Oral History Research Paper

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Oral historians include amateurs, professionals, students, family members interested in genealogy, historical association staff members, and detectives. Not all oral historians are historians—they may be anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists, medical researchers, or journalists. Some scholars, seeking to restore a human touch research subjects, have presented recorded verbal evidence as alternatives to the dehumanizing effects of data collection in survey research. Since the late nineteenth century, scholars have interviewed persons from all walks of life and analyzed their findings. When recorded wisely, and with sensitivity, oral history testimony offers the historian a richness of detail not available from any other source, and is therefore invaluable as a research tool. Oral history is a modern resource used to create documents that help us understand the past and that are stored in forms that future scholars can use in their own research. Today the techniques of oral history rely on the availability of modern technology, principally recording devices and the computer. Oral history permits scholars to capture the experiences of persons willing to speak about themselves. This is living history, and, although it comments on the past, it is rooted in the present.



1. Origins And Development Of Oral History

Personal testimony always has been considered an integral part of the historical record. Oral history is even older than recorded history. Many African tribes employed griots, trained historian–story tellers who remembered the history of their community. Others used drummers and drum language (praise poems); musicians drummed the history of the state during official ceremonies and celebrations. When they grew old, they trained younger men to take their place. The position of chief drummer was hereditary, passed on to sons.

Ancient historians often incorporated tales and legends out of the oral tradition into their writing. The first written primary sources may well have been oral testimony recorded on paper or written down from recollections. Christianity evolved a collective memory of the life of Jesus in part by imposing European notions of the Holy Land on the existing template of Jewish holy places. Over time, however, historians came to trust written documentation more, considering it more ‘objective.’ The advent of the printing press gave written words more legitimacy because printed text was so precise, and seemed permanent. Nineteenth-century scientists relied on published professional journals to communicate discoveries and to attest scientific proofs.

Out of all of this came the modern attitude that ‘nothing has value unless it is written down.’ Transcriptions of oral sources, of course, were rare, although some have survived. Ancient Egyptian scribes kept detailed written records of political ad- ministration, a tradition maintained in Christendom through the Middle Ages by monastic copyists and in Judaism by Talmudic commentators. The Inquisition kept its own transcriptions, as did tribunals assessing forms of heresy from Salem to the noxious anticommunist US Senate hearings headed by Senator Joseph McCarthy. Verbatim recording of conversations and arguments go back at least as early as the mid-seventeenth century Putney Debates in England, when soldiers and commoners were permitted to discuss publicly issues that never usually came near the surface of society.

The invention of recording devices produced revolutionary changes in oral history. Interviewers using recorders captured phrasing and stress in a person’s voice. Listeners could speculate about whether an interviewee was nervously trying to mislead the inter- viewer. Centuries later, with the invention of the wire recorder in the 1930s, came the first scholarly efforts to interview people and collect memoirs in recorded fashion. Some police officials used wire recorders as early forms of lie-detector devices, in the same unscientific way as law enforcement officials in earlier decades had turned to phrenology (mapping of skull structure). These primitive devices eventually gave way to tape recorders, which made sound reproduction much more lifelike. More important, the appearance of hand-held recorders made it possible to leave the recording studio and seek interviews onsite.

In 1948, the first major oral history research office opened under the direction of Professor Allan Nevins at Columbia University. One of the reasons for Nevins’ interest was the impact on American society of World War II, a conflict so traumatic that it created a sharp dividing line between pre-and postwar days. Radio played a major role in transmitting information during and after the War, and interviews had become an important part of news programming and, to some extent, of newsreels. Even before the War, journalism, especially in the form of such national news magazines as Time and Life, helped popularize interviewing. Sometimes interviews were combined with extensive use of photographs. Lack of access to transcripts, however, made it impossible to know to what extent judicious (or malicious) editing may have altered the intent or meaning of interview material. Not until oral history projects developed the means to transcribe interviews and make them available to researchers could it be said that interviews became the basis for serious scholarship.

At the end world War II in 1945, several American government agencies set out to write detailed histories of the war and of the home front. Some projects broadened this effort to include civilian leaders, especially the men who played important political roles during the New Deal in the 1930s. Many programs in the early days of television also used inter-views to elicit opinions and newsworthy material for public dissemination. Interviewing by scholars fell into two major areas: folklore research, and projects carried out by archivists and historians to assemble historical documentation from statements and comments by persons involved in historical events.

