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Fifty Years On: An International Perspective on Oral History

Author(s): Alistair Thomson


Source: The Journal of American History, Vol. 85, No. 2 (Sep., 1998), pp. 581-595
Published by: Oxford University Press on behalf of Organization of American Historians
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Fifty Years On: An International


Perspective on Oral History

Alistair Thomson

According to the recorded tradition of the North American Oral History Association, "oral history was established in 1948 as a modern technique for historical documentation when Columbia University historian Allan Nevins began recording the
memoirs of persons significant in American life." This essay explores significant
issues in oral history, fifty years on. It focuses on four developments that are central

to the current concerns of oral historians, drawing on lessons from oral history projects around the world. First, scholars now recognize that interviewing operates

within culturally specific systems of communication, so that there is not necessarily


a single or universal "right way" to do oral history. Second, new thinking about
memory and history has posed new opportunities and dilemmas in the interpre-

tation of oral testimony. Third, an increasing emphasis on the value that remembering has for the narrator has broadened the practice of oral history so that it can
be more than a research methodology. Finally, as new technologies expand ways
of generating interviews and presenting oral history, they spotlight concerns about
how people's memories are used or abused in public representation. This survey

offers no definitive conclusions or recommendations; it is instead intended to suggest pointers for continuing debate.1

The "Right Way" to Do Oral History?


In response to fierce criticism from positivist social scientists and traditional documentary historians, some early interview handbooks sought to legitimize oral

history by advocating a "scientific" model for the research interview. The interviewer should use a consistent and carefully structured questionnaire to facilitate
comparative analysis; he or she should control the focus and flow of the interview yet maintain a neutral and objective presence to avoid adversely affecting

Alistair Thomson teaches adult education and postgraduate courses about oral history at the University of Sussex

and is coeditor of the British journal Oral History. This article was greatly improved by the editorial support of
Lu Ann Jones and Susan Armeny at the JAH.
1 Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History (Oxford, 1988), 59. This survey draws on research Robert
Perks and I conducted in the preparation of an international anthology of previously published writings about

the theory and practice of oral history: Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, eds., The Oral History Reader (New
York, 1998).

The Journal of American History September 1998 581

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582 The Journal of American History September 1998

the stories told; he or she should conduct one-to-one interviews and minimize
interruptions. 2

In practice, oral historians usually found it impossible to follow a single set of


techniques or rules for interviewing. As the North American oral history pioneer

Charles T. Morrissey wrote in 1970, "to reduce interviewing to a set of techniques


is . . . like reducing courtship to a formula. . . . There is a danger of too much
reliance on tools and not relying sufficiently on old-fashioned intuition as to which
tool to use in which situation . . . the techniques and other aspects of oral history
vary with the type of person you're interviewing." Nonetheless, Morrissey distilled
his own experience of interviews about the presidencies of Harry S. Truman and
John E Kennedy into practical advice for oral history interviewers: the value of preparation; the need to establish rapport and intimacy, to listen, to ask open-ended
questions, and to refrain from interrupting; the importance of allowing for pauses

and silences, avoiding jargon, probing, and minimizing the presence of the tape
recorder. 3

At first sight it is hard to quibble with such commonsense advice. And yet a
crucial recognition among oral historians in recent years - derived in part from

anthropology and communication studies, and advanced by feminist researchers is that the interview is a relationship embedded within particular cultural practices

and informed by culturally specific systems and relations of communication. In


other words, there is no single "right way" to do an interview, and the "commonsense" approach to interviewing members of a white, male political elite may be
entirely inappropriate in other cultural contexts.

Oral history experiences in non-Western contexts confirm the point that interview techniques developed in the West may be incompatible with indigenous sys-

tems and relations of communication. At the international oral history conference


in New York in 1994, the Singaporean oral historian Daniel Chew argued that the
probing questions integral to a Western interview might not be appropriate or,
indeed, possible in an Asian context where they could breach powerful cultural expectations about deference to the authority of elders. Writing about collecting oral

testimony in developing countries, Hugo Slim and Paul Thompson characterize the
one-to-one interview as potentially a "dangerously intimate encounter" and argue
that group remembering may be a more acceptable and familiar approach in certain societies. Drawing on the work of anthropologists, they explain that researchers
need to be aware of local hierarchies and of "norms relating to turn-taking, the

order of topics for discussion or various rituals relating to story-telling," which may
differ markedly from conversational etiquette in western countries. In some African
societies storytelling has a season (the well-prepared interviewer arrives in winter)
and generates an expectation of recompense or reward. The practical circumstances
of a particular society may also dictate good practice. Namibian oral historians are
2 See, for example, Thompson, Voice of the Past; and Willa K. Baum, Oral History for the Local History Society
(Nashville, 1969).
3 Charles T. Morrissey, "On Oral History Interviewing" (1970), in Oral History Reader, ed. Perks and Thomson,
107-8.

