Reproductive futures in austerity: methodological reflections on the Oral Histories and Futures technique

Talking and thinking about the future can be tricky. The future is the next five minutes, it is also the next five months, and five decades. It is knotted together with the futures of other people, with places and politics, with pasts and presents. It includes needs, hopes and desires from the realistic to the fantastical. How do we find the right words, to get a sense of the scope and scale of the future, to talk about all of it in a meaningful way – especially when we really do not know what will happen? The future feels and is approached differently depending on a person’s past, on where they speak from in the present, and on the prospects they see ahead. Now consider the implications of long-term socio-economic inequalities and precarity, such as would result from ten years of austerity in the UK. What impact does this have on how people think, feel and talk about their futures?

These questions about how to think and talk about futures shaped the research I presented at the Centre for Reproduction Research in February, as part of a paper entitled ‘A pregnant pause? Oral histories and futures of reproduction and austerity’. Based on empirical work that I recently carried out as part of an ISRF Political Economy fellowship on Austerity and Social Reproduction, the phrase ‘pregnant pause’ refers to both the temporal elements of reproductive decision-making and to the particularities of talking methods. My aim with this project was to shed light on an oft-overlooked experience: that of people who have not had children (or not as many children as they wanted) due austerity and socio-economic conditions. The drop in birth rates in the context of austerity is a well-noted trend. However, most research to date tends to explore these dynamics at a macro scale, rather than personal-political scale.

To try and unpick the entanglements of reproduction, austerity and futures, I wanted to develop a methodology that would enable participants to communicate and share experiences in an empathetic space. This was significant, because they were revealing details about the most intimate aspects of their lives: their reproductive futures. I wanted to employ a method that would give participants space for reflection on their lives in the round, while also offering alternative ways of communicating. With this in mind, I developed a method that I call ‘Oral Histories and Futures’. Taking its inspiration from the strong traditions of oral history interviews, this technique relies on participants talking though their lived experience but gives the method a new twist. Oral history is a method for documenting people’s lives in retrospect. It is a form of interviewing to record and preserve often marginalised experiences, opinions and reflections on events. The Oral History Society has a fantastic set of resources for those interested in reading more.

My Oral Histories and Futures method builds upon oral history interviewing methods in five ways:

  1. They include specific questions about the future, where oral histories are typically (though not exclusively) focused on past events and experiences.
  2. In this project, I was interested in the experiences of people aged 18-45 who would have recently been making reproductive decisions in a time of austerity in the UK. Oral history interviews are most commonly undertaken with older generations.
  3. The discussions included participatory tasks, including writing postcards to futures selves, or they might involve storytelling or life mapping. I found this to be important, since talking about the future can often be difficult and feel abstract. These tasks enabled participants to focus their thoughts and express them in non-verbal ways.
  4. The interviews were aimed at documenting lived experiences of reproduction in the context of austerity – in other words, while the event or crisis was occurring – rather than in retrospect.
  5. Oral history interviews are most often carried out face-to-face, but due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, they were conducted online or on the telephone. This led to some interesting observations about how to communicate and encourage participants to speak, and made researching in a different part of the UK (in this case, the North East of England) logistically much simpler.

When combined, these adaptations meant that Oral Histories and Futures were a really useful technique in the project by which to detail and document reproductive lives. Reproduction is often a wide-ranging topic, connecting relational, financial, emotional, material, social and environmental issues, from personal decisions to national policy and changes across place and context. This method allowed participants to talk about their experiences in ways that were meaningful to them, embedded and emplaced in their past, present and prospective life-courses.

For example, one resounding finding that emerged was around the carrying of different possible reproductive futures in tandem. Experiences of participants often coalesced around dealing with the weight and effects of the future as a form of emotional labour. Participants spoke about a distinct labour in holding reproductive possibilities together, in conjunction, knowing full well that not all can be seen through. They were simultaneously regulating their own and others’ feelings about possible reproductive futures. These labours are often what drove them and their imaginative futures forwards. These possibilities were also tied to the security of housing, jobs, relationships and so on.

It is because of the rich findings the Oral Histories and Futures interviews elicited that I plan to extend their use into my current UKRI-funded research looking at the impacts of austerity on young people’s life-courses (especially in terms of employment, housing and reproduction) in three European contexts. The plan is also to train practitioners, policy-makers and project partners in using this creative tool. Likewise, I hope readers will consider using this technique in their research on reproductive lives.

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