Institutional oral history projects initiated in the 1950s and 1960s on university campuses and in government agencies followed the Columbia model, concentrating on people who had played key roles in historical events. This was, as the Columbia University Center’s directors acknowledge today, ‘a top-down history … elitist to the core.’ As a result, those asked to provide oral memoirs—some life histories involving dozens of hours of taping—were overwhelmingly white males who had held positions of importance in government and in society. It was taken for granted that the ideal interviewer was someone with as little involvement in the world of the interviewee as possible. This set off oral history as a distinctive kind of fieldwork, subject to ‘scientific’ rules, and reassured those who felt that interviewing was too emotional a venture to produce objective results. The emphasis clearly was on collection development, not public use. This approach was hardened to some degree by the fact that the Oral History Association (founded in 1966) at first tended to be dominated by archivists and institutional historians who saw the purposes of their craft in a very traditional manner.

Scholars such as Wula K. Baum, Paul Buhle, Michael Frisch, Sherna Gluck, and Daphne Patai led the way in popularizing and charting the path in North American universities for the use of oral sources for the construction of the African past. This approach gained influence when scholars realized the inadequacy of written sources, for the most part for the period up to the era of European colonialism in Africa. In the 1970s, according to the Oral History Association, ‘the volume of oral history began to reach floodgate proportions.’ New approaches emerged, often at odds with the traditional model. Debates over methodology flourished. Some leading historians registered their disapproval of using oral sources in reconstructing the past. ‘Old men drooling about their youth? No!’ angry A. J. P. Taylor reputedly said. Other conservatives registered skepticism about the ‘activist’ thrust of the new oral history. Although communities constantly retell their own stories, ‘ordinary’ people, after all, still appear only in fleeting glimpses in records compiled by others for their own reasons. The new generation of community and social historians that took up oral history after the 1960s in many cases chose the interview process not only to gather information but also to raise consciousness among the persons selected to be interviewed. It was acknowledged that even people considered relatively obscure create their own history, and they do so within their own conceptions of its value and use in the culture. Some of the newer recruits to oral history emphasized the fact that oral history helps people see their own place in history, giving them a sense of self-worth, and therefore performing a dual function: historical research and consciousness raising. Oral history has flourished in continental Europe, tending to concentrate on amassing extensive collections of testimony and then analyzing them in the larger historical context. Alessandro Portelli has published path-breaking studies not only providing substance but also raising methodological issues. His The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories (1991) has become a classic in the field. Lutz Niethammer, Professor of German history at the Friedrich-Schiller University of Jena in 1989, published a monumental three-volume study Lebensgeschichte und Sozialstruktur im Ruhrgebeit, 1930–60, concentrating on the impact of Word War II and the immediate postwar period on the lives of ordinary residents of the Ruhr. French oral historians have produced major studies, including the 1976 Grande Industrie et Migration Provinciale a Paris au debut du XXeme siecle (1910–30). Trajets Sociaux et Modes de Vie des Migrants: une Enquete d’Histoire Orale (en collaboration avec I. Bertaux-Wiame) In Italy, Piero Caleffi published Un Mondo Fuori dal Mondo. Indagine Doxa fra i Reduci dai Campi Nazisti, a book based on the anguished testimonies of 317 Italian former deportees into Nazi death camps. A Croatian immigrant to Canada has launched a ‘Slavonic Oral History’ web site offering online testimonies.

2. Basic Issues In Oral History

Perhaps as a result of the tension between the old and new approaches, practitioners began to examine the techniques employed in oral history research. Arguments surfaced over the extent to which interviews could yield ‘objective’ information about the past, about the relationship between interviewee and interviewer, questions of manipulation (by persons on either side of the microphone), and the impact of bias, hindsight, age differences, and memory, as well as other issues combined under what specialists called ‘reflexivity.’ The bottom-up group tended to select populist topics—strikes, workers’ movements, the plight of minorities, and ‘outsiders’ in society, and allied themselves in spirit with such projects as the Federal Writers Project of the 1930s and the popular histories by the writer Studs Terkel in Chicago, all addressed at giving voice to ordinary people from the lower classes.

