Oral History and Life Histories


Various definitions have been used to describe ‘oral history’ which can be both a method of research and the object of research. Roper defines ‘oral history’ as “the recording and interpretation of spoken testimonies about an individual’s past” (Roper 1996: 579), Perks suggests that “oral history - the interviewing of eye witness participants in the events of the past for the purposes of historical reconstruction - has had a significant impact upon contemporary history as practised in many countries" (Perks 1998: x).

The oral history approach was developed in the discipline of history and needs to be distinguished from the ‘life-history’ or biographical approach developed in anthropology and sociology in the twenties and thirties which used life-histories (defined as "any retrospective account by the individual of his life in whole or part, in written or in oral form…”, Watson and Watson-Franke 1985: 2), to understand culture through individual experience.  One of the most famous pioneering studies in the use of personal documents is Thomas and Zaniecki’s work “The Polish Peasant in Europe and America”, first published in 1920. By using personal documents, mainly letters, the authors aimed at describing the life of a social group (see Watson and Watson-Franke 1985: 6), namely of Polish immigrants in the US.  The aim of the early life-history approach was to “relay experiences and events as the subjects themselves perceive them” (Melhuus 1997). With a changing theoretical paradigm in anthropology (see Marcus 1992) life-histories were not regarded anymore as a direct representation of an informant's life but a ‘text’ constructed and ‘edited’ by the anthropologist. The focus shifted to ‘meaning’ and ‘representation’. From this perspective explorations of life-histories lead to explorations of individual and collective memory and cultural representations expressed in the narration of lives.

The development of oral history is clearly linked to the development of Alltagsgeschichte and ‘history from below’ which attempted to give voice to marginalised groups, to “give history back to the people in their own words” (Thompson 1988). It was the aim of oral historians to challenge traditional historiography and to ‘recover’ evidence of non-elite groups. In this vein many studies were published based on interviews with women, immigrants and the working classes (Roper 1996: 579). By writing about non-dominant memories (which some scholars call ‘counter memory’) the historian transforms the standing and character of these memories because they then become, in Assmann’s words, part of the Kulturgedächtnis. 

The work of the ‘Popular Memory Group’ has further developed this kind of approach to oral history by looking at memory as an ongoing process of contestation and resistance in which “reading and reaction, official and unofficial, public and private” inter-penetrate (Olick and Robbins 1998: 127). Its focus is not the memory consensus but the struggles over the construction of the past which are attributed significance for contemporary politics and individual remembering (see Popular Memory Group 1998). The Popular Memory Group focused on struggle because it recognised the differential power of different memory agencies, such as the dominance of ‘national memory’ over other memories.

At the end of the seventies and beginning of the eighties some oral historians challenged the pure ‘recovery’ and ‘gathering’ focus of oral history and asserted that “memory – personal, historical, individual, and generational” should be moved to the centre stage of analysis and not only remain the method of oral history.  Frisch writes in 1979:

“Used in this way, oral history could be a powerful tool for discovering, exploring, and evaluating the nature of the process of historical memory - how people make sense of their past, how they connect individual experience and its social context, how the past becomes part of the present, and how people use it to interpret their lives and the world around them” (Frisch quoted in Perks and Thompson 1998: 2).

In recent work of oral historians, for example in the studies of Alessandro Portelli (1991) and Luisa Paserini (1987, 1996), the aspects which distinguish oral sources from other sources, namely subjectivity, orality, and the narrative form, are woven into the framework of analysis. Paserini’s study on ‘Ideology and Consensus under Italian Fascism’ (1987) demonstrates that the influence of public culture and ideology can be revealed in the silences, discrepancies, and idiosyncrasies of personal testimony. Portelli highlights the question of discrepancy between ‘historical facts’ and memory. He states:

“The discrepancy between fact and memory ultimately enhances the value of the oral sources as historical documents. It is not caused by faulty recollections..., but actively and creatively generated by memory and imagination in an effort to make sense of crucial events and history in general...Beyond the event as such, the real and significant historical fact which these narratives highlight is memory itself" (Portelli 1991: 26).

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