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Oral

History

583

advised to use pencil and paper to record their interviews because they often cannot
afford audio- or videotape recorders. In some contexts a perceived identity as an
insider may be a prerequisite for a successful interview. The South African historian
and sociologist Belinda Bozzoli found that the elderly rural women of the village
of Phokeng were more comfortable and forthcoming when interviewed by a research assistant, Mmantho Nkotsoe, because she was "a girl from Mabeskraal, the
nearby village." "Thus, what to positivists might seem to be Mmantho's weakness
(her subjective involvement in the lives of the informants, and their perception of
her as having a particular meaning in their lives)," writes Bozzoli, "proved to be
her greatest strength."4
Slim and Thompson conclude that it is "critically important to be aware of
these different conceptual and cultural dimensions to interviewing and historical

information":
A vital part of any preparation for an oral testimony project should involve learning about the norms of what [the British anthropologist Charles] Briggs describes

as people's "communicative repertoire": its particular forms, its special events, its
speech categories and its taboos. The most fundamental rule is to be sensitive to
customary modes of speech and communication and allow people to speak on
their own terms.

Cultural awareness is equally necessary when an oral historian is interviewing


within his or her own society, which is unlikely to be culturally homogeneous. Inter-

viewers need to be sensitive to the relational and communicative patterns of particular subcultures as defined by gender, class, race and ethnicity, region, sexuality,

disability, and age. Janis Wilton writes that there is a strong resistance among
elderly Chinese men and women in Australia to talking in interviews about negative experiences of racism, in part because such frankness might undermine hard-

won social acceptance and in part because of a cultural preference not to speak ill
of the past. In interviews with Cambodian refugees in New Zealand, Nicola North
also encountered the "subtle cultural differences that influence disclosure," in par-

ticular the refugee's insecurity about revelation. When Akemi Kikumura interviewed her own mother, an issei woman from Japan who migrated to the United
States in 1923, she realized that her mother would talk about certain, significant

aspects of her life only with another family member, because "you don't disclose
your soul to tanin (a non-relative)."5

4 Daniel Chew, "Thoughts on the International Oral History Movement," paper presented at the International
Conference on Oral History, New York, 1994, notes taken by Alistair Thomson (in Alistair Thomson's possession);

Hugo Slim and Paul Thompson with Olivia Bennett and Nigel Cross, "Ways of Listening" (1993), in Oral History
Reader, ed. Perks and Thomson, 114-15. For the advice to Namibian oral historians, see Patricia Hayes, Speak
for Yourself (Windhoek, 1992). Belinda Bozzoli, "Interviewing the Women of Phokeng" (1986), in Oral History
Reader, ed. Perks and Thomson, 147.
5 Slim and Thompson with Bennett and Cross, "Ways of Listening," 114-15; Janis Wilton, "Identity, Racism,
and Multiculturalism: Chinese-Australian Responses" in Migration and Identity, ed. Rina Benmayor and Andor

Skotnes (Oxford, 1994), 85-100; Nicola North, "Narratives of Cambodian Refugees: Issues in the Collection of
Refugee Stories," Oral History (Colchester), 23 (Autumn 1995), 34; Akemi Kikumura, "Family Life Histories: A

Collaborative Venture" (1991), in Oral History Reader, ed. Perks and Thomson, 141.

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584 The Journal of American History September 1998

From a feminist perspective, Kristina Minister asserts that "oral history method
continues to rest upon the assumption that interviewers will conduct interviews in
the way men conduct interviews." She argues, for example, that North American
women's conversational patterns do not match the male, turn-taking approach of
the standard interview, and that with such women a more interactive interview strategy will generate more effective communication and storytelling. The Scottish
oral historian Graham Smith argues that working-class women of his mother's

and grandmother's generations in the city of Dundee are used to talking about
their lives among groups of women - at the workplace, in the neighborhood, at
the laundry- and are more likely to open up and spark each others' memories,
stories, and interpretations in a group interview. If there is one universal piece of

advice about oral history interviewing, it is that the interviewer needs to be constantly alert to what might constitute good interview practice in particular cultures
and circumstances.6
"Unreliable Memories" as a Resource, Not a Problem

Oral history, defined by Ronald J. Grele as "the interviewing of eye-witness participants in the events of the past for the purposes of historical reconstruction," is an
invaluable and compelling research method for twentieth-century history.7 It provides access to undocumented experience, including the lives of leaders who have
not yet written their autobiographies and, more significantly, the "hidden his-

tories" of people on the margins: workers, women, indigenous peoples, ethnic


minorities, and members of other oppressed or marginalized groups. Oral history

interviews also provide opportunities to explore aspects of historical experience that

are rarely recorded, such as personal relationships, domestic life, and the nature
of clandestine organizations. They offer rich evidence about the subjective or per-

