Oral history is a qualitative method of historiography that accentuates the subjective accounts of individuals to paint a high definition picture of given moments and events in history. Oral history, not to be confused with oral tradition, has ancient origins, beginning in western schools of history with Thucydides and Herodotus in the fifth-century BCE – who both relied heavily on the subjective accounts of those they interviewed. In China, the practice of oral history can be dated even earlier, with the emperor of the Zhou Dynasty of China (1122-256 BCE) appointing scribes to record the sayings of people for the benefit of court historians.
With the scientific revolution of the late nineteenth century, oral history, being a highly subjective form of historiography, became increasingly derided and unpopular. The German empiricist historian Leopold Von Ranke criticized oral history and enunciated a new maxim for history: ‘wie es eigentlich gewesen’ (how it really was) – meaning – it is the duty of the historian to show objectively how the past really was, absent the subjective biases and leanings of the historian.
Oral history returned as a force to be reckoned with in 1948, with the launching of the ‘Oral History Project’ by Columbia University’s Allan Nevins. In the 1960’s, however, oral history began to increasingly and exponentially influence the way we record and analyse history, due to a number of coinciding factors. Firstly, the subjective nature of oral history gave voices to minorities and previously oppressed groups in society, which became a popular priority during the civil rights and feminists movements of 1960s. Secondly, the earlier invention of the portable tape recorder made it possible to record oral histories in greater numbers and with greater ease.
Since the late twentieth century, oral history has developed its methodology significantly and such developments have not merely assisted oral historians, but historiography in general. One such development that began in the 1980’s has been the increasing emphasis on subjectivity and intersubjectivity, which has illuminated a problem largely ignored by previous historians, particularly those who have, in true Rankean fashion, believed they were simply ‘telling it how it really was’.
This essay will examine how the increasing emphasis on subjectivity has influenced oral history scholarship, by exploring the ways in which an increasing focus on subjectivity has led to a greater understanding of intersubjectivity and the effects of memory on the discipline of oral history. How did oral historians grapple with the criticisms of documentary historians who viewed oral history as an entirely subjective and incoherent, ahistorical branch of history? How did they turn these criticisms into credits? In what ways did oral historians improve their methodologies to accommodate the criticisms of documentary historians? How did oral history’s increasing awareness of the problems associated with memory remodel its methodologies? How has the increasing emphasis on subjectivity aided not only oral history, but history in general? These questions will all be addressed and in the process it will be argued that had it not been for this increasing emphasis upon, and attention to, subjectivity, the entire discipline of history may have remained, by and large, unaware of some of the inherent deficiencies in the historical process.
Abrams defines subjectivity as: ‘…the constituents of the individual’s sense of self, his or her identity informed and shaped by experience, perception, language and culture – in other words an individual’s emotional baggage (as opposed to objectivity which implies a neutral or disinterested standpoint)’.
One of the most persuasive criticisms of oral history’s inherently subjective nature comes from Tilly, who argued: ‘…the emphasis on individual testimony as an insight into collective representations and cultural identities is ahistorical and unsystematic’. Feminist scholars have assisted oral history by proposing a workable theory of subjectivity which dictates that, ‘subjectivities are formed by conjunctions of numerous differentiated discourses, some of which may be subordinate or even subversive and which may contain contradictory conceptualizations of identity’. By identifying common discourses within cultures and sub-cultures, oral historians are able to distinguish between purely (individual) subjective aspects of the interviewee’s testimony and also, they have acquired the theoretical means to determine to what degree the testimony has been influenced or shaped by those popular discourses, thereby mitigating, at least to a certain degree, Tilly’s criticism observed above.
One of the ongoing problems of oral history’s increasing emphasis on subjectivity, however, is that there is no single definition of subjectivity. Despite this apparent problem, oral historians have once again triumphed, employing multiple conceptions of subjectivity to their advantage, as well as drawing upon interdisciplinary approaches in dealing with this issue. The recent trend amongst oral historians has been to adopt a poststructuralist approach to subjectivity, viewing the ‘self’ as a decentralized, ever-changing, dialogically-driven concept, which is constantly interacting and changing according to environmental influences.
