What is Oral History?
‘Oral history is as old as the first recorded history and as new as the latest digital recorder.’ These are the first words of the ‘Oxford Handbook on Oral History’ which forecasts the transformation of this discipline throughout time. Following conversations with his contemporaries, in 431 BC, Thucydides famously recited the events of the Peloponnesian Wars. This oral transmission formed the basis of his epic work ‘The History of the Peloponnesian Wars.’
However, oral history only emerged as a sub-discipline in the 1960s, with the publication of Joe Gould’s article, ‘An Oral History of Our Time’. Gould interviewed a range of people, from park benches, to saloons. This was a departure from earlier forms of oral history, as it shifted the focus to the benefits of the interviewing process. And so, it laid the foundations for a discipline which would flourish in the second half of the twentieth century.
Oral history developed differently across the globe. Whereas early American oral history centred on interviewing elite members of society and powerful, government figures, the British oral history movement emerged with the growing social and women’s history movement. During the 1930s, the US readdressed its focus on the elites in their Federal Writers’ Project of the Works Progress Administration (WPA), interviewing former slaves. Oral history formed a significant part of ‘history from below’, giving voices to those who were traditionally marginalized. Books such as Ronald Blythe’s ‘Akenfield’, which relied solely upon interviews with those living in the East Anglian village, adopted a more personal and — to some extent — democratic perspective.
Yet some historians cast the growth of the discipline in a negative light. Polemicists such as Patrick O’Farrell were primarily concerned with the unreliable nature of memory. Older generations of historians were unsure of how they ought to react to such a fresh approach to history. How could historians trust people to tell the truth — whatever the ‘Truth’ may be? Nostalgia is a natural byproduct of studying the past, and indeed many critics believe nostalgia is detrimental to the value and truth of interviews. Is oral history as democratic as historians initially thought? To what extent are historians ‘tampering’ with their sources when posing questions to interviewees? These are all historiographical issues and questions that arose with the emergence of oral history in the twentieth century.
Oral historians have argued that oral history’s greatest weakness is, paradoxically, its greatest strength. Individuals may provide a nostalgic account, for example, of their WWII experiences — but that, in itself, is an area worthy of study: why do we remember certain events in certain ways? These questions are vital to our understanding and use of oral history. For example, what do we learn when a collective body of people remember the incorrect timing of a historical event? Portelli’s famous example of Italian steelworkers highlights how individuals as a community remembered things differently from what actually occurred. In 1949, Steel workers remembered the death of a fellow worker, Luigi Trastuilli, as taking place as part of walkouts after the dismissal of over 2000 workers. In reality, Trastuilli died when in confrontation with police over the signing of a Nato Treaty. Further, oral historians use the human element of the interviewing process to their advantage. As Paul Thompson famously stated, this allows historians to ‘imagine what evidence is needed, seek it out and capture it.’
This piece has provided a very brief whistle stop tour of what is now a firmly entrenched sub-discipline of historical studies, which in turn is now multidisciplinary in nature. Books such as ‘The Oxford Handbook of Oral History’, ‘Voices of the Past’ and the ‘Oral History Reader’ are key to our exploration of complex theories behind oral history. These works also examine the methodology and the equally important ethical issues that arise from this process, which Simon Coll explores in his article on The Belfast Project. Oral history is an accessible and inclusive discipline for both emerging and established scholars. This is no doubt one of its biggest advantages, in that it encourages collaboration and communication between disciplines, who are all adding their piece to the big puzzle of History.
For More Information…
- Oral History Society
- Oral History Association
- The Making of Oral History
- Step by step guide to Oral History