History Foundation Oral History Essay

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590012701 History Foundation – Oral History Essay

How can memories revealed in interviews years after the event be of use to the historian?

Memories are the experiences of those who have lived through history.1 Deciding how best to use those gathered through interviews is a key question for historians as they, like written documents, can be liable to mislead as much as they can provide an answer to a question.2 Consequently they should both be taken seriously and, at the same time, not considered to be primarily a factual source – an archive is better suited for that. Instead, the role of memories is more to fill in the gaps and weaknesses in recorded documents, as Paul Thompson argues,3 or to recreate the past, rather than explain it – according to John Tosh.4 Green and Troup, on the other hand, feel that the primary purpose of memories is to provide a voice for social groups that have been denied one in the past,5 whilst Al Thompson puts forward the idea that memories are more useful for what they do not tell as what they do – providing a starting point for further investigation.6 These are just four views on how we should use the memories of those who have experienced the past and they barely scratch the surface. How memories revealed in interviews can be of use to historians is not as simple a question as it first appears to be.

Green and Troup, in their book The Houses of History, propose that information gathered through the oral tradition can be of use to the historian through it providing a voice to social groups that have previously been neglected in history – such as women, the working class and ethnic minorities7. However, they also acknowledge that these experiences will often be tainted by subjectivity or elaborated through the system of memory.8 Elaboration can be particularly problematic for historians; personal prejudice or favouritism can lead to certain aspects or sects of society being given greater or lesser importance. However, discovering why certain aspects of the past have been altered in significance by memory can be incredibly useful, giving the historian an idea of how the interviewee has been influenced by society. In particular, finding a voice for previously ‘oppressed’ social groups through oral history allows the historian to build a broader image of society and its reaction to events in. Furthermore, it allows for the creation of a variety of different records for future generations to use when studying our generation, helping them to build a clearer picture of how life was up, down and across the social scale. It seems logical that this would allow for our time to be better understood in the future than any other point in the past. That said, it is also worth considering that the questions posed by historians vary from generation to generation and that what we record today, particularly through the oral tradition, might have little or no use to historians in a hundred years time. In this sense, memories obtained through interviews are only of use to a historian in so much as that they are related to the questions that he or she wishes to answer.9

Linking to elaboration and the idea of how people can prioritise the past, memories revealed through interviews can also be as much use for what they simply do not tell as for what they do. Al Thomson, in his article on the Anzacs in Australia, points towards how his interviewee found it hard, sometimes only initially, to discuss certain aspects of his past. Many of these memories were too painful to go over, or would have been damaging to the interviewee’s mental state.10 He attributes this to the theory of private and public memory, whereby we compose our memories in such a way so as to suit the identity that we wish to put forward, along with the act of suppression or neglect of memories that we find too painful to discuss or relive.11 Not only did his interviews with Anzac veterans help to confirm this theory, which then allows him to conduct further interviews from a firm starting point, it also gave him suitable material from which he was able to construct a valid academic article. The areas of the past that his interviewee was unwilling to discuss also provided fresh points from which to make further investigations into the history of the Anzacs; if he wished, Thompson would be able to seek out other survivors who might be able to fill in the gaps. In doing so, it could then be possible to pinpoint why, exactly, some survivors found particular memories too difficult to recount. In this sense, memories gained from interviews are akin to the results gathered through a scientific experiment; they allow the historian to make predictions and theories, to gather data and to then test the data against their ideas. Oral history, in particular, provides a very random sample of experiences and memories which, where appropriate, can be synthesised with other information to allow for the creation of a more rounded image of the past than would otherwise be possible.

Looking at the past retrospectively through interviews with prominent figures can shed new light on events and help historians to understand why certain decisions were made. A very recent example of this comes from Tony Blair, who confessed that he would have invaded Iraq six years ago even if he had known that there were no weapons of mass destruction present, believing that the country would not be “better” with Saddam and his two sons in charge.12 Interviews such as this have both an immediate social impact and a long term historical impact, both of which can be of use to a historian. In the short term, Tony Blair’s interview will shape a lot of contemporary literature regarding the decision to invade Iraq, whilst in the longer term it will provide a point of analysis for any historian researching the beginnings of the war in Iraq. This sort of government-related information is often not readily available to historians and might never even make it into an archive, making interviews such as this a useful tool for historians looking to understand how and why certain crucial decisions were made. It is therefore unwise to underestimate the value of oral history and the memories of the people who were involved in important events; to treat interviews as just ‘one more document’ is to ignore their value as a spoken testimony.13

The memories of interviewees can be of particular use to a historian, more so than archival records, because of their specificity and focus; an interviewee is deliberately chosen and the interviewer is able to chose precisely which questions to ask in order to find out what he or she wants to know. This element of choice can aid in uncovering otherwise unknown information, whilst carefully selecting interviewees who might be likely to possess documents or artefacts that are of use to the study can give any findings greater validity and depth.14 However, along with the aforementioned issues of subjectivity and the mechanisms of memory, there is the issue that historians might try to ‘choose’ what they find; interviewing people who they believe might provide a certain type of answer that fits in with their own arguments and beliefs. Oral history can transform the content and purpose of history, which can lead to a coloured or impure version of history.15 When using the memories gathered through interviews, historians need to be aware of the potential, whether intentional or otherwise, for misrememberance. There is also the danger of relying too heavily on a single interview for information; as with any source, their validity is limited unless they are blended and combined with other sources, be they further interviews or archival evidence. This helps to produce a more balanced account of the past. There is, therefore, a danger of memoires almost being overvalued and over-depended on as a source of information for historians.

