Seeing the Whole Picture
by Yvonne Palmer
Americans in Their Own Words:
When I was first asked by Holly Swyers to assist with the project that would become Beyond the Political Divide, I was enthusiastic even though we had no idea what we would do next. Holly described to me the intention she had in mind. She explained how she wanted people to connect with each other based on life stories and not based on their political views. I grew up not paying much attention to politics because I noticed there was a constant debate on who was right and who was wrong. I did not want to get involved in that conflict. However, I become amazed when I listened to what people had to say about their lives and what they had gone through. With this in mind, I realized this project was a great opportunity for Holly and me to get people to stop judging each other based on their political affiliation, at least for a second.
My research for the project started by collecting information on how to get oral histories free of politics after asking people to share their political affiliation. In my research, I found The Active Interview by Holstein and Gubrium, which proved to be the source we used to guide us through this project. Holstein and Gubrium describe the importance of asking people about their background related to the research topic (77). Such questions make people more likely to share valuable information. However, asking people about their lives and what they have gone through might take a long time. To resolve this, the book suggests having people imagine writing about their life (40). When I read this idea, I knew it was a good one to share with Holly.
If you were asked to write about your life, you would only share the events that are important to you. That was the idea. Holly and I wanted people to share interesting stories that mattered to them and that described themselves. After identifying how to get people to tell their life stories without talking about politics, we proceeded to defining the different political affiliations and building the interview protocol.
Defining the political affiliations was a challenging task for me because I do not pay great attention to politics. I could not define each affiliation myself. When searching the Internet and scholarly sources for definitions, I found myself reading very educational terms or explanations that were difficult to understand. After hours of research, we came up with the nine political affiliations we were going to use for this project. We decided to describe the affiliations in one sentence and giving an example of an action or belief that someone with that affiliation would identify with.
Another interesting aspect in the process was writing the protocol. Holly and I reviewed it multiple times until we felt that we had the questions that would attract people to participate and give crucial information. I tested the protocol with a friend to determine if something had to be modified. When we had our final protocol, we realized that those many hours of research and work were going to provide stories worth sharing. We started asking people from our social circle to participate and proceeded with snowball sampling.
When we were obtaining the interviews, I started to get amazed by the interesting stories we were getting. While transcribing and editing, I knew we had stories that would make a great book. When you read each of the chapters, you will most likely find yourself in one of at least three situations (or even more!). You might identify with the interviewee. You might never guess the interviewee identifies with a certain political affiliation based on the story they shared. Or you might never imagine someone went through what they went through. I am sure of this because both Holly and I found ourselves reacting in these ways every time we collected a story.
Working on this book was an interesting and enjoyable experience to me because I not only had the opportunity to gather people’s life stories, but because I also had the chance to demonstrate that it is possible to connect with other people regardless of a political view. I hope that by reading this book, you enjoy what people had to say about themselves and their lives and that you see why politics should not be the main avenue of how we associate and interact with others.