One of the reasons why debate over methodology and validity in oral history has become heated is the fact that people feel it is more difficult to interpret spoken statements than to analyze written accounts. There are also other considerations. Unlike traditional museum collecting, for example, where artifacts from exotic civilizations arbitrarily dubbed ‘primitive’ by the collecting society were purchased (or stolen outright), oral historians, concerned with the wishes of their collaborators, knew that they needed to take steps to assure that interviewees understood to what uses their depositions would be put. Oral historians must be highly sensitive to their subject’s rights. Some argue that in oral history there must be a prearranged formula for determining what will be kept in the record and under what conditions statements and comments by interviewees may be used, and for what purpose. This implies in turn a need to negotiate initially an understanding about the use of the finished product by all parties.

Oral history methods, of course, have been employed even when subjects are unavailable to be interviewed. Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie’s (1979) Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error used Inquisition documents that essentially were life histories as retrospective biographies to reconstruct life in fourteenth-century France. Tom Harrisson used the files of the British government’s wartime Mass Observation papers, a compilation of interviews and reports on everyday life, to write Living Through the Blitz. Glen H. Elder Jr.’s classic Children of the Great Depression relied on a longitudinal archive of direct reports, not on live interviews.

Scholars have speculated on the relationship between memory, oral history, and historical narrative. These include Susan Porter Benson edited 1986 collection, Presenting the Past, John Bodnar’s (1992) Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, and David Lowenthal’s (1985) The Past is a Foreign Country. Ethnographer Barbara Myerhoff explains that oral history permits practitioners to see themselves through the lenses of others. The resulting dialogical relationship between interviewer and interviewee can shape new notions of identity for both, one that is provocatively new and different.

A common theme is the desire to include in historical discourse the voices of members of the population typically slighted or excluded from formal historical scholarship. In Brazil and Argentina, for example, researchers have taped lengthy interviews with families of victims (and with surviving victims themselves) who were arrested and mistreated by military and police authorities during periods when habeas corpus protections have been suspended.

By the 1980s, in the USA the rising interest in oral history had produced impressive results. The John F Kennedy Center in Boston embarked on a major oral history project to document the Kennedy years. The International Journal of Oral History began publishing in l980, frequently raising questions about the theoretical issues posed by the interviewer–subject relationship and about how to utilize evidence gathered from oral testimony. British oral history projects completed in recent years include studies of bobbin and bonnet making, the Co-operative Movement, ballet, the experiences of the blind, and gun running in Northern Ireland. Kevin Brownlow published a massive study of the silent movie industry in Britain and the USA between 1916 and 1928, The Parade’s Gone By, an effort to balance the high-culture ways of studying silent cinema by listening to the voices of those who worked in the industry. Alexander Harrison used extensive testimonies from participants in France’s Algerian War to reveal full details of the murders and tortures committed by French terrorists in Challenging De Gaulle.

Since then, oral history has proliferated to an even richer degree. Meetings on oral history have gathered hundreds of researchers in cities from Istanbul to Anchorage, Alaska. Oral history now includes the Internet, and digitalized collections of interviews make it possible to read transcripts stored thousands of miles away and sometimes even hear the spoken voices from the original interview.

The perception of verifiability has continued to ensure the primacy of written and visual evidence. Document-oriented historians look for precision in form, precision in chronology, and evidence from multiple texts for corroboration. Oral history lacks these. Traditional historians use physical documents—letters, diaries, reports—to help them comprehend what really went on behind the scenes— sources that are as objectively unreliable as oral testimony. For these and other reasons, oral history’s claim to legitimacy rose as traditional forms of historical writing lost its aura of invincibility. In the latter part of the twentieth century we have seen a substantial change in the nature of records themselves. Frequent use of telephones and email makes it more and more difficult for historians to attempt to reconstruct historical processes. With so much of importance now erased or never recorded, oral testimony, even if after the fact, takes on added importance.

