Research Methods 24.10.11 — Oral History

This was a rather interesting class period. We had the same lecturer as we did for memory in historiography. And no surprise, oral history and memory are two similar topics. Oral history is a very interesting field because it, at least at first glance, seems much harder to work with and much less reliable than printed sources. What we must remember, however, is that all sources can and do have a bias. They ‘remember’ what they want and they ‘forget’ what they want. Even government sources can be inaccurate. I know that must be a shocking thought.

One current scholar in this field argues that people, when they remember and share, are ‘composing’ the subjectivities of their story [1. Penny Summerfield, `Culture and composure: creating narratives of the gendered self in oral history interviews’, Cultural and Social History, Volume 1, Number 1, 2004]. Her idea is that people, when they share their story to someone else, retell that story in a way ‘as to produce a version of the self that the teller can live with in a relative psychic ease.’ This is not to say they are inaccurate, but rather that they are a created, structured representation that the person chooses to share. This, I think, could easily apply to other kinds of sources such as letters or diaries.

I think to do oral history, and really probably history in general, you must lose a desire to find the pure, undefiled facts. The focus has to be on the story and on the ideas. Sources and stories can be inaccurate, altered, or simply carefully composed, and we may never know everything, but we can learn not only from what is shared, but from what is not. For example, in class we listened to two different oral history interviews. One of a elderly woman who grew up in Belfast in the 1930s and the other by a man growing up in the 1950s.The subject of both interviews was how their families ‘made ends meet’ during hard times. The difference between the two narratives was striking, the woman’s story was much more positive, while the man was much more negative, to summarize both very, very simply. We as a class discussed why. Was it gender differences? Generational differences? Age differences? There’d probably be a great paper examining even just those two interviews.

This is a part of my History at Queens series. I am writing on what I’m learning in my modules and as a part of my own research. Hope you enjoy!


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