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Oral history is a field of study concerned with obtaining, interpreting, and preserving historical information from verbal accounts. Eyewitnesses, or at least contemporaries to an event or period of time, can provide historians with important primary source materials, often from several points of view.
Oral history focuses on eliciting information (oral accounts) from people who actually experienced or witnessed historical events. It differs somewhat from the fields of folklore and ethnography (cultural studies), which also collect verbal information from living persons. All of these fields of study rely heavily on interviews, but they pursue different goals.
In general the folklorist seeks to uncover folk traditions known throughout a group, and the ethnographer seeks to unravel the cultural patterns and organizational structure of a group. Both the folklorist and the ethnographer attempt to interview a representative sample of people to uncover general cultural patterns, although many ethnographers are also fond of collecting biographies that embed a great deal of historical context. The folklorist and ethnographer therefore focus on reconstructing oral traditions. Oral traditions are verbal accounts of events from the more distant past that have been handed down over generations and are shared by a group of people. Oral traditions tend to become modified during long time periods, often serving to identify and legitimize a group. As one moves further and further into the past, history often fuses with legends and myths in oral tradition and folkloric accounts. Nonetheless, the boundaries dividing these fields of study are often blurry because cultural traditions often embed intriguing information about a group’s actual past, and contemporary oral history accounts frequently reveal insights into a people’s culture.
Early Uses of Oral History Accounts
The incorporation of oral accounts into written histories is undoubtedly as old as history itself. Indeed, oral accounts would have predated the invention of writing as the primary means by which events and ideals of the past were captured for a group’s posterity. Oral transmission has also been the usual manner in which histories and traditions have been passed from generation to generation in nonliterate societies worldwide. Among the earliest historians to explicitly rely on oral accounts was the ancient Greek historian Thucydides, who interviewed participants in the Peloponnesian Wars (460–404 BCE). Other examples abound throughout history. For instance, Franciscan friars in sixteenth-century New Spain (Mexico) relied on “the memories of the old men” to record the histories and customs of the indigenous people in their native language (Dibble and Anderson 1982, 10), and the French writer Voltaire (1694–1778) questioned lords and servants alike in preparing his history of the French kings.
Oral History: Methods and Goals
As a systematic field of study, oral history is relatively young. In the United States formal interest in oral history dates from 1938 with a suggestion by the U.S. historian Allan Nevins to establish an organization to collect oral as well as written accounts of significant events from people who had participated in those events. The idea persisted and developed into the formation of the Oral History Association in 1966. Oral history enterprises have gained popularity in Latin America since the 1960s and in Europe since the 1970s and 1980s.
Oral historians emphasize the collection of verbal information through interviews. Other oral sources, such as scripted performances and the spontaneous recording of unrehearsed events, may embed historical information but are usually not used as major sources in a deliberately designed oral history study. The oral historian, in collecting oral accounts, has a particular research question in mind and a set of questions to elicit meaningful information about that question.
By necessity oral history focuses on the most recent generations whose memories can be tapped for their personal experiences and involvement in the historical events or moments of interest to the historian. The field has evolved from its initial interest in prominent people to an interest in everyday witnesses and participants, with ethnic and gender diversity of particular recent importance. Sophisticated digital technologies of the twenty-first century enable oral historians to accurately record interviews orally and visually and to efficiently store, preserve, and access the interviews.
Limitations, Issues, and Significance
Like historians relying on written accounts, oral historians recognize the imperfection of their data sources: memories falter, people idealize past experiences, and narratives can be selective, biased, or even fabricated. Every person sees an event from his or her unique perspective, and this perspective involves not only personality traits but also cultural background. So, for instance, Sioux oral accounts of the Battle of the Little Bighorn, on 25 June 1876, vary wildly. This variation probably derives not from faulty or selective memories, but rather from the style of Sioux military tactics that favored individual exploits over coordinated action, preventing any one warrior from gaining an overall picture of the battle. Problems in oral history can also arise from the interview experience itself: interviewers’ very questions and manner can channel narrators’ accounts, and, on the other hand, narrators may tailor their accounts to satisfy their perceptions of interviewers’ requests. Historians are well aware that the themes driving the historical enterprise itself reflect changing political and social climates.
Like any field, oral history is not without its issues. One such issue revolves around the fundamental mission of the field. Should it provide a record for future generations, or should projects be aimed at more immediate interpretations of recent history? Other issues reflect social changes. Should oral history serve as a means through which voices of disenfranchised persons can be heard? Additional issues concern methodologies Should the original tapes or their transcripts be considered the primary sources? Should the people interviewed be asked or allowed to edit transcripts of their interviews? Philosophical issues mirror general trends in other social science fields, particularly a consideration of the impact of the interviewer on the interview itself and on the quality of the data collected.
Historical enterprises benefit from reliance on as wide an array of complementary primary sources as possible. Oral history adds a unique dimension to the font of primary source material. Recent research pursues a wide range of topics and gathers oral accounts from a wide spectrum of people. Oral history also has practical applications in land use claims, historic preservation, governmental and business history, and cultural impact studies.
- Allen, B., & Montell, L. (1981). From memory to history: Using oral sources in local historical research. Nashville, TN: American Association for State and Local History.
- Dibble, C. E., & Anderson, A. J. O. (Eds.). (1982). Sahagun’s historia. Florentine codex: General history of the things of New Spain, introductions and indices (pp. 9–23). Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press.
- Dunaway, D. K., & Baum, W. K. (1996). Oral history: An interdisciplinary anthology. Walnut Creek, CA: Altamira Press.
- Henige, D. P. (1982). Oral historiography. New York: Longman.
- Monrtell, W. L. (1981). The saga of Coe Ridge: A study in oral history. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press.
- Nevins, A. (1938). The gateway to history. Boston: Appleton- Century.
- Oral History Association. (1992). Guidelines and principles of the oral history association. Los Angeles: Oral History Association.
- Perks, R., & Thomson, A. (1998). The oral history reader. London: Routledge.
- Ritchie, D. A. (1995). Doing oral history. New York: Twayne Publishers.
- (1972). History of the Peloponnesian War. New York: Penguin.
- Vansina, J. (1985). Oral tradition as history. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
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