The collection details issues in the theory and practice of oral history and covers influential debates in its development over the past sixty years. New chapters include: interview methods and the oral history relationship the use of testimony in truth and reconciliation politics memory and interpretation the digital revolution and new technologies for the creation, use and dissemination of oral history community oral history projects memory and history. The Oral History Reader is an essential tool for all students of modern history, memory studies, sociology, anthropology, media studies, cultural and heritage studies, gerontology and archives, library and information studies.
Other books in this series. Add to basket. The Witchcraft Reader Darren Oldridge. The Terrorism Reader David J. The Fascism Reader Aristotle A. The Enlightenment Paul Hyland. The Postmodernism Reader Michael Drolet. The Decolonization Reader James D. Table of contents Introduction to second edition.
Part 1: Critical developments. Black history, oral history and genealogy Alex Haley 2. The voice of the past: oral history Paul Thompson 3. What makes oral history different Alessandro Portelli 4. Popular memory: theory, politics, method Popular Memory Group 5. Reflections on women's oral history: an exchange Susan H. Armitage and Sherna Berger Gluck 7.
Oral history and the digital revolution: toward a post-documentary sensibility Michael Frisch Part 2: Interviewing. Interviewing an interviewer Studs Terkel with Tony Parker Learning to listen: interview techniques and analyses Kathryn Anderson and Dana C. Jack Interviewing the women of Phokeng: consciousness and gender, insider and outsider Belinda Bozzoli Issues in cross-cultural interviewing: Japanese women in England Susan K.
Burton Family myths, memories and interviewing Ruth Finnegan Life history interviews with people with learning disabilities Jan Walmsley Navigating life review interviews with survivors of trauma Mark Klempner Part 3: Interpreting memories.
Remembering a vietnam war firefight: changing perspectives over time Fred Allison Surviving memory: truth and inaccuracy in holocaust testimony Mark Roseman Anzac memories: putting popular memory theory into practice in Australia Alistair Thomson Structure and validity in oral evidence Trevor Lummis Old images; new f Oral history has changed its focus since the s.
It is still an important method of recovering neglected histories, but whereas once oral historians aspired to collect objective data from eye witnesses, practitioners now increasingly regard the methodology as an autobiographical practice centred on the subjectivity of the narrator. As the representative sample loosened its grip, the need to understand how subjectivity is constituted in an interview became more urgent.
Oral history demanded revision of the historical agenda in the s; the changes in its orientation challenge how history itself is conceptualized. This article explores some of the implications of the shift, drawing on two projects on Britain in the Second World War for illustration.
They were preoccupied with the accuracy of the information that interviewees provided and the reliability of memory. The shift that has occurred over the decades is towards greater interest in the narratives people compose about the past and the ways in which memory is socially, culturally and psychically constructed. Oral history today is less a quest for objective eye-witness accounts in which the narrator provides the historian with data for interpretation, and more a means to engage with experience, subjectivity, and historical imagination. These days, while interest in an expanding range of such topics has flourished, oral history has become more methodologically reflexive.
Questions now include such issues as how interviewees construct themselves through narratives that arise in dialogue with an interviewer, and how personal experience and public histories interact in the production of memory stories. Oral history is widely regarded as an autobiographical practice rather than a social survey technique.
Research archive — University of Leicester
Grele One approach did not displace the other; one was not wrong and the other right; they coexist alongside other approaches that have longer roots, such as the use of oral history for the collection of folklore. The argument is that the practice of oral history has pushed against the constraints imposed by the social science tradition from which it emerged. Understanding subjectivity rather than seeking objectivity has become important, and with it a need to address the interrelationship of culture and memory, in particular the ways in which personal and public accounts of the past feed off each other.
Attention to the process of subjective narration has enhanced awareness that narrators undertake a life review when recalling a personal past, and that the narratives they compose may or may not be conducive to personal, psychic composure. The form that a narrative takes contributes to the meanings communicated by the narrator.
So, too, does the subject position the narrator allocates to her- or himself. Illustrations are drawn from oral history projects on aspects of the Second World War with which I have been involved. As the founding father of British oral history, Paul Thompson, has written, the main influence was the new social history movement, which challenged the focus of mainstream history on political elites and economic trends.
Thompson 1 The oral history movement demanded a reorientation of history, ending the neglect of the ordinary person by insisting that if records did not exist they would have to be created with the help of the new technology of the portable tape recorder. This approach was enthusiastically taken up by historians of social and political movements, by feminist historians, and by historians of members of ethnic minorities.
The radical intention was to give a voice to the voiceless, to raise consciousness, and to empower those for whom there was now a place in written history. Criticisms included the accusation that oral history was unreliable because of the fallibility of memory, and that it was invalid because the people interviewed were not representative of the wider population. On the first of these, the distinguished radical historian Eric Hobsbawm decried oral history on the grounds that memory could not be a reliable medium for historical research.
Hobsbawm Defenders of oral history responded that all memory is not unreliable all the time. Thus Trevor Lummis argued that while short-term memory declines with age, so that it becomes difficult to remember what happened yesterday, long-term memory often improves. Lummis Chapter 11 Paul Thompson added that the reliability of memory varies with the types of things remembered: specific dates and public events are often hard to remember; often-repeated routines and incidents of personal importance are recalled even at a vast distance in time.
