant workers on the local economics, students should be ready to proceed with their interviews. It takes about two hours 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 presentation. However, I notice that students are quite familiar with relevant technology applications. All students in my class had a laptop, tablet, IPad, IPod, or Android phone adequate for the purpose this assignment. I do not encourage videoing the interviews because many immigrants do not feel comfortable with this process.

Basic information regarding oral history:
Oral history as a form of pedagogy is not commonly used in economics. Current interviewing projects, such as Chicago Economics Oral History, are concentrated on famous and influential economists. But oral history's 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.
- Note that open-ended questions are most suitable for obtaining instructive personal narrative.
- End the interview at a reasonable time.

Description and Teaching Materials

Assignment description and procedures:

Brief procedures:
This assignment includes three steps. A few weeks into the course, students are divided into interviewing teams (usually of two persons each) and select assigned an interviewee to conduct an oral history interview. Drawing on the overall knowledge gained in the economic development course (or other related courses such as labor economics and economies in transition), each team will present to the class what they have learned from their respective interviews about the immigrant experiences and relation to topics covered in the course. Finally, each team will submit the recording and log (written transcript) of their interview, and a paper that summarizes the class reaction and discussion of the project.

Detailed guidelines for students

A. The interview process and tips
1)The first step is to identify an interviewee. There are several ways to find such individuals. For example, you can contact English as a Second Language classes, immigrant relief organizations, faculty members, etc. Your interviewee should be an immigrant from LDCs who came to the United States as an adult. Please inform the instructor if you are not able to find an immigrant who is willing to participate in this project.

2) Contact your interviewee to provide general information about the assignment and ask whether they would agree to participate. If yes, use this contact to get a little background on the interviewee and to begin building rapport and set up an interview time and place as soon as possible.

3) Make a list of questions you want to ask. Begin by asking his/her full name (ask for spelling), age, and occupation.

4) Consider the following questions, and add some of your own:
- Why did you come to the U.S.? (Both "push" and "pull" factors)
- What did you expect to find here?
- What has been your experience of migration (settling in the U.S., adjusting to a new culture and a new society)?
- What are some things you have been disappointed in?
- What do you remember about the country you emigrated from?
- What did you do when you first arrived in the U.S.?
- How did you come to live in this region (e.g. Troy, NY)?
- What difficulties did you come across when you first arrived? Later?
- Have you faced any discrimination?
- What differences have you noticed in regard to: living circumstances (housing, food, etc.), gender roles, education, jobs
- Have you given up any customs? Why?
- Do you have plans to return to your home country to visit or live?
- Overall reflections on her immigration experiences.

Ask follow-up questions: Why? Could you tell me more about that? How did that feel? What did you do then? etc.

5) When you meet, explain that the interview is a project for an economic class, you would like to ask her/him about her/his experiences as an immigrant. The information will be a resource for a class presentation, discussion, and paper. Also ask if you can reproduce the interview transcript online or in another published product such as online course management system (Moodle) for the purpose of research, as well as for future educational applications.

6) Tell her/him that the nature of the interview is to capture a recorded life history/oral history and it takes about 1-1/2 hours.

7) 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).

a. 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.

8) Conduct and record your interview. (Take the time to check that the recording equipment is working at the beginning of the interview).

9) Don't forget to thank your interviewee.

B. Transcript
The following link provides a step-by-step guideline for how to transcribe an oral history interview:

C. Presentations

Based on the overall knowledge gained in the course, your team will report on what you have learned from the interview about the immigrant experience in presentations to the class. You can decide on the presentation format. (Note: the instructor can structure the length and content of presentation as appropriate for the class/students).

After each presentation, the class will discuss their reactions. For example, discuss what elements of immigration do these interviews express, what you learned about immigration, what are the differences and similarities among the interviewees, what are the common challenges for immigrants, what are the common expectations of living in America, how have these stories have influenced their perceptions of immigrants, etc.

D. Paper
The teams will submit recordings of their interviews, logs of their interviews' contents, and release forms signed by their interviewees to the instructor by due date.
Based on the interview conducted and the other presentations, your team should write a narrative paper that should include an introduction to show some knowledge/understanding of the person's country of origin, an organized descriptive story of the interviewee experience, and a summary of the class discussion. Issues addressed could include the common challenges for immigrants, the common expectations of living in America, and how this project has influenced their perceptions of immigrants.

Teaching Notes and Tips

 This assignment is most suited for juniors and seniors. Students need to make arrangements to meet their interviewee in a location outside of the campus. It can be an intimating experience for freshmen or sophomores to contact a person from LDCs. Also, the project should be introduced with courses such as Economic Development, which is an intermediate level course.
 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.
 The instructor(s) should make sure that after the mid-term, students have contacted the interviewees and have made arrangements to meet. It is important that the instructor identify people who agreed to be interviewed in advance because some students may have difficulty approaching a foreign-born person. The instructors can contact local agencies serving immigrants and ask for referral. Actually, for the class I taught last year, about 50% of interviewees had existing contact with my college.

 The instructors should provide a list of LDCs and give several options for finding interviewees. Many students know foreign born people. However, for the purpose of this assignment, it is important that they select an immigrant from LDCs.

 Provide students with in-class research time to learn more about their interviewee's country. Also, have students to practice in the class by interviewing each other, discuss their reports, and test their equipment.

 There are many types of equipment for recording the interviews, however most students prefer to use their laptops or cell phones. Among different podcasting tools - such as (Audioboo (, Vacaroo (, Audacity (, and Garageband ( – I recommend Audacity because it is a free, easy-to-use and multilingual audio editor and recorder for Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux and other operating systems. With Audacity you can record sounds and edit audio files with support for recording audio through a microphone and from tapes, records, and mini-discs. It has easy edit functions include Cut, Copy, Paste, and Delete. It is portable and you can save the recording on a jumpdirve.
You can download from the following site:

The best way to teach Audacity is to have students watch the following YouTube tutorial on how to use Audacity and some of its basic features:
Except GarageBand, the other podcasting tools do not allow editing, which can be a problem for the purpose of this assignment. GarageBand is built into Mac, but it is not as portable as Audacity.

 Also, the instructor(s) should spend some time testing the recording devices for each team and make sure the Audacity software, or other programs, is loaded on laptops.


The assessment is based on the following: Preparation for interviews, presentation of interviews in the class including, and the quality of logs and the written paper. The following rubric can be used as well:

Assessment rubric (Acrobat (PDF) 27kB 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 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 Moyer 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 a helpful guide for using oral history, offer ideas for projects and ways to carry on an oral history project in a classroom.

Relevant Links:

- Audacity site:

Audacity is a free, easy-to-use and multilingual audio editor and recorder for Windows, Mac OS X, GNU/Linux and other operating systems. With Audacity you can record sounds and edit audio files with support for recording audio through a microphone and from tapes, records, and minidiscs. It has easy edit functions include Cut, Copy, Paste, and Delete. Other important features are:

o Import and export WAV, AIFF, MP3, and Ogg Vorbis files
o Built-in effects include echo, phaser, reverse, and truncate silence

You can download from the following site:

- Digital storytelling tools:

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

- Oral History Association (
This is a useful site for general information regarding best practices for oral history.

- How to Transcribe an Oral History Interview:

Transcribing an oral history interview is very important. This site provides step-by-step guide for recording an oral history interview or creating logs.