sonal meanings of past events: what it felt like to get married, to be under fire,
to face death in a concentration camp. Oral historians are unique in being able to
question their informants, to ask questions that might not have been imagined in
the past, and to evoke recollections and understandings that were previously silenced
or ignored. We enjoy the pleasures - as well as the considerable challenges - of engaging in active, human relationships in the course of our research.
But those relationships and the use of memories as historical evidence have been
severely criticized. At the core of criticisms of oral history in the early 1970s was
the assertion that memory was distorted by physical deterioration and nostalgia in
old age, by the personal bias of both interviewer and interviewee, and by the influence of collective and retrospective versions of the past. For example, the Australian
6 Kristina Minister, "A Feminist Frame for the Oral History Interview," in Women's Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History, ed. Sherna Berger Gluck and Daphne Patai (New York, 1991), 31; Graham Smith, "The Widow
and Her Sister: Gender Relations inside the Female-Headed Families of a Scottish Women's Town in the Interwar
Years," paper presented at "Voices, Narratives, Identities: Women's History Network Sixth Annual Conference,"
Brighton, England, 1997, notes taken by Thomson (in Thomson's possession).

7 Ronald J. Grele, "Directions for Oral History in the United States," in Oral History: An Interdisciplinary
Anthology, ed. David K. Dunaway and Willa K. Baum (Walnut Creek, 1996), 63.

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Oral

History

585

historian Patrick O'Farrell wrote in 1979 that oral history was moving into "the
world of image, selective memory, later overlays and utter subjectivity. . . . And
where will it lead us? Not into history, but into myth."8

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). From
social psychology and anthropology they showed how to determine the bias and
fabulation of memory, the significance of retrospection, and the effects of the interviewer. From sociology they adopted methods of sampling, and from documentary

history they brought rules for checking the reliability and internal consistency of
their sources. The guidelines provided useful signposts for reading memories and
for combining them with other historical sources to find out what happened in
the past.
During the 1970s oral historians in different parts of the world began to question
this emphasis on the "distortions" of memory and to see "the peculiarities of oral

history" as a strength rather than a weakness. One of the most significant shifts
in the last twenty-five years of oral history has been this recognition that the socalled unreliability of memory might be a resource, rather than a problem, for historical interpretation and reconstruction. For example, Luisa Passerini analyzed the
silences and inconsistencies in Italian working-class memories of Benito Mussolini's
interwar Fascist regime to show how Fascist ideology had become deeply entangled
in everyday life and personal identity and to explore the difficulties of remembering
involvement in a discredited regime. Another Italian, Alessandro Portelli, noticed

that interviewees in the factory town of Terni "misremembered" the date of the

death of the worker Luigi Trastulli. Trastulli had died during a small demonstration
against the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in 1949, but local people
remembered his death as a martyrdom during a catastrophic strike and lockout in

1953, involving the whole town, that led to defeat for the union and the end of
work security. Portelli argued that the mistaken memory was a vital clue to under-

standing the meanings of these events for individuals and for the working-class community, as they happened and as they lived on in memory. He concluded that

"what is really important is that memory is not a passive depository of facts, but
an active process of creation of meanings."9
Though initially unaware of these European writings, in the 1970s some North
American oral historians also began to imagine more sophisticated possibilities for
the interpretation and use of memory. Writing in 1972 about Studs Terkel's influential book, Hard Times: An Oral History of the Great Depression, Michael Frisch
argued against the attitude that oral memory was "history as it really was" and
asserted that memory- "personal and historical, individual and generational"

should be moved to center stage "as the object, not merely the method, of oral
8 Patrick O'Farrell, "Oral History: Facts and Fiction," Oral History Association of Australia Journal (Mt.
Pleasant) (no. 5, 1982-1983), 3-9.

9 Luisa Passerini, "Work Ideology and Consensus under Italian Fascism" (1979), in Oral History Reader, ed.
Perks and Thomson, 53-62; Alessandro Portelli, "What Makes Oral History Different" (1979), ibid., 69.

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586 The Journal of American History September 1998

history": "What happens to experience on the way to becoming memory? What


happens to experiences on the way to becoming history? As an era of intense collective experience recedes into the past what is the relationship of memory to historical generalization?" If memory were treated as an object of historical analysis,

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."'10
A more detailed cultural and intellectual history is needed to explain how and
why the ideas and approaches exemplified in the writings of Passerini, Portelli,

Frisch, and others moved from the margins to the mainstream of oral history within
a decade. In the memories of several key figures, one event stands out, the international oral history conference held at the University of Essex in 1979, which

brought together North American and European oral historians in a significant cultural exchange. Ron Grele recalls this event as an "epiphany":
I think the excitement for many of us was that we had all been working around

the same set of problems in oral history almost alone in our own countries and
now we had found one another.... it was really the issue of how to deal with
interview material beyond some form of empirical and positivististic attitude-

what we would now call subjectivity-around which our interests orbited. I remember listening to Luisa [Passerini] present her work on Italian workers and

fascism and saying to myself, "Of course, of course. That's it." . . . A major part
of the excitement at Essex was political. We were for the most part products of
the movements of the Sixties and many of the issues we brought to our work were
issues of that generation: subjectivity, spontaneity, populism versus elitism, collective memory, working class culture, problems of culture in general, and what
is now called "reflexivity." . . . Because we were coming from the same place politically, which did not take us too long to discover, our work resonated with the

work of each other. The connections were inherent; grounded by the experiences. 11

The rich cross-fertilization of new theoretical approaches apparent at Essex was


repeated at subsequent international conferences, and many key papers articulating those approaches were published over the next few years, in the History Workshop and Oral History journals in Britain and in Oral History Review and the new
InternationalJournal of Oral History published in the United States. By the early
1990s the critical literature about the theory and practice of oral history was heavily
informed by these earlier writings, and articles and books frequently demonstrated
an impressive theoretical sophistication in their interpretation and use of oral
testimony.