Eric Hobsbawm, in his book On History, dismisses the oral tradition as a ‘personal memory which is a remarkably slippery medium for preserving facts.’16 Paul Thompson agrees, noting the negative impacts of ‘misrememberance’ and exaggeration, how the presence of an interviewer can stimulate these flaws and how oral history is anecdotal, therefore unrepresentative of anyone beyond the interviewee in question.17 However, whilst these critiques are justified in that some oral history is not representative of the empirical past, these flaws are just as apparent in much written history, which have similar issues with bias and omission.18 With this is mind, it seems unfair to use Hobsbawm’s label for oral history. It seems more logical to suggest that oral history needs to be treated in much the same way as any other form of historical data; it needs to be analysed, sourced and synthesised with other records in order to ascertain legitimacy and accuracy. All things considered, the use of oral history is on a par with any other source – even if the possibility for inaccuracy, through ‘misrememberance’ or exaggeration, is more acute than with written sources. Furthermore, memories from key individuals at important points in the past, such as the confessions in the Nuremburg Trials in 1945-6 from Martin Bormann and Rudolf Hess, will often come in the form of oral history transcripts and to dismiss these would be to pass over the opportunity to broaden our understanding of the past.

John Tosh believes that historians should use oral history to recreate the past as it was, rather than to try to explain it.19 He feels that memories can add a human factor to the masses of archival data;20 that they can help to recover the everyday experiences of life.21 Paul Thompson agrees on this point, stating how memories represent the social perceptions of events in history.22 This idea of restoring the human reality to the empiricism of archival data helps the historian to produce a more rounded view of the past, creating an image which encompasses a broad range of views. Particularly pertinent to this idea is Green and Troup’s concept of oral history bringing a voice to those who have previously been denied one.23 In this sense, memories allow the historian to create a picture of life up, down and across the social scale – something which has not always been possible in the past due to censorship and the dismissal of the oral tradition, which resulted in little being recorded.24 Using memories in this way; to fill in the gaps of, to supplement and to build on archival data, as Paul Thompson states, allows the historian to create a more diverse and broad account of the past.25 This style of history is then more beneficial for future generations looking back upon the periods that have been recorded in this way; it is a history with the potential to encompass a broad social image. However, the accuracy of this picture is wholly dependent on the quality of material left behind – as is the case with archival data. If interviews are recorded poorly with a dearth of context around them (for example, details of the interviewee) then their use is immediately restricted, reducing the ways in which historians can apply them.

In conclusion, the range of arguments put forward in the literature for the use of memories, from them being a mere facet of history which cannot be fully trusted and, therefore useful, to them being a key factor in constructing a view of the past, suggests a lack of a general consensus on how exactly we should use oral history. However, there does seem to be a definite element of agreement that memories can be used to build a more three dimensional picture of the past than would be otherwise possible by using purely archival data. Furthermore, there is a consistent idea that memories are useful in re-creating the past, more so than archival data – which is better used to explain it. Therefore, it would be fair to conclude that memories revealed in interviews are as useful to the historian in so far as they, like any other source, provide an answer to the questions which they wish to ask. In addition, memories can provide a totally different range of answers to an archive, giving the historian another way in which to approach the past. Finally, on the issue of retrospective subjectivity in oral history as a potential drawback, we can only object to it if we want to eject those who lived through history from any part in assessing it. In the words of Paul Thompson: “'We could not have presumed that parents did not suffer deeply from the deaths of their children, just because child death was so common, without asking.”26

Word Count: 2107


  • Green A. and Troup K., The Houses of History (Manchester 1999)

  • Hobsbawm E., On History (London 1997)

  • Perks R. and Thompson A., The Oral History Reader (New York 1998)

  • Summerfield P., ‘Culture and Composure: Creating Narratives of the Gendered Self in Oral History Interviews’, Cultural and Social History 1 (2004) 65-93

  • Thompson A., Anzac Memories: Putting Popular Memory Theory into Practice in Australia, appearing in: Green A. and Troup K., The Houses of History (Manchester 1999), pp. 239-252

  • Thompson P., The Voice of the Past: Oral History, 2nd ed. (Oxford 1988)

  • Tosh J., The Pursuit of History, 4th ed. (Edinburgh 2006)

1 P. Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, 2nd ed. (Oxford 1988) p. 148

2 Ibid p. 104

3 Ibid p. 133

4 J. Tosh, The Pursuit of History, 4th ed. (Edinburgh 2006) pp. 333-4

5 A. Green and K. Troup, The Houses of History, (Manchester 1999) p. 230

6 A. Thompson, Anzac Memories: Putting Popular Memory Theory into Practice in Australia, appearing in: A. Green and K. Troup, The Houses of History (Manchester 1999) p. 243

7 Green and Troup, The Houses of History, p. 230

8 Ibid pp. 230-1

9 Thompson, The Voice of the Past, p. 21

10 Thompson, Anzac Memories, appearing in Green and Troupe, The Houses of History, p. 243

11 Ibid pp. 240-1

12 The Guardian, 12 Dec. 2009

13 Thompson, The Voice of the Past, p. 101

14 R. Perks and A. Thompson, The Oral History Reader (New York 1998), p. 24

15 Ibid p. 22

16 E. Hobsbawm, On History (London 1997) p. 206

17 Thompson, The Voice of the Past, pp. 77-81

18 P. Summerfield, ‘Culture and Composure: Creating Narratives of the Gendered Self in Oral History Interviews’, Cultural and Social History 1 (2004) 66

19 Tosh, The Pursuit of History, pp. 333-4

20 Ibid p. 333

21 Ibid p. 342

22 Thompson, The Voice of the Past, p. 106

23 Green and Troup, The Houses of History, p. 230

24 Thompson, The Voice of the Past, p. 111

25 Thompson, The Voice of the Past, p. 133

26 Ibid p. 148

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