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Oral History: Revealing the Mind through Conversation

Ute Ferrier

In the United States the institutional beginnings of oral history can be traced back to Allan Nevins’s Oral History Project at Columbia University in 1948. As a field it developed in the early 1980s and at this time advocates started to seriously reflect on its methods and implications. Today oral history and public history are considered the growth engine of the historical discipline, absorbing many historians who are competing in a tight job market. However, the importance of oral history goes beyond practical considerations. Its methodological innovations enhance yet at the same time challenge the discipline. In this paper I will discuss some of the key issues anyone who intends to “do” oral history ought to consider. While I will briefly address some of the methodological concerns, the main focus of the paper will deal with the meaning and implication of oral history.

Oral history, especially in its import on public history, has tremendous potential. It can give a voice to those who have previously been excluded from historical narratives. By incorporating everyday, ordinary people in the historical dialogue it gives them an opportunity to formulate their own meaning. A sharing of authority can take place and through this grass roots approach the “making” of history can become more democratic. Approaching history from the bottom up also encourages that a new set of questions be asked, and it can break the old molds of historical scholarship in numerous ways.

Oral history has been practiced by professionals on both sides of the academic divide and has been used for diverse purposes, from purely academic information to statistics utilized by government agencies. Oral history can be used as a supplement to traditional historical writings because it can offer a different type of source and therefore can be interpreted as a way of making more history. It has also been viewed as an alternative that allows scholars to get around the historical discipline altogether. For Michael Frisch, who has reflected on the craft and implication of oral history for two decades, these two visions of more history or no history are not entirely satisfactory. Oral history has a greater potential because it can make history more meaningful—it can be a qualitative improvement, it can make for better history. Functioning within the realms of history, this approach can enrich an already extant knowledge base. It can also be more responsive and reciprocal than the history that is written exclusively for an academic audience and lacks relevance for the public at large.

Even if oral history is conducted within institutional confines, it has potential to reach the masses. In other words, oral history can be used for social and political purposes more readily than a monograph on an obscure study that is only interesting to a handful of scholars. Frisch sees the challenge of oral history in learning how “social history, community studies, and public presentation can combine in scholarship that is at once intellectually trenchant, politically meaningful, and sharable with the communities from which it comes.”

Frisch’s call for political sensitivity and the democratization of history has been echoed by many of his colleagues, including the British sociologist Paul Thompson whose work is driven by the tenet that “All history depends ultimately upon its social purpose.” Thompson’s activist, populist stance has inspired many historians who have endeavored to let the common people participate in their histories and to give them a central place in it.

This sharing of authority and incorporation of commoners requires that the information be handled responsibly. In this respect an oral historian faces similar challenges than a historian who analyzes written documents. Both have to be sensitive in regards to their sources and consider who is speaking, what the people or documents reveal and what the historical context was under which the records were created. Oral historians have additional challenges; for example, how to reduce a tape-recorded interview to a written transcript, how to account for facial expressions, body language and pauses. Non-verbal clues get lost during transcription. The question of selectivity also plays an important role because recordings are not necessarily translated in their entirety, so there is considerable leeway to skew an interview by selecting certain answers and excluding others.

Information presents other problems as well, because memory and recall are subjective, which makes it all the more important to understand the context. Without context oral history would merely be swapping stories but “conversations become historical in the truest sense when a context is formed for the dialog.” This can be challenging because often informants are interviewed about events that transpired some time ago. When recollections are not fresh they may be faulty and the events may be reconstructed in a distorted way. Having a temporal distance can sometimes be beneficial though, because it allows for greater reflection, which is hardly possible while people are in the midst of the experience. However, since events recalled at a later date are interpreted in the mind-set of the present, this begs the question, “What time period does such an interview represent: the time investigated or the time of the interview?” All these matters need to be considered. It is important who is talking, what the informants are discussing and how they make sense of it all. And this in turn is embedded in a cultural context, inextricably shaped by forces such as the mass media.

Introspection and careful analysis, while arguably necessary for all disciplines, is even more essential for public historians because they are part of the public discourse and their work can have significant social and political repercussions. The interpretation of events is not simply a matter of who has the more accurate version. It can also demonstrate who exercises political power and how that power can be abused. A good example is the story of Luigi Trastulli, a 21-year old steelworker from Terni (an industrial town in central Italy), who died on March 17, 1949 after clashing with the local police. The actual incident was minor, compared to the high-casualty police violence of the 1950s, but the way the event was appropriated was significant. It “became the ground upon which collective memory and imagination built a cluster of tales, symbols, legends, and imaginary reconstructions.”

The different ways in which this particular event was recalled tells volumes about the power relationship between the workers and the police. The official account made by the police stated that the steelworkers went on a major strike without having obtained permission for it, and that the violence started with the mob. Workers who were interviewed recalled on the other hand that it was no strike at all, instead several workers were just getting off work leaving the factory at the same time, and that the police initiated the violence. In this instance recall and political power are inextricably bound and cannot be separated. The actors’ state of mind at that time helped determine how the event was interpreted and what it meant.

