Most of us are familiar with the version of history that comes out of boring books and old documents. Yet, many of us are also familiar with the old family stories about our ancestors. Guess what? Those family stories are technically a type of history. Having previously reviewed compilations of oral histories like Studs Terkel’s The Good War, let’s take a step back and more broadly examine the methodology of oral history itself. In this post, we’re going to define exactly what oral history is and what its benefits and drawbacks are.
What is Oral History?
History passed down through spoken word may be one of the oldest methods of maintaining a record of the past. Stories of ancestors have been told in myths, fables, parables, and folklore. While there are many fantastical elements to these myths, many of them originally contained some grounding in reality.
Linda Shopes (2002) notes that oral history is an imprecise term and eventually comes to the following definition:
Oral history is a self-conscious, disciplined conversation between two people about some aspect of the past considered by them to be of historical significance and intentionally recorded for the record. It is a dialogue between an interviewer and an interviewee/narrator. The interviewer derives questions from a frame of reference or historical interest which elicits responses from the narrator which they deem to be important enough to tell the interviewer. The narrator’s response in turn shapes the interviewer’s subsequent questions, and on and on.(p. 2 – 3)
Oral History Projects in the 20th Century
It’s been noted that formal attempts to document and archive personal experiences for posterity through interviews are a relatively modern undertaking. One of the early efforts was the Federal Writers’ Project in the late-1930s and early-1940s. This was an agency of the New Deal’s Works Progress Administration that sought to document the diversity of America and various personal experiences during the Great Depression. Unfortunately, the Federal Writers’ Project fell victim to budget cuts and the coming of World War II. Since early formalized efforts at collecting oral histories lacked video and audio recording technology, they had to rely on human note-taking. Naturally, this method raises questions about the reliability and veracity of the accounts. Early interviews were also idiosyncratic and conducted with little preparation. Ultimately, there was no concerted effort to develop a permanent archival collection (Shopes, 2002, p. 1 – 2).
In the 1940s, Allan Nevins, of Columbia University, was one of the first to develop a systematic methodology for recording and preserving oral histories. He also made efforts to conduct interviews with people of recent history to supplement the written historical record. In the 1960s and 1970s, the scope of oral history widened in response to social movements and growing interest in documenting the experiences of the non-elites of society. In other words, blue-collar workers, minorities, and people who typify the social experience but have otherwise been rendered silent by the bulk of history focusing on the elites of society. Despite the fact that some of these non-elites are illiterate, too busy, or feel that they don’t have anything valuable to say, recording their accounts helps to democratize the historical record (Shopes, 2002, p. 2).
Oral History Goes Online
Technology and the internet have provided unprecedented access to oral history, either in audio, video, or transcript form. However, this freedom of access does present issues for accounts originally published in the days before the world wide web. If the narrator never intended for their account to be a wide publication, then they may feel that their distribution rights are being violated. Also, the internet allows anyone to publish anything regardless of quality. Still, the internet allows for the rapid search of relevant material without researchers having to sift through hours of audio recordings or mountains of transcribed pages (Shopes, 2002, p. 16).
With regard to recorded audio interviews, Alessandro Portelli argued that oral history is oral in that “the tone and volume range and rhythm of popular speech carry implicit meaning and social connotations which are not reproducible in writing…The same statement may have quite contradictory meanings, according to the speaker’s intonation, which cannot be presented objectively in the transcript, but only approximately described in the transcribers’ own words” (as cited in Shopes, 2002, p. 16). Indeed, Portelli has a good argument for the aural quality of audio/video documentation, in general. Speech has a way of conveying emotions and meaning in ways that simply are not possible or too cumbersome for the written word.
How Historians Use Oral Histories: Benefits and Drawbacks
As with any type of source or information, the use of oral histories by historians presents certain benefits and drawbacks. Let’s examine some of them.
Historical facts: Oral histories can provide historians with new information and new interpretations of topics. Social historians provide insight into the lifestyles and mentality of populations that are not available in traditional histories (Shopes, 2002, p. 3). Effectively, as personal accounts, oral histories function as a type of primary source (albeit with some caveats).
Personal agency & immediacy: Oral histories emphasize personal agency. People become the main protagonists of the past and talk about their experiences in unique ways that defy the preexisting analysis. For interviews that don’t focus on social history or the life of the narrator, oral histories can highlight the relationship between people and historical events (Shopes, 2002, p. 3 – 4). It can also be argued that in highlighting personal agency, there is a more immediate tone to oral histories than more traditional or secondhand accounts.