The acknowledgment of the ever-present subjectivity inherent within not only orally recorded historical testimony, but historical testimony in general, and the recording and narrating of historical testimony, has led oral history away from its social-scientific roots, forcing oral historians to confront and counter, as much as possible, the distorting effects of subjectivity. But more than simply acknowledging its problematic effects, oral history has, yet again, turned lemons into lemonade, so to speak, by embracing the benefits of subjectivity. Yow sums up the benefit of the subjective nature of oral history, saying:
‘Oral history is inevitably subjective: its subjectivity is at once inescapable and crucial to an understanding of the meanings we give our past and present…The in-depth interview offers the benefit of seeing in its full complexity the world of another. And in collating in-depth interviews and using the insights to be gained from them as well as different kinds of information from other kinds of records, we can come to some understanding of the process by which we got to be the way we are’.
One might see the increasing emphasis placed on subjectivity within oral history as a kind of colourful, three-dimensional image superimposed upon the two-dimensional historical portrait painted by traditionalist historians. Portelli enunciates this added dimension in the following words: ‘But the unique and precious element which oral sources force upon the historian and which no other sources possess in equal measure is the speaker’s subjectivity. If the approach to research is broad and articulated enough, a cross section of the subjectivity of a group or class may emerge. 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’.
Further, this increasing emphasis on subjectivity in oral history has not only highlighted the subjectivity with regards to the interviewee, but also with regards to the interviewer, i.e., the oral historian. This, in turn, has caused an increasingly illuminating light to be shed on the issue of subjectivity across all branches of history. Thomson stresses not only oral history’s pressure-driven success in dealing with subjectivity, but also how oral historians reminded documentary historians of their own subjectivity, commenting: ‘Goaded by the taunts of documentary historians, early oral historians developed guidelines to assess the reliability of oral memory (while shrewdly reminding the traditionalists that documentary sources were no less selective and biased)’.
As an example of the pre-existence of this subjectivity in documentary history, we need only compare two competing biographies of Alexander the Great – those of W.W. Tarn and Ernst Badian. For Tarn, Alexander was a beneficent unifier of the Persians and the Greeks, and his empire was a proto-type for peace-aspiring League of Nations. For Badian, on the other hand, Alexander was a megalomaniacal tyrant. So we have two completely contradictory historical pictures painted of a single historical figure. Further, Badian and Tarn both drew from the same historical wells – the tertiary accounts of Arrian, Diodorus Siculus, Plutarch, and other vulgate and court sources. How could these two highly trained historians, who penned their histories amidst the influence of the Rankean Revolution, create such disparate accounts with the same documentary sources? The answer to this question is revealed by examining the subjectivity of these two scholars. Tarn was writing at the end of World War I, around the time nations were considering creating the League of Nations  and Badian, as a child, had had to leave his home in Austria due to Hitler’s tyrannical anti-Jewish initiatives. These two historians had subjectively superimposed their own lives onto their portraits of Alexander the Great.
The increasing emphasis on subjectivity has informed oral history scholarship with regards to the separate subjectivities of both the historian and the historical source and with regards to the intersubjectivity which exists. Intersubjectivity describes the ‘collision of the interviewer’s and interviewee’s subjectivities within the interview process, and how the interaction of these combined and communicating subjectivities informs the process and production of oral history.
Abrams describes this intersubjectivity as ‘a three-way dialogue: the respondent with him or herself, between the interviewer and the respondent and cultural discourse between the present and the past’. Intersubjectivity can influence the interview, and subsequently the historical record in a variety of ways that are unique to oral history. The ethnicity, gender, age and social class of the interviewer and interviewee, the body language in the interview, the inherent power differential between the historian and their subject – all these factors can influence the oral history interview. The recognition of intersubjectivity has caused oral historians to place increasing emphasis on equality in the dynamics of the relationship between the oral historian and the narrator.
Grele proposes a means to achieve this equality: ‘Thus the historian and the person being interviewed must, on even the most rudimentary level, recognize the rights of the other in the dialogue. At least, the interviewee must agree that the aims and ambitions of the historian in his or her project are worthy and in some manner even useful to pursue, whilst the historian must recognize the autonomy of the view of the interviewee’. Feminist scholars have recognized the impossibility of escaping the inherent inequality of this process and have sought to mitigate this power differential in a number of creative ways. Commenting on three of these strategies, Summerfield remarks: ‘Feminist oral historians advocate instead ways of mitigating the power imbalance in the relationship, in three main ways: first, by seeing the interview as a sharing of experience; second, by placing themselves (the oral historian) in a subjective position within the interview; and third, by giving interviewees some responsibility for the project’.