10 Michael Frisch, A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History (Albany,
1990), 10, 188. See also Ronald Grele, Envelopes of Sound. The Art of Oral History (Chicago, 1991).
"l Ronald Grele, "Memories of a Movement," Words and Silences: Bulletin of the International Oral History
Association (no. 3, June 1998), 6; Paul Thompson, "I Piccoli e II Grande," Oral History (Colchester), 23 (Autumn
1995), 27-28.

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Oral historians were not alone in this development of more theoretically sophisticated approaches to remembered life stories. The 1980s and 1990s saw an explosion of research using oral and written life stories in a wide range of intellectual
fields, often ones that crossed traditional disciplinary boundaries, such as life-story
sociology, biographical and autobiographical approaches in literary studies, anthropology, cultural studies, narrative psychology, linguistics and communication
studies, and related work that explored the relationships between identity, memory, and personal narrative. 12 While theoretical and methodological developments
in those fields have enriched the practice of oral history, oral historians have contributed to the theory, method, and politics of life-story research through their
interdisciplinary reflections on interview relationships and on ways of interpreting
and using oral testimony.
There have been rumblings that perhaps this theoreticism has gone too far, and
that the important initial motivations for oral history- to provide empirical evidence about undocumented experience and to empower social groups that had
been hidden from history-were being submerged under the weight of poststructuralist and postmodernist theories. At the New York international oral history conference in 1994, Frisch noted that theoretical debates about subjectivity and narrative had sometimes displaced connections with "real culture and lives" and

warned of the danger of appropriating experience for theory rather than using
theory to make sense of experience and to enable change. 13
An important emerging trend is the renewed effort to link theoretical sophistication about narrative and memory with the political commitment to the history
of oppressed and marginal groups that motivated the first generation of feminist
and socialist oral historians. For example, in an article about women factory workers,
the Canadian historian Joan Sangster explored feminist debates about the social
construction of memory and theoretical dilemmas posed by poststructuralist and
postmodernist approaches to language and representation. She concluded that
"without a firm grounding of oral narratives in their material and social context,
and a probing analysis of the relationship between the two, insights on narrative
form and on representation may remain unconnected to any useful critique of oppression and inequality."'14
A stunning recent article by Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy demonstrates how her
oral history of working-class lesbians in New York State has been enriched by interpretative strategies that heed the empirical, subjective, and narrative qualities of
oral testimony. The exquisite storytelling styles of her informants reveal the significance of storytelling in a community that needed to create alternative identities
12 On the literature in these fields, see Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, "Introduction," in Oral History
Reader, ed. Perks and Thomson, 5.
13 Michael Frisch, "Oral History, Questions of Identity, and the Representation of Culture," paper presented
at the International Conference on Oral History, New York, 1994, notes taken by Thomson (in Thomson's possession). See also David K. Dunaway, "The Interdisciplinarity of Oral History," in Oral History, ed. Dunaway and
Baum, 9.
14 Joan Sangster, "Telling Our Stories: Feminist Debates and the Use of Oral History" (1994), in Oral History

Reader, ed. Perks and Thomson, 97.

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588 The Journal of American History September 1998

and "guidelines for living." By embracing "the uniquely subjective nature of life
stories," Kennedy could explore how her narrators coped with and resisted heterosexism and homophobia, and how individuals "decide to construct and express

their identity." Where narrators' memories were internally contradictory or in


conflict with each other, they "conveyed precisely the freedom and joy and the pain
and limitation that characterized bar life in the mid-twentieth century." Differences

between gay male and lesbian memories of the Stonewall riot in New York City
in 1969 (a key event in gay liberation), as well as the exclusion of some stories from
the myth or metanarrative of Stonewall, expressed "the ambiguous position of
women in gay culture" and captured "the cultural processes of making lesbians and
women invisible in history." Kennedy demonstrates that "there is a tremendous
amount to be learned by fully exploring the subjective and oral nature of oral histories." Her conclusion -that the empirical and subjective values of oral evidence

are "fully complementary to one another" and that they should not be "falsely
polarized" -is an essential recommendation for all oral historians.15

More Than a Research Methodology: Oral History, Advocacy, and Empowerment


That oral history research requires a human relationship has spurred some oral his-

torians to consider the consequences of remembering for the narrator as well the
benefits for researchers. The British oral historian Joanna Bornat writes eloquently
about a transformation in her own understanding and practice:
Looking back to the early seventies what seems remarkable now is the fact that

we oral historians took so long to realize that we were involved in a two-way process. It was a relationship with people who were parting with something which

was personal and often very private. Too many of us saw the interview as just an-

other source of evidence to be extracted. . . . It was well-intentioned but with


one aim in mind: the eliciting of "usable" material. Inevitably, it was the interviewee who reminded the historian that this was a shared experience. The retired