Portelli who interviewed workers several decades after the event found that Trastulli’s death was later even connected to events that had nothing to do with the police clash in which he died. The protest in 1949 was directed against NATO but many workers came to associate his death with the massive labor strikes of the 1950s. Consequently Trastulli was remembered as a martyr who died during worker strikes in the cause of labor. When Portelli brought this discrepancy to the attention of his informants, they seemed little perturbed. After all to them it made more sense to think of Trastulli’s death in the context of labor strikes since these had a more profound effect on the community than the NATO protest several years earlier. Chronology thus seemed less important than the meaning which the workers bestowed and in this respect memory as history can be seen in terms of the symbolic and psychological.

The discrepancy between the official accounts and the recollections of the workers points to another dilemma: the tension between public life and private memory. Class appears to be particularly pertinent here because people’s accounts are evaluated according to their social position. While lower-class people may be invited to share their experiences, they are seldom asked for an analysis of the events. Such discrimination is standard practice and “reinforces the already deeply-rooted, class-based ideology that sees ordinary people as sources of data, rather than as shapers and interpreters of their own experience.”

Class is particularly important if we try to get a view from the bottom up. Some people speak anonymously and their experiences are merely historical in the sense that they reflect many experiences. This seemed to be the case with numerous people Studs Terkel interviewed on their experiences during the Great Depression. Many of his informants interpreted the depression in terms of personal failure. These testimonies of survivors loaded with the scars of psychic suffering give great insight into why there has not been a more critical assessment of the Great Depression, why it did not produce “more focused critiques of American capitalism and culture, more sustained efforts to see fundamental change.” As time passes, these experiences of personal failure are seen through the lenses of success and survival, a legacy for the generations that were to follow. A structural criticism was bypassed and history was thus filtered twice, “by time and subsequent experience.”

Not all of the survivors of the Great Depression spoke anonymously, though. Some had a direct impact on historical developments and their involvement was clearly in the public realm. Most of the time, the “spectrum of private and public experiences and subjectivity parallels the spectrum of power and position,” and those who exerted little political power were most likely to interpret the depression primarily as a private tribulation. Nonetheless there were exceptions, and many of the rich could live quite privately, while some among the poor were politically active and functioned in “a public dimension well beyond their own subjectivity.” The kind of information obtained by interviews can thus range from the particular to the general, from specific private experiences to a discussion of what it meant—it can be highly anecdotal or fairly analytical.

For the oral historian evaluating what people are saying is perhaps the most difficult aspect of the inquiry but it is also the most important. Here it becomes pertinent to understand how people make sense of their experiences and how they construct meaning out of them. By looking at this “oral history reveals patterns and choices, that, taken together, begin to define the reinforcing and screening apparatus of the general culture, and the ways in which it encourages us to digest experience.” Attitudes and opinions that are formed in a cultural context will emerge from these interviews.

However, oral history is not just employed to detect the formation of public opinion, it is also used to shape them. Frisch points out that this was the case with the PBS series Vietnam: A Television History where primarily those individuals who held powerful positions were prompted to interpret historical events. Peasants and foot soldiers were interviewed for their personal experiences but not asked to put those into a larger context. “The higher or more important the position of the subject, however, the more likely he or she is to be seen offering historical judgments of a broader nature, sweeping evaluations of what an event meant, what caused it, or what the public felt.” To Frisch, even more disturbing than this selectivity regarding interpretation is the fact that personal experiences are often presented without ever being put into their historical context. Vietnam is not uncommon; more recent documentaries also fail when it comes to “preventing a momentarily glimpsed reality from slipping back behind a curtain of amnesia, or from receding into a blurry distance.” The problem is that by presenting events such as the Vietnam War without ever seriously discussing the underlying causes, society can maintain its denial and disengagement. Consequently it can avoid taking responsibility.

In projects such as historical documentaries, oral history can be used for political purposes and cultural hegemony. “In the political arena, for instance, where major conflicts in a democratic society are presumably engaged, the war and its roots were never legitimately discussible.” The causes and ideological underpinnings could not be debated while the war was still going on because this was considered to undermine the war effort. Once the war was over the nation supposedly embarked on a healing process and in this postwar environment a discussion of the war was also treated as subversive. Consequently dissenting voices were silenced, or at least given the least amount of exposure possible. The prevalent manner of dealing with these issues was not to engage in a multi-dimensional discussion but instead to package this complex historical experience and market it through the mass-mediated popular culture for “acceptable public remembering.”

The issue of public memory has also been contentious in Germany, where people are still coming to terms with the Nazi era and the Holocaust. Even today, more than half a century after World War II, the question of responsibility is still controversial and hotly debated by academics. Initially at war’s end the German nation was preoccupied with reconstruction and there was little public debate on the Nazi legacy. A massive discussion in the public sphere was not initiated until the television series Holocaust premiered in 1979. Public reaction was strong and interest in the Holocaust peaked, only to ebb shortly afterwards. This short-lived engagement with the issues implies that “the intensity of measurable reaction is a highly questionable indicator of the quality of ‘mass’ memory work.”