Even if equality is largely achieved and intersubjectivity is controlled and accounted for in a manner that prevents it from distorting the oral history process, there is still the issue of the fickle nature of memory. The problems associated with memory aren’t unique to oral history, for those who rely on documentary evidence are also basing their histories on the accounts of those who have had to use this same cognitive devise to recollect and record historical events – however – due to the style of the oral history process – the oral interview – memory may be argued to be central to oral history. As a result of the central role played by memory, oral historians have been forced, once again as the result of criticisms from documentary historians, to address this issue. In so addressing, oral historians have had to reach across disciplinary boundaries and draw from an increasing range of academic and scientific disciplines.
A major neuroscientific breakthrough that has impacted oral history has been the discovery that memories aren’t passively accessed, but rather, they are actively created each and every time a person attempts to recollect past events, places and people. Portelli summarizes the creative process of remembering in the following words: ‘But what is really important is that memory is not a passive depository of facts, but an active process of creation of meanings’.
Given the creative nature of the memory retrieval process, the recounting of memories is subject to the subjectivities and intersubjectivities that underscore the oral history process. How much of what is recollected is a product of cultural discourses? Where does public memory and private memory part ways? In other words, to what extent is a narrator’s memory influenced by popular trends, icons, and other features of public memory? Also, why might a narrator fail remember, or choose not to narrate, a well-known event in history? Green and Troup address this final question in there discussion on Passerini’s Turin study on fascism in Italy, commenting: ‘She [Passerini] is probably best known for drawing our attention to the significances of silence in oral testimonies. One of the most striking features of the Turin study was the excision of fascism from the memories of working-class men and women. Whole life histories were recounted without any mention of the years between 1925 and the outbreak of the Second World War. Passerini regards such silence as evidence of ‘a scar, a violent annihilation of many years in human lives, a profound wound in daily experience’.
Due to the inescapable trappings of the fallibility of memory, oral historians have ingeniously changed the questions. They no longer simply ask, what does the narrator remember, but how does the narrator remember? Why do they remember some things and not others? What does their particular recollection tell oral historians about the subjectivity of this particular subject and the events they narrate for the historian? Abrams provides a further example of how public memory influences private recollection: ‘Most of the female interviewees in one of my oral history projects on women’s experiences from the 1950s to the 1970s identified the miniskirt as a key marker of change. Certainly all of them wore this fashion item but it would be naive to ignore the fact that the miniskirt is one of the most frequently cited icons of popular culture in public representations of that era. These women were not lying but their memories of that time were framed by a public memory of the era’.
Above it may be observed that Passerini’s focus on subjectivity highlights what has not been recollected and narrated, whereas Abrams’ focus is aimed at what has been recollected and narrated. Despite their divergent approaches to subjectivity in this regard, Passerini and Abrams both illustrate the value of oral history’s increasing emphasis on subjectivity, by revealing through silence in Passerini’s case, and testimony in Abram’s, the unseen, undocumented, and previously hidden insights into both individual and collective memory – insights that are invaluable for a three-dimensional understanding of the past.
Further, Sarkar describes the benefits of oral history as it relates to the remembering of what popular, often “state managed”, discourses have chosen to forget: ‘Since official discourses are typically “state-managed,” the task of the critical historian is thought to be to unearth “what the colonial state—and often the nationalist bourgeoisie—once chose to forget.” In this context, memory, especially popular memory, has come to be increasingly important as an alternative, oppositional archive that allows access to “untold stories” of a “real past” that can presumably be tapped into by simply posing the right questions’.
Crownshaw and Leydesdorff, in Passerini’s Memory and Totalitarianism, eloquently define the central importance of subjectivity in the construction of collective memory and the role of the oral historian, arguing: ‘Collective memory then is the screen onto which different subjectivities project their discrepant versions of the past for different (political) reasons. It is the task of the oral historian to maintain both a sense of the individual and the collective, and to make sense of memory despite its differences’.
Thus, oral historians have, as has been their common penchant, turned criticism and problem into credit and advantage. They have grappled with the valid criticisms made regarding the fickle nature of memory and instead of conceding defeat, they have changed their approach and employed memory in the same way they have employed subjectivity – to change their questions, to improve their methods of interview, to draw out previously inaccessible historical data, and to add to history rather than subtract from or muddy it.
