Rambling and subjective -the stuff of History?

A pioneering study in oral history and the recovery of ordinary people’s memories
A pioneering study in oral history and the recovery of ordinary people’s memories

My previous post may have suggested that I spend all my time in archives working on my academic pallor, this was slightly misleading, occasionally I venture out into the world and talk to people…

 Recently I’ve been recording oral histories with people who have made their careers in the field of social enterprise. Recording someone’s personal memories and experiences so they can be stored and revisited by subsequent generations is a daunting task for both researcher and participant. Participants often worry about how valuable their testimony will be for historical research, which has left me wondering how best to reassure them that there are no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ answers.

Oral history is the process of recording someone’s life story so that it can be stored as a historical record. This technique was established in the latter decades of the twentieth century as groups of historians turned increasingly to social history and the study of the lives of the working class. It has often been advocated as a useful technique for capturing the testimony of those whose lives are overlooked in the great sweeps of History and has been an important part of the development of women’s history and studies of migrant people.

Today, oral or life history interview techniques are not only used by historians but by many other researchers interested in collecting qualitative interviews. The appeal of this form of data collection to researchers is its aspiration to let participants talk as freely as possible, for them to lead the interview, and have the opportunity to have their views and experiences recorded. I use the term aspiration, because the researcher always has a role in shaping this encounter and pointing the participant in certain directions. Researchers are likewise aware that interviewees want to do a good job and that may also shape their responses on tape.

This brings me to my recent work. I do my best to reassure oral history participants that I’m interested in their experiences that an oral history interview is not a test of how well they remember recent history. However this often does not put people’s minds at ease. One participant, on reading the transcript of their interview replied that it was ‘difficult to understand how something so rambling and subjective can be of value’ to research. In turn I replied that rambling and subjective was perhaps a good description of History.  Upon reflection, it may have been more accurate to say that I think historians should take more notice of the rambling and subjective. That the most valuable testimony for researchers is not succinct answers to the questions posed, but the answers that meander and deviate and ultimately open up new questions. It is precisely the point of doing oral history, that we don’t yet know what will be important for the telling of history in the future, but we should have access to a range of voices in order to being to piece together the story.

Perhaps this tells us something of people’s perception of History, that it remains in their minds the story of kings and queens, and lists of dates, rather than the story of people just like themselves that we can all claim to be part of and even direct.

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