It is evident that oral history implies a perception of the past that has continuity with the present and that has not ‘stopped.’ The past’s impact on the present, in fact, is a major reason for pursuing oral history. The process of oral history, moreover, educates the interviewee to the importance of his her own life in the larger flow of history, even if the person did not hold a politically or socially prestigious station in society. Oral history is an antidote to traditional history, that is always in danger of slipping into ‘official’ history, bolstering the outlook on one particular group over the interests and values of others. It is a fragile undertaking, since revelations through oral history are totally dependent on pre-existing knowledge ‘recorded before death wipes the slate clean.’ Oral historians stand to make great democratizing contributions to a discipline that in the past mostly listened to the voices of the powerful.

Recent poststructural scholarship cast doubt on the efficacy of not only oral history documentation but also of any interpretation not an original source. Jacques Derrida, after all, claimed that every ‘translation’ creates a new text rather than a copy of an original. Others have raised the question of cultural politics. A language, according to Susan F Frank ‘expresses what its powerful speakers, such as men, want said. Women and other subaltern groups,’ Frank adds, ‘have a different relationship to their language.’ Oral history practitioners may take these warnings in any manner they choose, but it would be wise to listen to them and be all the more careful in looking after accuracy. In editing transcripts we are reminded that changing an oral text into a written text involves choices of the highest degree of subjectivity.

Persons seeking to work in oral history must guard against any attitude that assumes that merely because the interviewer is well educated, or possesses sophisticated recording equipment, or is well connected, he or she somehow does not have to obey any rules. Asking others to record their thoughts and feelings for public use involves ethical considerations, especially when the person interviewed feels at a status or psychological disadvantage.

3. Debates Over Methodology

A basic point in the debate over oral history involves the representativeness of the person being interviewed. How typical were the personal experiences of those that are described? Another side of the same question involves the numbers of persons involved in the project. Sometimes it may be necessary to interview several persons from similar backgrounds in order to yield corroborative testimony. Much of this can be resolved in advance by careful planning of the project. One properly thought out and conducted will not likely run the risk of readers ultimately questioning the validity of the evidence, although we know that eye witnesses can flatly contradict one another, even when debriefed immediately after an event, and therefore increasing the number of respondents does not necessarily guarantee objectivity.

The most fundamental task of any historical or biographical research, one might argue, is to discover our present in the past we claim to have represented. Psychologists have even disagreed among themselves about the nature of autobiographical memory. Sigmund Freud among many others, held that every experience of an individual’s life was stored somewhere in the brain and could be recalled by some technique, whether therapy, hypnosis, interrogation, drugs, or meditation. One view rejects this, arguing, instead, that memory is considerably more malleable and subject to revision. Memories are constantly refashioned: by new information, by suggestions received from others, and by shifts in one’s own emotional state of mind, aging, trauma, and the passage of time. The task of deciphering ‘unselfconscious memory, memory that is lived out rather than recited’ is formidable.

It has been noted earlier that the pitfalls of oral sources differ little from those of traditional written documents. It is the basic dialectic of the subjective that all practitioners of historical reconstruction must confront. Rather than ‘oral history’ as an autonomous mode of knowledge, the challenge to the oral historian is to find insightful ways to interpret them, in combination with the widest array of other sources to produce ‘history.’ These points should be familiar enough to serious students of history, although the academy has gone far to remove itself from the ‘real world.’ Oral history cannot work unless the researcher learns how to listen. This is the key to successful oral history, not fancy tape recorders or teams of interviewers.

Gabriela Rosenthal, a psychotherapist, tells us that to reconstruct a life history one must analyze the data on which it is based, to find out how the narrator has approached the project and to discover ‘whether the informant is orienting toward personal or the interviewer’s relevances.’ Given these and other pitfalls inherent in trying to figure out the meaning of the spoken statements, the safest way to use oral evidence can only be to apply rigorously the same methods (scientific but also intuitive) that historians employ in evaluating conventional written material. Common sense is probably the most reliable tool of all. The oral history process, moreover, offers a corrective element that historians working with written documents do not have: contributors can be asked to expand on what they have said, or challenged if it seems dubious. As George Trevelyan noted, long ago, the real test is whether the evidence is handled ‘in good faith.’

The fact that oral history at times approaches the realm of psychotherapy raises complex ethical issues in that sphere. Dianne W. Hart, interviewing families caught up in the struggle against the Samoza dictatorship in Nicaragua, yielded one transcript that was so disturbing to her that she showed the transcript to a clinical psychologist. She tells this in a footnote in another of her books, and describes the psychoanalyst’s diagnosis. She used a pseudonym, so the identity of the interview subjects remains anonymous. Still, some may object to what may seem to be an extraordinary invasion of privacy, even cloaked in anonymity.

