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Oral History


The writing of history has been traditionally based on diaries, documents, and other written sources. Recently, however, historians -- especially social historians -- have taken an interest in historical data, such as the memories of the participants in historical events, that does not exist in written form, and must be collected and transcribed before it is analyzed .  Oral history provides information about the impact of events on the lives of ordinary people that would not necessarily be found in the documents left by elites.  At the same time, it raises interesting issues of individual and collective memory. ("Prospecting for Truth in the Ore of Memory" by Alexander Stille, New York Times, 3/10/01).  Link to Stille's article)  

In a sense, oral history had its beginnings in the work of the diplomatic historian Allan Nevins, who in 1948 interviewed a large number of bureaucrats and other officials who had participated in various events but who were unlikely to leave memoirs.  More recently, the radio journalist Studs Terkel popularized the form with Hard Times (1970), his oral history of the Great Depression -- as did ABC's Peter Jennings and Todd Brewster, in their oral history of the 20th century, The Century.  

Of course, oral history raises questions about the reliability of its sources, and the problem of memory reconstruction and the relations between individual and collective memory.  One is reminded of the song "Someone in a Tree" from Pacific Overtures, the Stephen Sondheim musical (1976), where a character provides the only Japanese account of the landing of Commodore Perry in 1848.  He doesn't speak English, he doesn't know what is going on, and his account doesn't really tell us very much.  As Todd Brewster writes, "[O]ral history, however persuasive, inherently involves a certain vagueness and imprecision, for it is inevitably based upon memory -- which over the years acquires hindsight.  And even as this process unfolds, it is not at all clear which 'memory' is truer: the raw on fresh from the event, or the one that incorporates the wisdom, even clarity, that can come with distance"  ("Remembrance (More or Less) of Things Past", Civilization, August/September 1999). 

But oral history isn't just a different way of gathering information about history.  It's also a different way of gathering information about memory itself.  Truth is important, but so is the subjectivity of how events are remembered.  Alexander Stilles quotes Allesandro Portelli, an Italian historian: "Oral sources tell us not just what people did, but what they wanted to do, what they believed they were doing and what they now think they did.  As oral historians, we must do three jobs at the same time.  We must do the historian's job of trying to understand what happened, the anthropologist's job of understanding how people tell their stories and then move back and forth between these two levels."  Similarly, Stilles quotes Luisa Passerini, another Italian historian, that "irrelevancies and discrepancies must not be denied, but these will never be understood if we take oral sources merely as factual statements".  [Instead, they] should be taken as forms of culture and testimonies of the changes of these forms over time".  Stilles also quotes Hiroaki Kuromiya, a specialist in Ukrainian history: "these oral sources may not tell you much about what Stalin was doing, but they are terribly useful in telling you about people's minds".

Still, even as a window on the individual mind oral history has its problems.  Consider the following observation by Louis Menand, reviewing a biography of the 1960s psychedelic guru Timothy Leary ("Acid Redux", a review of Timothy Leary by Robert Greenfield, New Yorker, 062606):

He has been thorough, but not efficient.  It is good that he interviewed many of the survivors of those years; it is not so good that he let them ramble on unedited in his text.  Oral history is an unreliable genre to begin with; in an era when most of the witnesses were intoxicated much of the time, the quotient of credibility that attaches to their anecdotes is low.  The job of the historian is to select and condense.  Also, to tell a story.


Memory and American History

An early attempt to use oral methods to connect the discipline of history to the scientific study of memory was "Memory and American History", a special issue of the Journal of American History (Vol. 75, No. 4, March 1989) edited by David Thelen (himself the spouse of a psychologist).  In addition to fascinating articles on the role played by memory in our historical knowledge of such events as John Brown's raid on Harper's Ferry, the Studebaker strike, and Watergate, the issue contains a number of general essays:

"Memory and American History", by David Thelen.

