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Margaret O’Mara | Writing the History of the Present: Qualitative Methodology in The Code

July 19, 2019

Margaret O’Mara is the Howard & Frances Keller Endowed Professor of History at the University of Washington. She obtained her Ph.D. in History from the University of Pennsylvania and has worked in the federal government, including as a domestic policy analyst in the White House under the Clinton administration. Her expertise includes the history of the technology industry, the American economy and politics, and the connections between the two. Dr. O’Mara discussed the research process and methodology used in her recently published book, The Code: Silicon Valley and the Remaking of America.

Qualitative Methodology: A Historian’s Perspective

As an economic historian, Dr. O’Mara started her talk with introducing the methodology that historians typically use and how it differs from other approaches. Historians primarily use narrative and textual sources and the distinct approach is focusing on finding small data relevant to big data. Historians are more interested in particular times and sets of contingencies which create certain phenomena. Therefore, historians do not try to find the grand theory and do not presume there is any grand theory. In her book, Dr. O’Mara used qualitative methodology – namely archival records both in the public and private domain, previously recorded oral histories, and her own interviews – to answer the questions of how Silicon Valley was built. One of the difficult parts of the project was inaccessibility to the corporate sources. Companies with a long historical record do have archives, but these were narrow in scope and perspective. Modern companies tend not to keep archives on the same scale. Also, all corporate records are hard for researchers to access. Dr. O’Mara turned to previously compiled oral histories and began training herself in oral history methodology to fill the gaps left by the archives.

Filling the Silence: Using Oral and Visual Sources

It was impossible for Dr. O’Mara to conduct interviews with people who were involved in establishing Silicon Valley such as Fred Terman. He made Stanford University a hub of innovation and cultivated the cluster of advanced electronic industry in the 1960s. This is why collecting interview data conducted by oral historians in the past was extremely helpful for the project. However, the problematic part of oral history is that each person has his or her own narrative of certain events and we all have a faulty memory. Hence, Dr. O’Mara tried to use the oral history data with that context in mind, scrutinizing the interview’s authorship, audience, and any constraints in available information. The other qualitative methodology was using visual sources. By dissecting visual sources, Dr. O’Mara was able to fill the silence in the archive documents. For example, when she showed the photo of sophisticated electronic hardware and semiconductor firm starting to grow up in the 1950-the 60s in Silicon Valley, she discovered many meaningful aspects such as gender ratio, power dynamics, and means of production in the photo.

Connecting Stories and Finding the Bigger Pattern

Dr. O’Mara also explained how she made her archive more than just stories of the government, individuals, and corporations by actively making connections among them. Historical sources are products of a particular moment but connecting them together brings synergy and helps to find the interesting bigger picture. In her book, she explained the advent of Silicon Valley in the diverse historical context and tried to connect various elements. For instance, the deployment of federal resources to the university made the generation of baby boomers who were in college in the late 1960s get exposed to computers for the first time. This led to the rise of the personal computer movement starting from the 1970s. Also, the culture of hackers, hippies, and anti-Vietnam War sentiments, as well as the threat to American businesses by a rising Japan, made the environment that gave rise to entrepreneurial heroes in Silicon Valley like Steve Jobs.

At the end of the talk, Dr. O’Mara pointed out that her project represents unconventional work in the history field because it deals with a relatively contemporary story and the book targets a wider audience.  But she recommended that graduate student focus their studies more on the historical phenomena for professional reasons. Lastly, she emphasized the importance of looking into the human factor in history and finding general patterns from its particularities.