? Speaking and Listening: the methodologies of oral history - - Imponderabilia

Speaking and Listening: the methodologies of oral history

Oral history has been crucial in the articulation of alternative memories, including “personal histories” (P.J. Smith Pers. Comm.), of the Gulag system in Soviet Russia, the American Great Depression (Terkel 2001 [1970]) and the histories of immigrants in modern cities. This article will discuss, broadly, the character of oral history, some of its methodological complexities, and ultimately the potential contribution that oral history may provide academic disciplines, including social anthropology.

Like anthropology, oral history is grounded in fieldwork (Grele 1991: 255). Oral historians approach potential interviewees with questions, presumptions and research. And, as Ronald Grele suggests (1991), the documents of oral history are created by the interviewer, or made possible by the questions they ask. Equally, the oral historian does not work solely from textual archives, history books or pre-recorded autobiographies, but from the “rawness” of personal and social memory and the conversation. This requires interviewers to listen “in stereo”, as Kathryn Anderson has argued (1991), to both vocal recollection and evidence of self-repression (pauses, uncertainty, the use of an ‘official discourse’ – Abu-Lughod 1985). In addition, like the comparative focus of anthropology, oral history allows us to discuss and interpret different perceptions of “popular memory”, allowing communities to understand and form their own, self-conscious identities through recollection (see Popular Memory Group 2006). How do recollections ‘pattern’ within society? Who remembers most ‘clearly’? Do memories closely reflect the ‘official’ account? Among what groups do they differ, and how?

Re-presenting this material enables oral history to construct or critique the dominant popular recollection of historical events. Sherbakova’s study of Soviet era Gulag memories (2008), for instance, made many aware of how individual persons within the Soviet system were complicit in denunciation and repression. Many memories were strikingly similar: they reflected narratives from published autobiographies which Soviet citizens had read and assimilated into their personal recollection of events. Memory is ambiguous; it is reformulated and shaped by acts of contrition, repression and silence. One woman recalls knowing her husband was responsible for her denouncement, yet even today they maintain a close friendship; memory, in this case, has “softened” (Sherbakova 2008: 529). The oral history interview can be a place where such painful memories are re-assessed. Lundy and McGovern (2008), in a study of personal memory and experience in Ardoyne, Northern Ireland, show how memory, or ‘truth telling’, can become an important resource in future processes of reconciliation. Yet they warn that continued omission and avoidance in the present, especially concerning disappearances and murders during the “Troubles” (a period of conflict over the status of Northern Ireland that was most acute in the 19602-1990s), may contribute to the continuance of the conflict “even if it is now largely unarmed” (ibid: 533).

The voice, then, is a vehicle of resistance, through the way people whisper under repressive regimes, write diary entries, or listen to prohibited radio. The oral history interview can also be an act of defiance; a way of ‘embedding’ one’s experiences into the ‘history books’. This reflects the complex duality of an interview; it is personal, but also broadly social and political. Of course, the format of the interview may deter speakers from voicing their histories and concerns. Oral history needs to resolve this by placing control and authorship into the voice of the interviewee and not creating an environment in which they may feel oppressed. This active role of the interviewer in creating the interview has been recognised by practitioners. As Portelli has argued, the oral history interview also has its own particular velocity; the interviewee may describe complex, long-term events in moments, and the short-term in hours (Portelli 1979: 56). This has great implications for how we, the historians, understand different perceptions of time, memory and ‘major’ political events.

In life stories recorded through a dynamic exchange between two individuals, often strangers, we have to be aware of partial recollection, emotional bias, or ‘role specific’ censorship (a demonstrating student who is not privy to the war cabinet against which they protest). Thus personal recollections should be supplemented, or contextualised, by archival research, broader sets of interviews, and, ultimately, critical interpretation (Grele 1991 most notably). Alternatively, group-based histories provide the conditions whereby memories are challenged, questioned, and explored by a group who may have varying recollections of an event. This has been successfully demonstrated through Personal Histories Panels conducted amongst archaeologists (Smith 2008, 2007, 2006) and biologists. The public format of these events provides a means for audience members to challenge or supplement the histories reconstructed by the panellists themselves. In one such event the panellists discussed the narrative quality of academia, its associations with story building and personality (aspects of scholarship not often openly discussed). Of course, there is a risk that a public format may discourage shy or uncertain individuals from contributing; this is why the comparatively ‘private’ personal interview is predominant. This format, for example as Anderson has explored among many rural farming women in Washington state, America, observes how individuals cope with the costs incurred through managing different roles; mother, worker and wife, allowing us to answer questions concerning self concept and self consciousness outside or through official discourses (Anderson 1991: 132-135).

The re-presenting of oral history relies, in addition, on transcription. The transformation of spoken word into text has many difficulties, but is crucial for producing a working document: not as an edited ‘interpretation’ of the interview, but an accurate replicate of the spoken word, incorporating each pause, ‘crutch word’ and use of vernacular language (see Good 2000: 102-109).

Most histories do not reach publication. Nevertheless, oral testimonies represent the substrate of a historical ‘consciousness’: the ‘way it was’ is formed through conversation, memory and debate, not necessarily at the level of the institute or university, but in living rooms and at restaurant tables. Oral history aims to capture, compare and critique these accounts, both as constructed historical documents and as phonetic, linguistic structures. This should also reflect the university and the scholar, whose personal/emotional experiences and relationships constitute and affect the production of knowledge (Smith 1994). When Malinowski’s diaries were first published, the scholarly world was shocked to realise this man’s private world was not that we saw in the pages of his terse, scientific ethnography. Oral history might have helped to explain this. The ‘oral history panel’ is a platform where the people, who form a discipline, in harmony or in contradiction, can reconstruct a history of knowledge sensitive to the personal as well as the public. It would be encouraging to see the reflexivity of social anthropology extended to the interview and public debate of its practitioners.


I would like to acknowledge P.J. Smith for her useful discussions on oral history and for the concept of the “oral history panel” (2006, 2007, 2008a, and b).


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