West Riding textile worker who thanked me for asking her questions about her
days as a young factory worker made me realise that oral history can be enjoyable
and exciting on both sides of the microphone.16

Bornat outlines the development in Britain of a social movement that linked aca-

demic oral historians, community publishing, and "reminiscence work" in care settings. She notes the crucial recognition in the 1960s and 1970s that remembering
could be a valuable and affirming process for older adults. Developments in the

psychology of old age had challenged an orthodoxy that reminiscence was "an
abnormal or pathological activity, something to be discouraged," and suggested
instead that guided remembering could have therapeutic benefits. 17 It could also
15 Elizabeth Lapovsky Kennedy, "Telling Tales: Oral History and the Construction of Pre-Stonewall Lesbian
History" (1995), ibid., 344-56.

16 Joanna Bornat, "Oral History as a Social Movement: Reminiscence and Older People" (1989), ibid, 191.
17 Ibid, 192. See Robert Butler, "The Life Review: An Interpretation of Reminiscence in the Aged," Psychiatry,
26 (Feb. 1963), 67-76.

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Oral

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enhance care by enabling those who served the elderly to see them as more than
bundles of problems and to develop care strategies based on knowledge of patients'
rich life experiences. Bornat describes the explosion of British interest in reminiscence work with older people in the 1980s, at residential homes and hospitals, in
social welfare fieldwork, and through adult education and self-help groups.
The links between oral history and reminiscence work are especially strong in
Britain, and to a lesser extent in Australia and New Zealand, because some of the
most enthusiastic proponents of reminiscence work in those countries have also
been oral historians and because vibrant community history and education projects
there have stressed the value of remembering for participants as well as for historical
research. It is revealing that a recent North American anthology about the theory
and practice of reminiscence work (usually called "life review" in the United States)
is dominated by health and welfare professionals who seem to operate in isolation
from historians. As Bornat argues:
the separation between oral history and reminiscence risks the distancing of older
people in the process and weakens their control over what is produced. The pur-

suit of oral history is a goal which we all share, whether we work as individual
researchers of any age or in groups with older people. Reminiscence work [as dis-

tinguished from conventional, academic oral history] implies a more active role
for those whose memories are sought and it introduces goals and objectives which
can be personal, social and, of course, historical.18

There are related practices in which the personal and social benefits of remembering are considered of equal significance to historical information. In Third

World countries in the "South," oral history is used in development projects to ensure that foreign aid interventions -such as new agricultural technologies-draw
upon local knowledge and complement traditional land use. For example, Nigel

Cross and Rhiannon Barker describe how the SOS Sahel Oral History Project recorded stories from men and women in sub-Saharan Africa about their changing
environment and ways of life. "We did not set out to accumulate facts," they explain, "but rather to find the stories, to improve the techniques for their collection

and, most important of all, to demonstrate their value and utility." Through the
oral history project, villagers actively participated in the creation of informed and

appropriate development strategies. These participatory aims and approaches are


not dissimilar to those of the more sensitive urban redevelopment projects in the
industrialized "North." In effect, memories of effective social relations and land use

become a resource for community and environmental survival.19


18 Barbara K. Haight andJeffrey D. Webster, eds., The Art and Science ofReminiscing: Theory, Research, Methods, and Applications (Washington, 1995). By comparison, see Joanna Bornat, ed., Reminiscence Reviewed: Per-

spectives, Evaluations, Achievements (Buckingham, 1994); Oral History Reader, ed. Perks and Thomson, 183-84;
and Rina Benmayor, "Testimony, Action Research, and Empowerment: Puerto Rican Women and Popular Education," in Women's Words, ed. Gluck and Patai, 159-74. Bornat, "Oral History as a Social Movement," 195.

19 Nigel Cross and Rhiannon Barker, "The Sahel Oral History Project" (1991), in Oral History Reader, ed. Perks
and Thomson, 246. See also Peter Read, Returning to Nothing: The Meaning of Lost Places (Cambridge, Eng.,
1997); and Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, "Advocacy and Empowerment: Introduction," in Oral History
Reader, ed. Perks and Thomson, 185-88.

