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The Historiography of Oral History: From Prehistory to the Present

Written by Tristan Craig. Oral History has become a fundamental part of contemporary historical practice. Where do its origins lie? And, what can it offer beyond textual sources?

Long before historical writing was committed to parchment, recollections of past events were shared and memorialised by way of spoken word, passed down through successive generations. The forms this oral tradition took were varied, from storytelling to poetry and song, but all served as a means of preserving cultural heritage. Scholars have typically approached it as a discipline distinct from oral history; whilst the former focusses on relating events that happened, oral traditions, such as folklore, often evokes bucolic themes which fuse allegorical and mythological elements. However, the two can be hard to extrapolate and, as history emerged from the ancient world as an academic discipline, both were used as a means of collecting source material.

When Herodotus began his historical analysis in fifth-century BCE Greece, providing the Western world with the first historical literature and the eponymous name of the discipline as a whole, it was through oral narratives that much of his research was conducted. His successor, Thucydides, would continue this tradition, employing even great academic rigour and highlighting the difficulties in using verbal accounts as “[a]ccurate research into earlier or yet more ancient history was impossible given the great gap of time”. Thucydides’ observations of the limitations of memory is a stance many modern scholars have taken when discounting oral history as a viable means of conducting research. Classicists, for example, have to rely on the third-hand information of Herodotus for most of what we know on the Achaemenid ruler Xerxes I; not only will the Greek-speaking Herodotus have encountered linguistic issues when collecting his testimonies, but his portrayal of the Persian king is notably unfavourable. Whilst making any concrete conclusions on literacy rates in the ancient world is an impossible task due to a lack of statistics, a greater emphasis on oratory and rhetoric meant that much of what was committed to writing was done so from memory. The dialogues of Socrates, for example, survive only in the writing of Plato and, to a lesser extent, Xenophon. Although there is a broad enough corpus of material from Ancient Greece from which to construct a historical narrative, prehistory presents a unique set of problems when evidence is significantly scarcer. However, an interdisciplinary approach which affords attention to oral tradition can shed light upon both the function and value of human memory.

Collective memory has received increased attention since the turn of the century in archaeological research as a means of understanding how civilisations interacted with the world around them. It is a particularly useful tool for understanding how cultural norms were developed and exchanged, and how certain practices have survived. When used in conjunction with epigraphic and material evidence, the equivocacy of collective memory, filtered through millennia of transmission, can be mitigated. Even when the stories themselves have been lost to time, examination of extant language can reveal remnants of an oral tradition. For example, the North American native Lakȟóta tribe maintain words for several Pleistocene mammals including the woolly rhinoceros, extinct for c.14,000 years. Analysis of lexical semantics suggests the capacity for collective memory to survive significant periods of time; in terms of its archaeological significance, it can reveal information on the geographical spread and co-existence of humans and extinct mammals. In terms of its cultural significance, it highlights the importance of preserving certain information to certain groups of people which can force scholars to move beyond ethnocentric approaches to history by employing greater cultural relativism.

Although the roots of oral history can be traced beyond Ancient Greece to the folklore of native populations, it began to receive recognition as a vital means for conducting research in the mid-twentieth century. In Britain, social historians in the 1960s took an interest in a “history from below” approach and used oral testimonies as a means of preserving the voices of ordinary people who were largely missing from academia. In 1960, the Society for the Study of Labour History was formed to ensure that the lived experiences of the working classes were recorded orally. Although some critics noted the rudimentary nature of the early tape recordings and the need for a new range of practitioners with the technological know-how to oversee the process, it soon gained traction and, in the 1970s, became an important tool in the burgeoning second-wave feminist movement. Where it has had a particularly profound impact is in the collecting of histories from Jewish Holocaust survivors whose deeply personal accounts of systematic persecution cannot truly be conveyed in written accounts. To date, The British Library holds a collection of over 3.5 million recorded sounds, of which 1818 are oral testimonies of Jewish Holocaust survivors. Amongst the recordings are interviews detailing life in Nazi concentration camps, the Kindertransport which brought many Jewish children to Britain, and accounts from second generation survivors. In this regard, oral history can supplement scholarship by providing a human element to statistics and records, particularly when those voices have not only been silenced but were the victims of a regime so abhorrent that no external writer can expect to convey. Hearing first-hand accounts not only allows the historian to substantiate facts but, perhaps most crucially, provide a human element to the darkest moments in history. It cannot undo the systematic erasure of ethnographic groups, but it can ensure the voices of the subjugated are preserved. Crucially, as more time elapses, capturing the memories of living persons who witnessed events can ensure that significant moments in human history are not forgotten.

In 2021, oral history remains an important part of historical research in a rapidly digitising age. Launched in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, “Queer Pandemic: Resilience in Times of Crisis” is an oral history project and collaborative effort between Queer Britain, Goldsmith’s, University of London, and Kent State University in Ohio. It explores not only the disproportionate effect of the current global pandemic on LGBTQ+ people, but how other crises facing the community, including HIV/AIDs, violence, and barriers to healthcare, have impacted the lives of queer people. Long after the virus has been subdued and “normalcy”, in whatever form that may take, has returned, projects like these can ensure that the individual experiences of this hugely impactful moment are preserved. The history of oral traditions is as long as humans have engaged in lingual transmission with one another, predating written records as well as influencing the earliest written histories. Despite the academic distinction between oral traditions and oral history, the former gave rise to the latter through the preservation of human experience for subsequent generations. By utilising new technologies, the nuances of personal experience that do not translate into written word can be captured in recorded speech, such as the subtleties of sarcasm, irony, or wit, as well as humanising the horrors of the recent past. Although it has on occasion received criticism for the reliability of oral accounts, where oral history is perhaps most useful is less in understanding the past as it actually happened, but how experiences of individuals have shaped their memories; knowing whether events actually happened as described is, at least in some instances, perhaps less revelatory.

Written by Tristan Craig

Bibliography

For an example of the oral history captured by Queer Britain, see ‘Queer Voices in the Pandemic: Ted’, https://vimeo.com/509975539/2e868f21a7 (accessed 06.03.21)

Bartie, A. and McIvor, A. ‘Oral History in Scotland’. The Scottish Historical Review 92 (2013): 108-136.

“British Library Sounds: Jewish survivors of the Holocaust.” https://sounds.bl.uk/Oral-history/Jewish-Holocaust-survivors (accessed 06.03.2021).

Grele, R.J. ‘On Using Oral History Collections: An Introduction.’ The Journal of American History 74, no. 2 (1987): 570-578.

“Queer Pandemic: Resilience in Times of Crisis”, https://queerbritain.org.uk/history-2020-queer-pandemic-project (accessed 06.03.2021).

Wiley, C.J. ‘Collective Memory of the Prehistoric Past and the Archaeological Landscape.’ Nebraska Anthropologist 43 (2008): 80-93.

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