Oral history projects are at risk of failing if the researcher attempts to uncover the unvarnished ‘truth’ about past events or issues. The classical Japanese film ‘Rashomon,’ a study of an event viewed through the eyes of different participants, showed brilliantly how eye-witness accounts differ from one another according to the personality and the point of view of the bystander. Even flawed interviews, where memory has partially failed (or when respondents embellish or distort), can produce valuable data in other forms. Objective reality, then, is a variable phenomenon. What oral historians should be after, rather, is insight gained from interpretation and background and the experience of interview and life history subjects. This insight is a building block which the historian can use, in tandem with other forms of evidence, to craft analytic interpretation. Oral history is a remarkable tool because it elicits information from sources who otherwise would remain silent, their testimony irretrievably lost.

Whether or not the subject responds with clear and accurate memory, then, in some ways is beside the point. It is human to present a subject, especially after a long passage of time, in ways that selectively leave out certain details or embellish others. People consciously and unconsciously try to put themselves in the best light. Researchers can attempt to be nonjudgmental, but respondents fear judgment and answer accordingly. Subjects obviously lying or distorting facts should be identified as such, but even in these cases their interviews will likely add a good deal to the researcher’s final synthesis. Even flawed interviews can yield useful data, even if peripheral. Trying to figure out the motives for deception also plays a part in the detective work of the researcher and may shed light on the theme or topics of interest.

Some people will decline invitations to be interviewed because they think they were ‘too unimportant,’ or too peripheral to the subject of interest. Researchers should use gentle persuasion to get them to change their minds. Often people do not realize how deep their memories are once questions start to be asked. Cases where self-deprecating subjects open up not only prove useful for research but also do a world of good educating them to their own self-worth. Oral history is not therapy but it may have therapeutic effects both for the subject and for the oral historian. Oral history cannot be done in a vacuum. To ask informed questions, oral historians must know as much as possible about the historical context in which the interviews fall. The best oral history is always done in tandem with other research activities, whether done in archives, in newspaper files, with quantitative data, or in other conventional sources of historical material.

Oral history without context is merely story telling, although in rare cases (say, the oral history of Bedouins, or peoples lacking a written language) this may be the only way to collect information.

Good oral history does not draw its strength from nostalgia or from colorful statements, although there are elements of style that enhance both the content and overall effectiveness of an oral record. To be worth- while, oral evidence has to be treated as rigorously as any other source of information. It is, in David Hey’s words, ‘not an easy option.’ The best oral history complements other forms of historical evidence as much as it brings new testimony to old debates.

The problem is that historians have only superficially attempted to evaluate and grasp what Columbia University’s Ron Grele calls ‘the underlying structure of consciousness which both governs and informs oral history interviews. Persons asked to record their life history, for example, may deduce (rightly or wrongly) that the interviewer wants or expects one kind or another response—perhaps a debunking one, or one at odds with popular wisdom (what, then, is the purpose for interviewing me?, someone might ask). Oral history researchers, how- ever, are not psychologists, and should never assume that role. Common sense is usually sufficient to guide interviews through difficult stages. Compassion—but not condescension—plays an important role. Where interviews touch on emotional or traumatic subjects (unhappy childhoods, the loss of loved ones, wartime ordeals, acts of brutality), the interviewer must never press. Frequent breaks in the interview may help. It is not uncommon for subjects to lose their composure, to become angry, or to burst into tears. Sensitivity and discretion must be present at all times. The process of oral history interviewing, because it involves the structuring of memory, is actually a process in the construction of a usable past. Writing one’s diary—or speaking about one’s past before a microphone—is an act of anticipatory memory. This is neither scientific nor objective. Psychotherapists know that such memories sometimes are slanted or distorted subconsciously to cover for, or screen, another memory that has been repressed. Autobiographical responses seek temporal anchors for what feels precarious in the present. Points that respondents preserve in diaries and in recalled anecdotes or memories, psychologists tell us, appear to be the ones they yearn to realize and preserve in their lives—flaws mended, limitations and isolations overcome, capacities refined.


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