"American History and the Structures of Collective Memory: A Modest Exercise in Empirical Iconography" by Michael Frisch.

"The Timeless Past" by David Lowenthal.



Critical Oral History

A recent development in this field is critical oral history, promoted by James G. Blight, a political psychologist in the Department of International Relations at Brown University.  Whereas traditional oral history tries to understand the nature and function of individuals' version of events, critical oral history seeks to confront the memories of individual participants and witnesses with each other, and with the documentary record.  For example, Blight has convened a number of conferences on the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, involving participants from the United States, Cuba, and the (former) Soviet Union.  One of these put Fidel Castro, Cuba's President then and now, at the same table with Robert S. McNamara, who was Secretary of Defense in the administration of President John F. Kennedy.  Another series of conferences has revisited key events of the Vietnam War (the ever-busy McNamara was also involved in these events, and these conferences, mostly trying to repair his tarnished reputation).  

Another example is a project in the Middle East, in which researchers are gathering oral histories of the Israeli War of Independence from both Israeli and Palestinian participants ('On Fiery Birth of Israel, Memories of 2 Sides Speak", New York Times, 05/18/2009). Commenting on critics who contend that memories are fallible, Henry Greenspan, an oral historian of the Holocaust, replied:

Those who criticize the current oral history projects... because of the fallibility of individual memory miss the point.  It is precisely the differences among retrospective accounts, and how they do and do not agree with otherwise documented history, that make them most useful. 

People live within the pasts they construct and, to whatever degree, within the pasts that are constructed for them.  The relationship between memory as lived and history as documented is always a complex dialogue -- each informing, and disinforming, the other.

Meanwhile, there are different accounts within groups, between groups and among historians (who also rarely agree with one another).

Difficult as it may be, attempting conversation within such cacophony is where the action is.

According to Blight, the confrontation of one individual's memory with another's reveals the psychological dimensions of various episodes, complementing and correcting the emphasis in modern political science on the rational actor who seeks to optimize the outcome for his or her own side through the exercise of strategic logic.  As reported by Danny Postel, Blight says that the participants in his conferences on critical oral history "are at once fascinated, attracted, and repelled by the prospect" of meeting former adversaries, and of being forced to confront the documentary record, but he also finds them "interested... in 'learning more about the events in which they participated'".  According to Blight, "they don't know what's going to happen when they get to that table" ("Revisiting the Brink: The architect of 'critical oral history' sheds new light on the cold war" in the Chronicle of Higher Education, 10/18/02).  

Of course, no methodology is perfect for all applications, and critical oral history has its potential drawbacks.  For example, the various parties may engage in grandstanding, or alternatively diminish their disagreement.  Or, the parties may converge on a "collective memory" that is itself a distortion of events.  

Critical oral history should not be confused with the "critical theory" movement in the study of literature, or the "critical legal studies" movement in the study of the law -- or should it?  In literature, "critical theory" is an interdisciplinary approach that seeks to bring "theory" in various disciplines, such as history, philosophy, anthropology, and psychology (in this last case, unfortunately, psychoanalysis) to bear on the problem of analyzing literary and other "texts".    Critical legal studies argues, similarly, that law is essentially political in nature, emerging from power relationships in society, and seeks to bring the perspectives of feminists and racial and sexual minorities (among other oppressed groups) to bear on questions of the law.  Both critical theory and critical legal studies are expressions of postmodernism, in that they argue that meanings (in literature or in the law) are essentially arbitrary social constructions, and that alternative "readings" are not only possible but essential.  It's not clear what position critical oral history takes on these positions.  On the one hand, if one participant's memories are considered as valid as another's, the exercise would seem to be somewhat postmodernistic in nature.  On the other hand, if the purpose of the confrontation is to get at the truth of what really happened, then the exercise is modernistic, but not post-modernistic.  So is the confrontation of any participant's memories with the documentary record, which would seem to be a representation of the "truth" of history. But then again, the idea that everything is "just" a representation, and nothing is the real thing, is the first step down the road to postmodernism. 

