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Qualitative research, biographic methods and oral history in the context of health

Manuel Amezcua
Laboratorio de Investigación Cualitativa en Salud, Fundación Index, Granada, España

Mailing Adress: Apartado de correos núm. 734, 18080 Granada, España 

Manuscrito accepted by 24.05.2004

Archivos de la Memoria 2004; 1








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Amezcua M. Qualitative research, biographic methods and oral history in the context of health. Arch Memoria 2004; 1. Disponible en <https://www.index-f.com/memoria/anuario1/e0409.php> Consulted









The 21st of January of 1999, the I Meeting of Qualitative Research in Health takes place in Granada under the auspices of the Fundación Index. A new work line which has produced results as substantial as these Archives of Memory was formally opened with this event. The same day, the Laboratory of Qualitative Research LQR was presented as a project intending to create an alternative space for a certain forum defined as critical with the traditional model of biomedical research. This group was ready to develop a new, alternative and at the same time complementary model (Amezcua, 2000). Five years later, and in spite of the epidemic of scepticism suffered by the biomedical research community regarding everything related to the qualitative methodologies, we can refer to an incipient trajectory. Some signs of it are: five scientific meetings, a semi-presential course that has consolidated an international renown, the start of several qualitative batches of documents, or various monographs published in the magazine Index of Nursery which are the result of the dialogue between anthropology and nursery. It is remarkable that this dialogue was institutionalized last year during the V meeting of Zaragoza with the first convention of anthropologist nurses. As it was expectable being born in our country, we must add to the impact of our initiative an immediate -almost born by spontaneous generation- arousal or similar initiatives that, being supported by the governmental stamp, impose the creation of an opulent net of health qualitative researchers. This is the intelligent way to get above others, appropriating their trajectory and avoiding the thorny task of cooperating.

The Archives of Memory, presented now in a digital format, are a batch of documents produced by the Laboratory of Qualitative Research that contain stories of lives and biographical accounts, with which the recovery of the historical memory about the cares and nursery is intended. Biographical materials that represent the subjective side of the process health-illness are obtained through the oral history (Pujadas Muñoz, 1992). By means of this, we do nothing but moving to the context of health the old tradition of using the oral testimonies. This tradition probably was at its height in the middle of the last century with the French School of Annals, the British Marxist historiography or the new North American economical history (De Garay 1995). In our case we turn to the memory and to the narration of the experiences lived, in order to get closer to more concrete and quotidian dimensions of the process health-illness; in order to get close to those dimensions that are not collected in official documents (sanitary statistics, clinical history, standardized registers, etc.).

The Archives of Memory, as a batch of documents, start to develop in 2000 from half a hundred documents that had been collected in several researches which used the biographical method. They also counted on other texts that were arising as results of the semi-presential courses on qualitative research strongly oriented towards phenomenology.  Their existence came to help to solve some dilemmas that were appearing since we insisted in promoting this research approach. As an example of those dilemmas we can pose the following question: What should be done with the raw materials generated during the investigation process? Qualitative materials can not be treated like those obtained from the administration of tests, scales, and anonymous surveys, that are normally destroyed after a prudential storage time. When working of transcriptions of in depth interviews, there is no place for anonymity. On the other hand, those documents contain complete discourses of persons who are their true owners; the researcher is no one but its depositary and therefore once the research is concluded he has to consciously decide what to do with them. Other element for reflection is the fact that the importance of those stories surpasses the interest of the research for which they were produced. The stories of the persons have value for their own, and this means that they are susceptible of being analyzed timelessly. It could even be said that their value increases with time, ending up as material of a big historical value.

We are aware of the existence of some centres dedicated to the storage and custody of qualitative materials (Leh 2000), with quite different orientations among them. In our case, the worry was to go beyond the model of armour-plated opaque warehouse, to favour a batch of documents open to the scientific community, without more access limitations than those imposed by their rightful owners. In order to achieve this and following the Foundation Index's policy of universalizing the knowledge, a specific web area has been created where those valuable documents can be stored and retrieved. In this way, the Archives of Memory will be officially introduced the next month of June in the VI Meeting of Qualitative Research that will take place in Alicante. They will be presented as a virtual batch were already included materials, and some others that appear progressively, will go on publishing with different formats (biographical accounts, autobiographies, diaries, interviews, visual and audiovisual materials). We use the term "publishing" because we intend to give those documents completely stored in the virtual batch the category of digital publications. This is the most effective way to protect their intellectual property and avoid an eventual use by third ones ignoring the ethical and legal requirements that protect those documents (Leh 2000). Due to all this, and without loosing their nature of batch of documents, the Archives of Memory are grouped as yearbooks with their correspondent documental register. The innovation is that the materials are incorporated gradually, and this makes them be available since the moment when they are accepted. For the rest, the publishing follows the process of scientific magazines:  the documents pass a pair's revision.  

