Status of the research technique known as oral history
Interviews with contemporaries: the basic principles of oral history
Passing on history by word of mouth is not a new concept. In fact it is
the oldest means of preserving history in existence. What is relatively
new, however, is the practice of systematically requesting elderly
people to tell us about their memories of certain figures or events in
the context of historical research. The planning, carrying out and
analysis of interviews with witnesses to the events or figures we are
interested in are the main components of the research technique known
as oral history, a technique which has only been widely practised since
the 1960s. It is used by historians, ethnologists, musicologists,
sociologists and other academics, but also by the organizers of local history projects and interested laypeople.
Despite it being a rather makeshift solution, the English term "oral
history" has become widely accepted even in German. Approximately
equivalent alternative expressions include "remembered history" and
"orally ascertained history", which was used as the subheading to a
book on the subject. There is no generally recognized definition of
these terms. Oral history only describes the research method– i.e. via
an oral exchange or conversation – but not the purpose of the
One thing that is for certain is that oral history has, to some extent,
become associated with the voice of "the ordinary people". This gives
it the image of being a democratic or left wing research method -
despite the fact that oral history was originally used in the USA as a
means of collecting information on the biographies of the elite. It is
regarded as a useful way of documenting "every day history" or
"grassroots history", and Anglo-American literature in particular
contains many examples of the successful employment of this technique.
However, oral history as a research method, (the technique was used
particularly widely in the 70s and 80s), is not without is critics, who
claim that interviews with contemporary witnesses cannot be taken as
"real" sources, but as retrospective interpretations only.
Interviews conducted in 2004 about the year 1940, they argue, provide
no reliable information about 1940 but say a lot about 2004. As with
memoirs, oral history is less about memory than about reconstruction.
What is true is that the researcher must be aware that historical
interviews are products of communication which are shaped by the
perspectives of both the interviewee and the interviewer – sources
which come into being through teamwork. If the interviewer is careful
and attentive, and the reader too in their interpretation of the spoken
word, the resulting interview can be seen as an useful addition to the
information gained from conventional sources.
Anybody who conducts interviews as part of a historical research
project has a double responsibility: towards the interviewee and
towards the material. He needs to be aware of the socio-political
significance of the discussion situation (an interviewee who sees the
interview as a form of therapy, for instance, is not ideal). Direct
contact with elderly and possibly lonely people requires more tact and
empathy than work in an archive. The interviewer also needs to be able
to treat the material he collects professionally and unsentimentally,
aware that it is not for his personal use but for publication in some
form or another. A simple transcription cannot suffice- interesting
statements need to be given a wider context, critically interpreted and
given the power to speak anew to a wider audience through publication
in an essay or article.
GRAF, WERNER: Das Schreibproblem der Oral History. In:
Literatur & Erfahrung, Heft 10: Oral History – Geschichte von
unten. Berlin 1982, S. 100-105.
HOWARTH, KEN: Oral History. Stroud (GB)
NIETHAMMER, LUTZ (Hrsg.): Lebenserfahrung und
kollektives Gedächtnis. Die Praxis der „Oral History“. Frankfurt am
Main 1985. Thompson, Paul: The Voice of the Past. Oral History. Oxford
(GB) u.a. 1978.
VORLÄNDER, HERWART (Hrsg.): Oral History. Mündlich erfragte Geschichte. Acht Beiträge. Göttingen 1990.
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