Historiography: Oral Approach

Oral history is clearly very attractive to a great many people. It requires accessible technology available for some decades now of a simple recorder and tape. The person interviewed goes back in time to recall childhood, and so it seems possible to stretch back into days lost when things were done differently.
Oral history like this could be a temporary technique in terms of reaching down for any personal account of the past. This is because of the democratising of recording technology. Many emails are archived. Websites have expanded with weblogs. The video camera has become widespread and takes contemporary images. Asking someone to remember back will surely become unnecessary except for the value in memory. In terms of recording and keeping contemporary accounts, there may be many weddings, babies and family members, and lots of idle chat, but these images and words are packed with unwitting testimony of the time. Speedy language records what was thought and when, and what was important to people, in an age of instant communication. There is so much recorded that, even if most is lost, no one will fail to know what culture was like, what people did and something of their thoughts at the time. The recent millennium saw a mass of recording. The historians of the far past looked at Royal documents because these records still exist; now documentary records are everywhere. Documentary sources are not in short supply even for the humblest household.
The Mass Observation Unit based at the University of Sussex which handled a vast amount of popular data especially at wartime, but also since, may find itself the holder of but a small proportion of the data available.
Of course the historian's task will still be to interpret and produce a suitable story of the time. Somehow the mass of material will have to take shape and form, to be understood by the generations ahead that will not live in the way we do. It is in the understanding and working on oral material that historiography comes into consideration (Green, Troup, 1999, 230), as more is involved than just being a method.
In the meantime, people give accounts into tape recorders about their past and write an account of decades past. They can be interviewed. They say about where they lived, what work they did and in what way, how people behaved, and tell of leisure times, including moments of courting, marrying, giving birth and bringing up children. They tell of other people in old age and how everyone related together in responsibilities.
It is very much a popular street level area of history. This is why radical historians were attracted (Green, Troup, 1999, 231). It involves people we know (or knew) giving their narrative before the historian "interferes". It is in the authentic language. It is shared history. It can involve schoolchildren, families, communities, and has impact when placed in the local museum. There is an Oral History Society and Oral History Journal which tackles both themes of history and how to do the history.
Yet there is a sense in which academic historians sneer at this popular interest. Perhaps it looks like they are reacting to non-specialists encroaching on their territory. They regard oral history as slippery, unreliable, conflating, truncating, and not in the same league as a good solid paper (etc.) document (Green, Troup, 1999, 230). Basically, people talking get it wrong: they imagine too much and make a series of half remembered incidents of different time periods into a far too obvious re-ordered story, in a neat line, of difficulties overcome.
The way historians have tackled this, at least after the 1970s until when oral accounts were treated as other accounts (Green, Troup, 1999, 231), has been to look at the particular qualities of the oral account, in a sense of its current reinterpretation of a biography. In there is culture, psychology and ideology (Green, Troup, 1999, 232). Time is truncated and events are conflated, the order of events gets altered, important elements to the person are remembered whilst the unimportant and inconvenient are lost. So something is being said about the person as a whole time span, in generating for them a coherent past (Green, Troup, 1999, 234) which may contain the factually correct with the factually incorrect. What is not said may be as important as what is said, whether or not this is consciously deliberate or not. This is an area where for some historians (but not for a great many) psychoanalysis may play a part (see Passerini below; see 232-233).
The appropriate method of doing history is the semi-structured interview, with emphasis on the semi. The interviewee should be allowed to give an account with the minimum of steering. (See Green, Troup, 1999, 236)
People do not remember straight facts correctly or incorrectly in isolation, but they are wrapped up into a narrative, and it is the narrative that creates a coherent past from the perspective of the present. One part of this narrative can be informed by myth.
Myth has meant the pervasiveness of traditional community identity passing down its stories, so that events can be explained within the imaginary story telling framework. There is, however, the more explicit myths we may live by.
An example of this is the born again Christian. The oral account of the conversion afterwards will more than likely emphasise being sinful and lost before the event and being taken to the change by God and Christ, whereas the history beforehand might be curiosity, interest and perhaps working something through to a predicament. After maturing or loss of belief, this episode may again be seen in a different light, as a kind of adolescent (in terms of religion) phase. The myth can be an obvious one like Christianity informing a life path or more subtle and the parameters of the culture within which people live. All along the line people may tell the truth as they see it but it varies according to the sense of self in the here and now. (See Green, Troup, 1999, 235, 236)
Another case here is the invented tradition (Hobsbawm and Ranger, 1983), where history is invented into myth. A good example is when Parliament was persuaded by Unitarians that early Presbyterians adopted no creeds because of their openness to change. This was in the face of Unitarian chapels losing trust funds in the early 1840s given by original trinitarians and being claimed back by their orthodox religious descendents. The Unitarian case was a myth: the Presbyterians had open trusts because they believed in the sufficiency of the Bible. Equally, a banner might say "Hull Unitarian Church founded 1672" as a means of claiming historical legitimacy. However, at that time, the founders of the chapel(s) were Protestant fundamentalist trinitarians by any measure and far from liberal. Contemporary individuals who will talk about their part in Unitarianism will relate their own settling into the church to what they think they know about the wider history, fitting themselves to the greater myth. This is what would be expected because an involvement and a myth frames their own life, the myth that is carried by community.
Another form of myth is the dominant metanarrative in any culture and people absorbing aspects that promote self esteem into their life histories.
So oral history is always, in one powerful respect, about the present day sense of self.

Some Personalities:

Dates in brackets are some times of impact just in areas mentioned.

Adrian Worsfold



Green, A., Troup, K. (eds) (1999), The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 230-238.

Hobsbawm, E., Ranger T. (1983), The Invention of Tradition, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, Past and Present Publications.

Oral History Society for Thomson, A. (1990), 'anzac Memories: Putting Popular Memory Theory into Practice in australia', Oral History, Spring 1990, 25-8, 30-1, in Green, Troup, 1999, 239-252.