For this reason, the term "critical oral history" itself may be something of a misnomer.  Donald A. Ritchie, Associate Historian in the U.S. Senate Historical Office, takes exception to Blight's proposed nomenclature, "critical oral history", on the ground that it implies that other oral historians uncritically collect "old yarns".  More important, Ritchie points out that many of the practices advocated by Blight, especially the confrontation of oral testimony with the documentary record, have long been part of the armamentarium of oral historians (Chronicle of Higher Education, 11/29/02).  To the extent that Blight's methodologies -- essentially, confronting individual testimonies with each other, or with the documentary record -- are already common, there's no need to coin a new term to label them.

Oral history can be done at some remove, as in narratives of the Holocaust by children of Holocaust survivors, who themselves did not experience the Holocaust firsthand: see, e.g., Memory Effects: The Holocaust and the Art of Secondary Witnessing by Dora Apel (Rutgers).  The same may be true for critical oral history.  Recently, Harper's Magazine (09/02) published a debate of sorts about the famous Gunfight at the OK Corral, which occurred on October 26, 1881, in Tombstone, Arizona.  The participants were Wyatt Earp, an insurance agent who is the great-grandnephew of the Tombstone sheriff, and adheres to the traditional story about the establishment of law and order on the American frontier; and Terry Ike Clanton, a voice actor who is a fourth-generation cousin of the original Ike Clanton, and who argues for a revisionist view of Earp as the "hired gun" of Eastern business interests.  The discussion, moderated by Jack Hitt, which took place in the Bird Cage Theatre Opera House Saloon, in Tombstone, vividly illustrates the clash of competing narratives.  


Academic Oral History Centers

Many, if not most, land-grant universities in the United States have oral history centers devoted to their state or region.  Among these are:


Regional Oral History Office at the University of California, Berkeley

The Regional Oral History Office (ROHO) documents the social transformation of Northern California through social and political movements, economic change, migration, and cultural and intellectual debate.  The work of the ROHO, which reaches back to the beginning of the 20th century,  complements the collections of the Bancroft Library at the University of California, Berkeley, which includes oral testimonies  gathered in the 1860s and 1870s by Hubert Howe Bancroft for this history of California and the American West.  The ROHO is also developing a new Center for Living History, which will include multimedia technology as well as audio recordings and transcripts, and promote the involvement of the arts in oral history.  Link to the ROHO Website, which contains links to many other oral history centers. 

Link to the ROHO "Oral History Online!"  website.  

Link to New Directions in Oral History, the Oral History Working Group at UCB.


Oral History Research Center at Indiana University

The Oral history Research Center specializes in American history and particularly in the history of Indiana and the Midwest.   Link to the OHRC website.



In 2004, the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress announced a new oral history project, known as StoryCorps.  Founded by radio documentarian David Isay, the project will set up recording booths at various locations around the country (e.g., Grand Central Station in New York City) in which (for a nominal fee) people will be able to interview their own family members about their personal experiences.  The recordings will then be archived.  Link to the StoryCorps project. 


Columbia Center for Oral History

Maintains an extensive archive of recorded interviews (audio and video) of over 600 individuals.  There are actually five separate projects:

The September 11, 2001 Oral History Narrative and Memory Project;

The September 11, 2001 Response and Recovery Oral History Project;

The September 11, 2001 Public Health Oral History Project;

The Telling Lives Oral History Programs; 

The Chinatown Documentation Project

On the 10th anniversary of the attacks, the Center published After the Fall: New Yorkers Remember September, 2001 and the Years that Followed, based on the archive, and co-edited by Mary Marshall Clark, Peter S. Bearman, Catherine Ellis, and Stephen Drury Smith.  Link to the September 11, 2001 Oral History Project.


This page last updated 01/11/12 01:51:09 PM.