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590 The Journal of American History September 1998

Health promotion work also increasingly draws on the experiences of clients to


develop better understandings of the lived experience of illness and more appropriate treatment or prevention strategies. For example, the oral historian Sanjiv

Kakar demonstrates the utility of life stories in leprosy eradication projects in India.
Interviews with villagers provide essential information about the local conditions
and attitudes that shape the experience of leprosy, and they ensure that eradication
strategies are appropriate for particular communities. Indeed, oral history projects have helped to dissolve the silence and stigma that surround leprosy, and interviewees have become activists in community health and education schemes. Kakar

also shows how the oral testimony of leprosy patients can "enable a more sensitive
reading of colonial records" and "help to fill in the gaps within colonial histories"
that ignored the experience of leprosy patients in the community. This two-way
use of oral histories -to improve historical understanding and contemporary care
strategies -is a significant recent development in health and welfare practice in
many countries. Though such professional uses for oral history seem far removed
from its origins in community, academic, and archival history projects, respect for
the life stories of people who might otherwise have been ignored -by history, by

society, by health and welfare professionals-is a powerful common thread.20


Projects that record the life histories of the oppressed and undocumented have

also had explicit political aims and outcomes. Central American refugees in the
Sanctuary movement of the 1980s used their own life-story testimonials to educate
North Americans about the situation in their countries and to gain financial and
political support. These testimonials were constructed for maximum political effect

and presented through a range of narrative forms: as performance, in writing, and


as etched into the bodies of victims of torture. Apart from gaining support for their
cause, the narrators attained public affirmation and therapeutic benefit through
telling their stories. Refugees or other victims of social and political oppression who

"bear witness" can be empowered as they find words and meanings for their experiences and as they stimulate public recognition and affirmation of experiences

that have previously been ignored or silenced. Testimonial can also have direct social and political outcomes, as evidenced in the efforts of the Sanctuary movement,
of women speaking out against abuse, or indigenous peoples campaigning for their
land and cultural rights.21
In some countries oral histories have helped challenge state control of the past

and have contributed to the democratization of memory and history. For example,
the Russian historian Irina Sherbakova argues that the past was continually rein20 Sanjiv Kakar, "Leprosy in India: The Intervention of Oral History" (1995), in Oral History Reader, ed. Perks
and Thomson, 266. See special issue "Health and Welfare," Oral History (Colchester), 23 (Spring 1995); and
Bornat, ed., Reminiscence Reviewed.

21 William Westerman, "Central American Refugee Testimonies and Performed Life Histories in the Sanctuary
Movement" (1994), in Oral History Reader, ed. Perks and Thomson, 224-34. See, for example, Katherine Anguiera,
"To Make the Personal Political: The Use of Testimony as a Consciousness-Raising Tool against Sexual Aggression
in Puerto Rico," Oral History Review, 16 (Fall 1988), 65-93; Ann McGrath, "'Stories for Country': Oral History
and Aboriginal Land Claims," Oral History Association of Australia Journal (Mt. Pleasant) (no. 9, 1987), 34-46;
and Julie Cruikshank, "Oral Tradition and Oral History: Reviewing Some Issues," Canadian Historical Review
(Toronto), 75 (no. 3, 1994), 403-18.

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vented by the Soviet regime and describes the fitful liberalization that made it
possible to challenge those fabrications. Using interviews she conducted, beginning
early in the 1970s, with survivors of the Soviet prison and labor camps, Sherbakova
explains how fear and distortion affected individual remembering, and how survivors have been torn between the urge to speak out and the fear of doing so. Remembering involves struggle for survivors and in the social and political life of a
nation. Organizations that bring together survivors and the families of victimssuch as the Memorial movement in the former Soviet Union-have supported the
difficult processes of individual and collective remembering. Throughout central
and eastern Europe, oral history has been used as a resource for the identification
and excavation of mass graves, as a way of "rehabilitating" the reputations and restoring the rights of victims of persecution, and as evidence in court actions against
the perpetrators of injustice. The work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission
in South Africa offers an international comparison. Oral history can help individuals and societies remember and make better sense of traumatic pasts.22
These political uses of oral history- in which the reassertion of previously silenced
histories can be empowering for individuals, social groups, or whole societies -are
connected to a significant, continuing tradition in which oral history has been an
important resource for political groups and social movements: in the women's move-

ment, for trade unionists and working-class communities, for indigenous peoples,
for immigrant and ethnic communities, in gay and lesbian politics, and for people
with disabilities. Ior example, Karen Hirsch explains how the comparatively recent
use of oral history in disability studies "could allow yet another group to find a

voice, could lead to a new view of local and social history, and could help create

a deeper understanding of cultural conditions which affect everyone."23


However, as Hirsch and others have noted, there are significant tensions in
politically motivated oral history between a celebration of individual achievement

and the exploration of social patterns of discrimination and between scholarship


and advocacy. Oral histories "from below" that have been written by researchers
"from above" can be disempowering for the objects of research. Even in participa-

tory projects it can be extraordinarily difficult to combine critical analysis and personal or collective affirmation and to sustain a "shared authority" (to use Michael

Frisch's resonant phrase) in historical interpretation and production.24 And when


the oral historian's interpretative conclusions are at odds with those of his or her