The Archives of Memory, in their digital edition, are grouped in several sections: 

Memory of Nursery. It gathers the oral testimony of persons who have been leading actors in processes of change related to health and health systems, or persons participating in events of historical relevance (wars, political changes, etc) whose accounts are essential to rebuild history from its leading actors' point of view. 

Memory of Care. It collects people's testimonies about their experience in the process health-illness. Those accounts are essential for knowing the meaning of health and illness related to culture, as well as for the retrieval of the diversity of viewpoints non dependent on the power positions. In this sense, it also includes the testimony of persons who have knowledge about health and care not coming from academic sources, but from their own culture.  

Autobiographical documents. Diaries, letters, pictures and other personal documents with a big historical value are stored in a commented or facsimile edition.  

Miscellany. This section is reserved for contributions of interest for the oral history regardless the fact they are centred or not in aspects related to health. 

Theoretical and methodological documents. They are auxiliary texts for a better comprehension of the biographical method and the oral history. In the first issue we inserted, as an example and with the intention of offering an orientation for our collaborators, an article about how to elaborate a biographical narration. 

Store for Qualitative Materials. It is an archive where researchers can put the raw materials that arise during the investigation in order to warranty their preservation and accessibility in certain conditions previously fixed.  

In all those sections, apart from the documents gathered in the batch, links to other texts from different magazines included in the digital newspaper library Cantártida have been added with the purpose of easing the access to the production of researchers related to LQR and other connected topics.  

The experience of shaping the Archives of Memory comes to consolidate one of the epistemological directions that the LQR adopted when it was created: the interpretative phenomenology also called Heidegger's hermeneutic. Its aim is to understand the skills, practices, and quotidian experiences, and to articulate the similarities and differences in the meaning, the compromises, practices, skills and experiences of the human beings (Castillo, 2000). The life of a person is a door that is open towards the comprehension of the society in which he lives (De Garay 1995). A society as complex as ours can not be understood without knowing the diversity of speeches that compose it, including the speeches isolated, separated and silenced by hegemonic systems of thought. An example of those can be the system of though supporting that oral history is not scientific enough because it is subjective, because it is individualist, fragile and changing, as it leans on the memory that is constantly revaluating. As an alternative we have in front of us the exciting challenge of learning to "read" the people's experience, because their memory preserves the keys to understand the multiple dimensions about health and illness that are invisible outside it.  

The testimonies included in this batch of documents, in case they were seriously analyzed by the scientific community in general and by the managers of the health organizations in particular, would force to take revolutionary decisions concerning science and health systems. They do not have to worry as this will not happen because the "biologicalization" of the hegemonic science provides ones and others with a functional deafness that, among others, has the consequence of silencing the other voices that speak about health and its cares: the voices of the leading actors themselves. Despite everything some of us will go on convinced that words and speeches like those stored in the Archives of Memory will achieve the longed for democratization of our health systems and health sciences in general. Hope is the last thing ever lost.


     Amezcua M (2000). El Laboratorio de Investigación Cualitativa en Salud lic, un grupo para la humanización de los cuidados. Index de Enfermería, IX(28-29):41-44.
     Castillo Espitia E (2000). La Fenomenología Interpretativa como alternativa apropiada para estudiar los fenómenos humanos. Investigación y Educación en Enfermería, XVIII(1):27-35.
     De Garay G (1995). Las fuentes orales. Reflexiones sobre el oficio del historiador. México, UNAM (Instituto de Investigaciones Históricas / Serie Divulgación 2).
     Leh A (2000). La entrevista de historia oral como material de archivo "Memoria alemana". Forum Qualitative Social Research, 1 (3). Disponible en: https://qualitativeresearch.net/fqs/fqs-eng.htm [Fecha de Acceso: 6-05-2004].
     Pujadas Muñoz JJ (1992). El método biográfico: el uso de las historias de vida en ciencias sociales. Centro de Investigaciones Sociológicas, Cuadernos metodológicos, 5.





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