Emotional resonance: For those people who find traditional historical narratives to be “boring,” oral histories can be easier for them to identify with. Oral histories provide a way to link more professional histories with vernacular stories. They can be used to introduce people to a new perspective in a non-threatening way. A good oral history is, effectively, a good story that resonates with others and generates sympathy. When oral histories are given adequate context, then they can help people understand how personal experiences are linked to events (Shopes, 2002, p. 5).
Limited scope: Oral histories can frustrate historians who are looking for a broader picture of the events. In fact, some argue that oral histories, particularly those focused on social history, overemphasize personal agency and ignore the workings of political and cultural power in society. Hence, they also muddle the narrative on how political and cultural forces influence individual thought and action. Oral histories are also inherently biased since the narrators are the most vocal ones to tell the story. Thus, only their perspective is heard. Additionally, the narrative is generally told from a single person’s perspective on how events shaped their experiences (Shopes, 2002, p. 5). For these reasons, historians should be careful about using oral histories as mere data points in their research without further corroboration of the material.
Unreliability: While oral histories benefit greatly from having emotional resonance and a tone of immediacy, the pitfall is that personal accounts can be taken too literally. Not every first-person account is reliable (p. 5 – 6). That being said, the closer an account is to the time of the event(s), the more useful it is as a primary source. Yet, even for those who directly experienced the event(s), incomplete or inaccurate information at the time may have skewed their perspective. In the case of interviews conducted decades after the fact, a person’s memory risks being distorted by the ravages of time and ideological change. We’re all human, after all.
Hindsight bias: Narrators can benefit from more current information on the topic or subsequent ideological shifts in thinking which may have influenced the recalled facts (p. 6). This is otherwise known as the benefit of hindsight or the historian’s fallacy. The fact is that nobody ever sees the entire picture with 100% clarity at the time of the event. This can result in the narrator recollecting facts that they didn’t know at the time.
Personal bias: Another issue that can skew the account is that the narrator, and in some cases the interviewer, can have a personal stake in presenting a certain version or viewpoint. In some interviews conducted late in a person’s life, this can probably be attributed to nostalgia. “Aww…those were the good ‘ol glory days of youth when everything was so much better.” Other people carry the scars of their experiences which manifest as personal prejudices. Some do realize this and try to correct themselves, while others are seemingly locked into the thinking they had from a bygone era. (How many times have we encountered some old veteran of WWII who, decades later, still refused to buy any product manufactured in Germany/Italy/Japan because they were the evil Axis powers.) In other cases, the interviewee may be embellishing and/or omitting certain details in their story in an attempt to paint a more positive picture of themselves or a particularly positive/negative picture of someone else. Again, that’s just the nature of personal accounts.
Short length: Most interviews cannot go on long enough to exhaustively cover all the facts. Even in a 1-2 hour interview, there’s not much room for an enormous amount of detail, and as a result, some of the personal narratives can seem disjointed. Compare the amount of detail in short oral histories versus the amount of detail in longer, book-length, autobiographical memoirs.
It’s worth noting that many of these drawbacks apply equally to written history, as well. The degree to which they apply, of course, varies. In general, hindsight and personal biases are some of the more difficult pitfalls to avoid when creating a historical record.
Consider Your Sources
An examination of ways to account for discrepancies in oral histories will come in the next post, however, one way to reconcile the benefits and drawbacks is to corroborate the information in them with more thoroughly researched secondary sources. Do the facts and data match up or are they wildly different? Some amount of error is understandable. OK, so they misquoted the top speed of that vehicle by about 50 mph, big deal. However, grossly under-reported or inflated numbers can be a cause for skepticism. If you hear completely outlandish claims along the lines of, “Yeah, we only lost 1 guy in that massive battle and I killed 3,000 enemies single-handedly,” then you might want to consult further research. Watch out for the BS.
Alternatively, such statements could just be an outlier or the ravages of dementia. It’s like when you ask an elderly person a simple yes/no question and they proceed to give you an hour-long story about their grandchildren, Uncle Bob, and how wonderful things used to be back in the good old days when candy bars cost a nickel. None of their reminiscences answers your question, however.
Shopes, L. (2002, February). What is Oral History?. History Matters: The U.S. Survey Course on the Web. http://historymatters.gmu.edu/mse/oral/index.html.