It may be difficult to gauge the final impact a historical documentary will have but in Germany oral history has made an important contribution to the debate. One of the driving forces, through which much oral history has been introduced, is the history of everyday life (Alltagsgeschichte), which has been the most important historiographical development in Germany during the last two decades. Its emphasis has been on everyday, ordinary people, in German called kleine Leute, which can be translated to mean little people, or small people—a term “as suggestive as it is imprecise.” Historians of everyday life (Alltagshistoriker) intend to dispel the misconception that the common people have little to contribute to the nation’s historical narrative. As their Anglo-American counterparts they stress subjectivity and experience, as well as the social construction of meaning.

Alltagsgeschichte has many of the same goals Frisch identified for oral historians: a willingness to examine history from the bottom up, to give voice to those who have traditionally been overlooked and consequently to democratize the writing of history. In Germany, however, advocates of Alltagsgeschichte operate in a political and academic environment that has been resistant to innovative approaches. The struggles have been hard fought and after two decades Alltagshistoriker have made small “inroads into the institutional centers of the profession” even though they enjoy considerable recognition abroad. A discussion about the pertinence of oral history and everyday life has been highly politicized in Germany. Consequently when Alfred Lüdtke, one of the leading advocates of Alltagsgeschichte, speaks about its import, he is arguing from the position of a dissenter.

Writing history from the bottom up is particularly contentious because it supposedly threatens the academic establishment, in particularly social-science history. Alltagsgeschichte emerged in the mid-1970s as a dissenting movement from the left and gained momentum during the 1980s. Actually it had much in common with social-science history and the so-called Bielefeld school. Both were committed to coming to terms with the Nazi past and both criticized the “traditionalist methodology and intellectual outlook of the established West German profession,” meaning they opposed the older historicist methods that focused on politics and diplomacy. The Bielefeld school, however, sought to explain history by analyzing society and history through “big structures, large processes, huge comparisons” and this is where Alltagsgeschichte diverges. Its goal was to develop a qualitative understanding by examining the material conditions of everyday life and by “entering the inner world of popular experience” in those contexts which have been considered the cultural domain. For the social-science historians embracing cultural history was clearly an abandonment of scientific principles and over this issue the two camps have exchanged words. Lüdtke and his colleagues have consequently been on the defensive and have argued that they do not intend to supplant the structural study of social change but try to transcend the “sharp dichotomy opposing objective, material, structural, or institutional factors to subjective, cultural, symbolic, or emotional ones.”

For Alltagshistoriker studying the lives of ordinary people does not mean that politics is left out; in fact their lives cannot be separated from the larger questions of power and appropriation. History from below sheds light on the lives of “historical losers” and perhaps more importantly demonstrates the internal costs of social transformation. Again, it is a question of political power and how this comes to bear on the lives of everybody. Microhistory has the potential to decentralize analysis and interpretation and it also adds qualitatively to our historical understanding because it captures the ambiguities and contradictions of behavior in ways structural analysis is not able to do.

In Germany the barefoot approach has taken history beyond the institutional confines of scholars and scientists. The public has been involved in discussions regarding museum exhibits, memorial sites and the National Memorial Day (Volkstrauertag), which have been contentious issues because they involve national remembrance of the Holocaust and the Third Reich. The public’s involvement in these negotiations is “intended to make it more difficult to repress and forget, to sweep the past under the public carpet.”

When it comes to debates of such magnitude, it seems necessary to involve the public. This, however, can also be potentially hazardous. In the case of Germany, should modern-day Nazis be allowed to participate in the discourse and to what degree should their views be given credence? It can be argued that their opinions need to be made public to alert people to the dangers of such rhetoric. On the other hand, increased exposure may have the opposite effect and attract some people to their cause. Silencing the Nazis is certainly within Germany’s constitutional rights (even arguably a constitutional obligation) but critics charge that such efforts are repressive.

Perhaps a less stark example is that of complicity during the war. How guilty were those millions of Germans who did not participate in the resistance? And can millions of German civilians be portrayed as victims? The memories of the survivors have put a human face on these issues and once their personal suffering is acknowledged, it becomes increasingly difficult to speak of national responsibility.

Theoretically it is essential to include the voices from below, at least if we seek to approach the most accurate reconstruction of historical events possible. Yet, what exactly does it mean to incorporate the views from the common people? How is this authority transferred and what are historians giving up? In this respect there are no clear answers and these problems need to be solved as specific projects arise. A German historian who deals with issues of genocide will likely arrive at a different answer than a labor historian who examines workers’ lives under particular conditions. As such there are general theoretical guidelines for oral historians to consider, and thinking about the potential societal impact of one’s work is, in my view, a necessity. The detail, however, has to be worked out in the specific context in which the work is done. Method is, undoubtedly, an important consideration but not the preliminary one. More importantly, in the words of Ronald Grele, is “the mind revealed through conversation.” And in this respect the oral historian is as much part of the unfolding story as the informants whose experiences he or she seeks to incorporate into the historical narrative.

Last Updated: 8/12/16