22 Irina Sherbakova, "The Gulag in Memory" (1992), in Oral History Reader, ed. Perks and Thomson, 235-45;
Jan Coetzee and Otakar Hulec, "Oppression, Resistance, Imprisonment: Different but Similar Stories in South
Africa and Czechoslovakia," in Trauma and Narrative, ed. Selma Leydesdorff and Kim Lacy Rogers (London, 1998,

forthcoming). See also Luisa Passerini, ed., International Yearbook of Oral History andLifie Stories, vol. I: Memory
and Totalitarianism (Oxford, 1992); and Robert Perks, "Ukraine's Forbidden History: Memory and Nationalism,"
Oral History, 21 (Spring 1993), 43-52.
23 For extensive references, see Perks and Thomson, "Advocacy and Empowerment," 184-87. Karen Hirsch,

"Culture and Disability: The Role of Oral History" (1995), in Oral History Reader, ed. Perks and Thomson, 214.
24 Frisch, Shared Authority. See also Popular Memory Group, "Popular Memory: Theory, Politics, Method"

(1982), in Oral History Reader, ed. Perks and Thomson, 75-86; Katharine Borland, "'That's Not What I Said':
Interpretative Conflict in Oral Narrative Research" (1991), ibid., 320-32; Gluck and Patai, eds., Women's Words,
137-220.

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592 The Journal of American History September 1998

narrators - as in Claude Lanzmann's film documentary Shoah or Kathleen Blee's


research into women in the Ku Klux Klan -then oral historians may be forced to
choose between a responsibility to their informants and a responsibility to history
and society.25
Yet oral history-at its best -requires us to recognize and negotiate these dilem-

mas, and to consider the personal and political consequences of historical research.

These negotiations can be challenging and even painful, but for me they are offset,
and my spirits are lifted, when a student returns from her first interview exhilarated

by the connection with living history, when the daughter of an interviewee phones
to say how much her father valued the opportunity to look back over his life, or
when a new oral history publication explodes another historical myth or silence.
Technological Futures, Human Dilemmas

One of the most compelling features of oral history is its potential for use in public
history. Presentations through a variety of media evoke the rich, multidimensional

meanings of text, voice, image, and performance; they can be enormously engaging
for an audience, and they can facilitate participation in their creation and through
interactive use. A substantial and growing international literature addresses the use

of oral history in community and academic books, in exhibitions and dramatic per-

formance, in radio, television, and film, and, most recently, in the multimedia
formats of CD-ROM, interactive CDs, and the World Wide Web.26
A variety of questions are raised by the transformation of oral testimony into
oral history books. Jane Mace, for example, describes the "series of moves between

talking, listening, writing and reading" in the production of autobiographical

books by members of reminiscence groups in London. Mace is interested in "how


oral accounts may become written texts, through a process in which participants
have time to reflect on and develop the first version of a story and, if they choose

to do so, to be able to edit, amend and elaborate on it as a piece of writing." By


contrast, the anthropologist Marjorie Shostak writes about her collection, transla-

tion, editing, and publication of the life story of Nisa, a !Kung (Bushman) woman
of Botswana. She asks, among other challenging questions, whether the publication of personal narratives is "a boon for researchers while being a thinly disguised
'rip-off' of informants"; how the translation, editing, and publication affected

Nisa's story; and to what extent Nisa had an active role in those processes.27
From New Zealand Anna Green describes how a graduate class oral history

project in a town once important as a railway junction produced an "exhibition

that speaks for itself . . . using oral testimonies as an oral source: in other words
25 Kathleen Blee, "Evidence, Empathy, and Ethics: Lessons from Oral Histories of the Klan" (1993), in Oral

History Reader, ed. Perks and Thomson, 333-43.


26 For extensive references, see Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, "Making Histories: Introduction," in Oral
History Reader, ed. Perks and Thomson, 357-63.

27 Jane Mace, "Reminiscence as Literacy: Intersections and Creative Moments" (1995), ibid., 393; Marjorie
Shostak, "'What the Wind Won't Take Away': The Genesis of Nisa: The Life and Words of a IKung Woman" (1989),
ibid., 406.

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sound and listening would take precedence over sight and looking." In five museum
gallery rooms, old red railway carriage seats became independent sound units each with a CD player underneath and small speakers attached to brackets at head
height on either side -playing sequences of carefully selected interview extracts
focusing on particular themes in the social history of the town. These oral memories
related to but also contradicted the evidence of photos and video images reproduced on adjoining walls, and the tapes stimulated lively remembering and discussion among past and present residents who flocked to the exhibition. To communicate and explore the history of another site of industrial decline, Shaun
Nethercott and Neil Leighton staged a dramatic reconstruction of a 1936-1937 sitdown strike in the Michigan car-making town of Flint. '37-'87 was a "play based
on oral history in which oral history provides the model for form, content and retransmission of the subject matter," and in which "performance is built through
improvisation on an existing stock of images and forms. Songs were combined with

a photographic image and reinforced with tales from the tape." The aim of the play
was to involve students, union members, and former strikers in "the active reclamation" of a forgotten history.28
Television is probably the most influential medium for presentation of oral history at the present time, though oral history filmmakers seem notoriously reluctant
to expose their methodology to public scrutiny and debate, while the pressures of

the television and film industries provide few opportunities to be reflective and selfcritical in print. Dan Sipe argues that "oral history and moving images have considerable potential synergy," based on the "paradoxical realization that orality, at
its core, is not purely a concept grounded in sound. The spoken word is embedded
in a setting, a situation, a context. People speak with body language, expression,
and tone. They respond to and refer to their setting and objects" and to the conversational interaction of the interview. Sipe provides an illuminating example
from the documentary film history of a village in China:
Transcripts alone could not have communicated, as the combination of words and
images do, the pace, rhythm, or overlapping of interview dialogue. Three older

women sitting in a row with bound feet are asked if as girls in pre-revolutionary