What began as one of oral history’s perceived weaknesses turned into one of its greatest strengths, or was actively turned into one of its greatest strengths. The increasing emphasis on subjectivity has caused oral historians to take an increasingly multi-disciplinary approach to their craft, drawing upon their social-scientific roots, employing various branches of science, and bringing all of these areas of academia together to create a brand of history that has employed subjectivity to give voices to those who were once voiceless, to add new subjective dimensions to a formerly objectivity-obsessed, Rankean form of history. In the process, oral history has not only helped history in general by painting three-dimensional images of the past, by filling in the historical landscape with previously ignored details, but it has highlighted the pre-existing deficits that seemed to go largely unnoticed by historians who relied exclusively upon documentary evidence.
To conclude, the increasing emphasis on subjectivity within oral history has fomented a revolution in history’s approach to fundamental issues which concern all branches of history. This revolution has forced all historians to grapple with the subjectivity inherent within both the historical source and the historian herself. It has shone a light on the problems associated with the memory of the narrator, whether they are called upon to recollect the past in documentary form or within the confines of an oral interview. But specifically for oral history scholarship, the increasing focus on subjectivity and intersubjectivity has assisted the oral historian by helping them to acknowledge and counter problems that specifically relate to the recording of oral history, whether it be the interaction of biases or the inherent inequality of the interview process. In so countering, oral historians have developed a branch of history that is capable of illuminating the subjective experiences of individuals and at the same time paint accurate, high definition pictures of both the individual and collective experiences and events of the past.
- Patricia Leavy, Oral History: Understanding Qualitative Research, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011, p. 3.
- William V. Harris, Ancient Literacy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989, p. 80; Leslie Kurke, Herodotus and the Language of Metals, cited in: Gregory Nagy, Greek Literature, Vol. 5: Greek Literature in the Classical Period: The Prose of Historiography and Oratory, New York: Routledge, 2001, pp. 92; Rebecca Sharpless, The History of Oral History, cited in: Thomas L. Charlton (ed.), Lois E. Myers (ed.), and Rebecca Sharpless, History of Oral History: Foundations and Methodology, Lanham: Altamira Press, 2007, p. 9.
- Ibid. p. 10.
- Ibid. pp. 17-18.
- Robert Perks (ed.) and Alistair Thomson (ed.), The Oral History Reader, London: 1998, p. 101.
- Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory, London: Routledge, 2010, pp. 54-55.
- Ibid. p. 54.
- Ronald J. Grele, Oral History as Evidence, cited in: Thomas L. Charlton (ed.), Lois E. Myers (ed.), and Rebecca Sharpless, Handbook of Oral History, Lanham: Altamira Press, 2006, p. 65.
- Penny Summerfield, Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives: Discourse and Subjectivity in Oral Histories of the Second World War, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998, p. 13.
- Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory, London: Routledge, 2010, pp. 55-58.
- Ibid. p. 57.
- Ibid. p. 55.
- Valerie Raleigh Yow, Recording Oral History: A Guide for Humanities and Social Sciences 2nd, Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2005, p. 23.
- Alessandro Portelli, What Makes Oral History Different?, cited in: Robert Perks (ed.) and Alistair Thomson (ed.), The Oral History Reader, London: 1998, p. 67.
- Alistair Thomson, Making the Most of Memories: The Empirical and Subjective Value of Oral History, ‘Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 9’, 1999, 292, cited at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3679406?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents, accessed on 01 Jan. 2016.
- Professor Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age, Lecture 4: Alexander – Myth and Reality, The Teaching Company, 2000.
- Ernst Badian, Collected Papers on Alexander the Great, London: Routledge, 2012, p. 31.
- Professor Jeremy McInerney, Ph.D, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age, Lecture 4: Alexander – Myth and Reality, The Teaching Company, 2000.
- Harvard Gazette, ‘Ernst Badian, Professor of History Emeritus, 85’, 14th, 2011, cited at: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/02/ernst-badian-professor-of-history-emeritus-85/, accessed, Dec. 23rd, 2015.
- Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory, London: Routledge, 2010, p. 58.
- Ibid. p. 59.
- Ibid. p. 60.
- Ronald J. Grele, Oral History as Evidence, cited in: Thomas L. Charlton (ed.), Lois E. Myers (ed.), and Rebecca Sharpless, Handbook of Oral History, Lanham: Altamira Press, 2006, p. 74.
- Ibid. p. 75.