Thompson In any case, argued the early defenders of oral history, oral sources do not have a monopoly of such problems; written sources bear the scars of partiality, inaccuracy, special pleading, and, frequently, physical disintegration. In the s, oral historians such as Paul Thompson, who undertook a large-scale project on Edwardian working lives, and Elizabeth Roberts, who researched the lives of working-class women in Lancashire from the s to s, strove for representativeness.
However well-intentioned, such endeavours faced major difficulties, relating to the sample and the questionnaire. It is not possible to obtain a statistically representative sample of any population in the past. If one wanted to interview a representative sample of the workers at a particular factory in , for example, one would be confronted firstly by the complications of collecting data on the social profile of all the workers at that time, and then by the difficulties of tracing those who fitted the sampling criteria, many of whom would have moved or changed their names, and by the demographic problem of differential survival rates since This is linked to the other major problem, the questionnaire.
Oral history is dialogic: it is the product of a dialogue between the interviewer and interviewee, a conversation in which the oral historian encourages the interviewee to compose memory stories about themselves in the past. The structured interview based on a standard questionnaire is not appropriate for the oral history interview. Even though oral historians typically take a schedule of questions to an interview, they ask follow-up questions and prompt their interviewees to elaborate and explain what they mean.
Different interviewees understand the same questions in different ways and the answers vary in length, complexity and ambiguity, meaning that the responses are not directly comparable.
The interest of the interviewer in a particular subject, about which they know something and want to find out more, is constantly modified by the preoccupations of the interviewee with aspects of the past that are unknown to the interviewer. The dialogue can facilitate discoveries on both sides. Interviewees often remember things that surprise their interviewers, and sometimes surprise themselves.
Oral historians test the validity of such evidence less to cast doubt on whether their respondents are telling the truth, than to find out whether this is an opportunity to revise the historical record. This is done by seeking alternative sources, either similar, such as other oral interviewees, or different, such as documentary evidence, to corroborate testimonies. Putting questions derived from oral history to other primary sources frequently brings to light evidence that has been overlooked or distrusted because it was unexpected.
The Home Guard was a volunteer, part-time, military force, recruited in the summer of to defend Britain against the threat of invasion and form the basis of resistance in the event of occupation. Members of the Home Guard worked at their usual civilian jobs during the day, and trained and went on military manoeuvres in the evenings and at weekends.
Since the Second World War it has been widely assumed that Home Guards were all men, an assumption underpinned by an official wartime ban on women joining the force. Weapons and ammunition in the charge of the Army or of Home Guards must not be used for the instruction of women. Summerfield and Peniston-Bird Oral history as recovery history is valuable and important not only for giving a voice to the voiceless, but also for challenging historical knowledge.
The telling of experience is, according to post-structural theorists Joan W Scott and Judith Butler, the means by which subjects constitute themselves. Scott ; Butler Subjectivity is constructed through the language of the interchange in an oral history interview. Recognising that oral history is about subjectivity demands attention to at least two further issues: the relationship of culture to memory and the dynamics of the interview.
Scholars argue that memory interacts with subsequent experience, and with ideological and cultural representations of both the present and the past, so that accounts of the past are never pure recall of life as it was. Further, as Joan W. Scott has pointed out, accounts of experience cannot give direct access to social reality, because it is impossible to remember outside the language and discourses in which we make sense of our lives.
Scott In oral histories of British experience in the Second World War, this is often expressed through comparisons between the supposed unselfish community spirit of wartime and the greedy individualism of the present. Several of the men interviewed for the home defence project put this clearly. So that if I do think about the Home Guard I think of that feeling I had about, you know, all pulling together, all working together. Johnson , Both are possibilities, but both take the focus away from the original mission of oral history, to claim a place for the ordinary individual in history.
The mediation is as much a part of the history under scrutiny as the memory. The versions of the past communicated through family traditions and community cultures, as well as through education, religion, politics, and a wide variety of public media, influence the ways in which individuals remember and interpret their personal histories. They are historical phenomena, which the historian can study, not only as such, but also in their inter-relation with memory and recall. The Italian oral historians Luisa Passerini and Alessandro Portelli stress the interaction of ideology and collective memory within personal accounts.
Her conclusion was that her interviewees had unconsciously buried the years between, when their agency was undermined and their lives were compromised by the dominant fascist ideology, which had been all but expunged from collective memory. Thus members of the Home Guard, including those who spoke nostalgically of national unity and emphasized the togetherness of the Home Guard, also referred in the course of lengthy interviews to contradictory experiences of status, class and gender tensions in wartime: between office clerks and manual workers; between men from different regions; between town- and country-dwellers; between husbands and wives; and over the appointment of wealthy locals as Home Guard officers regardless of their competence.
Individuals narrating their own accounts subsequently use elements of this generalised form in recalling their personal part in that war, and indeed find it difficult to speak outside it. It satirized the incompetence of the part-time volunteer soldiers of the force while affectionately depicting the earnestness of the majority as well as the bolshiness and insouciance of the few.
Perry and his collaborator David Croft selected and embroidered what they hoped were the funniest stories, crafting them into the format of a half-hour sitcom. See Summerfield and Peniston-Bird The success of the series, broadcast in eighty episodes from to , with numerous repeats to this day, gives it considerable purchase on the popular imagination. All sorts of people involved in it, you know.
The opportunist and the patriotic. She added some reflections on how the show might have been improved, as a comedy. This typically involves three features: looking back questioningly to evaluate a life as it was lived; comparisons of the self with other individuals or of the younger with the older self; and the search for self-affirmation.
Mason, R. May, J.