China they had wanted their feet to be bound. Simultaneously, they erupt that
of course, they had wanted to. But it is the rapidity and simultaneity of their re-

sponse, as well as their affect and tone, that tell us most about their feelings. For
these peasants, the quintessential "unheard" people, the visual dimension is absolutely crucial to their stories, and moving images lessen the mediating role of
the interviewer.29

Multimedia have the potential to expand such possibilities. Multimedia formats


can include a massive amount of textual, oral, visual, and video material. They
28 Anna Green, "The Exhibition That Speaks for Itself: Oral History and Museums," ibid., 449; Shaun Nethercott and Neil Leighton, "Out of the Archives and onto the Stage" (1990), ibid., 457-64.

29 Dan Sipe, "The Future of Oral History and Moving Images" (1991), ibid., 378-88. See also Alistair Thomson,

"Ten Pound Poms and Television Oral History," Oral History (Colchester), 25 (Autumn 1997), 85-89; and Steve
Hussey, "Making Television Oral History: An Interview with Paul Neuburg," ibid., 90-92.

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594 The Journal of American History September 1998

facilitate the simultaneous juxtaposition of diverse forms of evidence, including

both complementary and contradictory accounts and interpretations. They do not


require literacy for navigation (rather, they require different types of literacy).

Perhaps most significant, they enable users to chart their own paths, to make their
own connections and interpretations, and even to question the construction of history: how and why historians tell some stories and not others and how the form
of the story affects its meaning.30

Some oral history CD-ROM pioneers are already becoming frustrated by the technological limits of that medium and are beginning to explore the dramatic possibilities for oral history in cyberspace. The American Social History Project in New
York, for example, is developing Internet publications, and other oral historians
have initiated interactive memory exchanges that generate a spiraling of new voices

through the Internet. Many oral history programs have home pages on the World
Wide Web that facilitate access to collections that are tucked away in library corners.

Some put transcripts and even digitized full sound recordings on the Web and plan
to add videotaped oral history interviews when the technological bottleneck restricting such usage is overcome. The text, the sound, and the image of oral history interviews could thus be used together and made available to a vast audience. And
virtual interviews through the Internet - using type or sound - are beginning to

offer a very different alternative to the face-to-face taped interview that has been
the stock in trade of oral historians for fifty years: anyone will be able to "interview"
anybody from anywhere in the world (so long as interviewee and interviewer have
access to networked technology). If one of the original aims of oral history was to
give silenced voices a public hearing, then this is an extraordinary and perhaps
unexpected apotheosis.

It also opens up an ethical, legal, and political can of worms. If sound clips from
interviews are put on the Internet, then whose agenda shapes the selection? Will
consent forms signed before the Internet was even conceived cover the electronic

"publication" of interviews? Can there be informed consent when interviewees can

barely imagine how their words may be taken up and used by a vast anonymous
audience? How can archivists maintain copyright restrictions (access codes and restricted pages are only partial solutions), and how will people obtain legal recourse

if their stories are exploited? How might people tell their stories in different ways

to an interviewer they know only through their computer? Who will access and use
the Internet and how might the social marginality and historical silence -of par-

ticular groups be reinforced by technological exclusion? None of these questions


are unique to oral history, but they require oral historians to stretch their ethical
understandings and guidelines to cover new situations. Even if oral history's future
is made in digital cyberspace, its heart will continue to be the- very human dimen-

sion of remembering in relationship with other people.


30 See Karen Flick and Heather Goodall, "Angledool Stories: Aboriginal History in Hypermedia," in Oral His-

tory Reader, ed. Perks and Thomson, 421-31; Graham Smith, "Mega-Memories on CD-ROM," Oral History (Colchester), 26 (Spring 1998), 93-95; and Steve Brier, "Oral History and Public History: The Intellectual Possibilities
of New Media," ibid. (Autumn 1998, forthcoming).

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The international practice of oral history over the last fifty years, as reviewed in
this article, shows that oral history perpetually counters any tendency to cut historical practice and understanding off from life and human needs; it shows that interviewing provides more than another set of documents -it is a way of fostering his-

torical consciousness and social awareness; it shows that while oral history
interviewing may vary in different cultures and circumstances, oral historians can
learn from international exchange concerning common interests and debates; and
it shows oral history's extraordinary capacity for interaction with other endeavors
and disciplines, from anthropology to health care to filmmaking. As oral historians

we need to remember our own recent past and to adapt the lessons we have learned
about memory and history and about the humanity of our craft.

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