- Penny Summerfield, Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives: Discourse and Subjectivity in Oral Histories of the Second World War, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998, p. 24.
- Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory, London: Routledge, 2010, p. 78.
- Ronald J. Grele, Oral History as Evidence, cited in: Tho0mas L. Charlton (ed.), Lois E. Myers (ed.), and Rebecca Sharpless, Handbook of Oral History, Lanham: Altamira Press, 2006, pp. 81-82; Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory, London: Routledge, 2010, p. 80.
- Ibid. p. 78.
- Professor Steven Novella, M.D., Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking, Lecture 4: Flaws and Fabrications of Memory, The Great Courses, 2013.
- Alessandro Portelli, What Makes Oral History Different?, cited in: Robert Perks (ed.) and Alistair Thomson (ed.), The Oral History Reader, London: 1998, p. 69.
- Anna Green and Kathleen Troup, The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999, p. 233.
- Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory, London: Routledge, 2010, p. 78.
- Ibid. p. 79.
- Mahua Sarkar, Difference in Memory, ‘Comparative Studies in Society and History 1’, 2006, p. 140, cited at: http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.une.edu.au/stable/3879331?pq-origsite=summon&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents, accessed on 02 Jan. 2016.
- Richard Crownshaw and Selma Leydesdorff, On Silence and Revision: The Language and Words of the Victims, cited in: Luisa Passerini, Memory and Totalitarianism, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2009, p. xvi.
Abrams, Lynn, Oral History Theory, London: Routledge, 2010.
Badian, Ernst, Collected Papers on Alexander the Great, London: Routledge, 2012.
Crownshaw, Richard, and Leydesdorff, Selma, On Silence and Revision: The Language and Words of the Victims, cited in: Luisa Passerini, Memory and Totalitarianism, New Brunswick: Transaction Publishers, 2009.
Green, Anna and Troup, Kathleen, The Houses of History: A Critical Reader in Twentieth-Century History and Theory, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999.
Grele, Ronald J., Oral History as Evidence, cited in: Thomas L. Charlton (ed.), Lois E. Myers (ed.), and Rebecca Sharpless, Handbook of Oral History, Lanham: Altamira Press, 2006.
Harris, William V., Ancient Literacy, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1989.
Harvard Gazette, ‘Ernst Badian, Professor of History Emeritus, 85’, 14th Feb., 2011, cited at: http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2011/02/ernst-badian-professor-of-history-emeritus-85/, accessed, Dec. 23rd, 2015.
Kurke, Leslie, Herodotus and the Language of Metals, cited in: Gregory Nagy, Greek Literature, Vol. 5: Greek Literature in the Classical Period: The Prose of Historiography and Oratory, New York: Routledge, 2001.
Leavy, Patricia, Oral History: Understanding Qualitative Research, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.
McInerney, Jeremy, Alexander the Great and the Hellenistic Age, The Teaching Company, 2000.
Novella, Steven, Your Deceptive Mind: A Scientific Guide to Critical Thinking, The Great Courses, 2013.
Perks, Robert (ed.) and Thomson, Alistair, (ed.), The Oral History Reader, London: 1998.
Portelli, Alessandro, What Makes Oral History Different?, cited in: Robert Perks (ed.) and Alistair Thomson (ed.), The Oral History Reader, London: 1998.
Sarkar, Mahua, Difference in Memory, ‘Comparative Studies in Society and History 48.1’, 2006, p. 140, cited at: http://www.jstor.org.ezproxy.une.edu.au/stable/3879331?pq-origsite=summon&seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents, accessed on 02 Jan. 2016.
Sharpless, Rebecca, The History of Oral History, cited in: Thomas L. Charlton (ed.), Lois E. Myers (ed.), and Rebecca Sharpless, History of Oral History: Foundations and Methodology, Lanham: Altamira Press, 2007.
Summerfield, Penny, Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives: Discourse and Subjectivity in Oral Histories of the Second World War, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1998.
Thomson, Alistair, Making the Most of Memories: The Empirical and Subjective Value of Oral History, ‘Transactions of the Royal Historical Society 9’, 1999, cited at: http://www.jstor.org/stable/3679406?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents, accessed on 01 Jan. 2016.
Yow, Valerie Raleigh, Recording Oral History: A Guide for Humanities and Social Sciences 2nd Ed., Walnut Creek: Altamira Press, 2005.