Revising The Voice of the Past1 for a fourth edition provides an opportunity to review and evaluate where oral history is positioned as an academic and community pursuit now almost forty years since Paul Thompson published the first edition in 1978. At that time he was building on origins in the UK which were distinctively unique because he was a historian teaching and researching in a sociology department. That the sociology department was at Essex University and led by Peter Townsend meant that UK oral history’s interdisciplinarity and commitment to social solidarity were foundational.
The first edition was always more than a textbook. It was pitted against a traditionally rooted history discipline with a disdain for oral sources. UK Oral history from the start developed in tandem with women’s history and labour history, challenging an established practice of doing history and the understanding of what and who constitutes the past. Recording voices of experience and positioning as authorities people previously minoritised and marginalised attracted a generation of social and radical historians in the 1970s and 1980s.
But the other significant aspect to the development of oral history in the UK is its embedding in the social sciences, specifically sociology. An early funding success resulted in a large scale oral history project, ‘The Edwardians’, which provided the basis for a research methodology focusing on the life history interview and its interpretation in terms of historical context, memory, subjectivity and as a social relationship. This was taken up and explored in a range of discipline areas, geography, psychology, anthropology, drama and folklore. At the same time, projects in communities of place, identity and interest led to vibrant and sophisticated practice at local levels which was popular and empowering.
Now with the fourth edition of what is debate, textbook and manual of good practice, what can be said about the changes that oral history has stimulated and itself undergone? Early on there were criticisms that UK oral history in its desire to secure status as a reliable source, disregarded reflection and a critical subjectivity allowing contestation and myth creation. While these criticisms have been rejected, it is true to say that in the twenty-first century oral historians are now more mindful of fabulation and the inconsistencies of memory and that, in the words of Italian oral historian Alessandro Portelli, oral history’s uniqueness is not ‘its adherence to fact but rather (in) its departure from it, as imagination, symbolism, and desire…There are no “false” oral sources’2. A recent example, Stacey Zembrzycki’s interviews with her Ukrainian grandmother, produced an account differing from her own understanding of community life. Ultimately she recognised that both had their own truths3.
While revising the Voice of the Past for the twenty-first century it became obvious that dealing with traumatic memories had become increasingly important. Traumatic memory has its own oral history literature and this latest edition includes discussions about dealing with distress in an interview, the imperative to tell, empathic listening skills and whether there are benefits in telling. Much of what was developed in terms of awareness and sensitivity emerged from listening to stories from Holocaust survivors and the Partition of India. The twenty-first century’s short history includes further examples of disasters, both human and natural, which have been followed by oral history projects, situating sudden and disastrous events within historical and biographical trajectories.
The twenty-first century oral historian has an interest in oral history’s own history and archived legacy. As with other areas of qualitative research, the necessity to include archived interviews is now generally accepted as good practice. Paul Thompson’s ‘The Edwardians’ collection is digitised and available at UKData Archive, while the British Library’s extensive National Life Stories collection as well as interviews from other oral history projects are attractive to subsequent researchers as primary data sources in these under-funded times. Mindful of future use means focusing on ethics and access, researcher habitus and accepting that researchers coming later will draw out their own interpretations.
Last of all, but by no means least, the twenty-first century oral historian is working with an approach which is truly international. Practised worldwide, each environment brings its own unique set of insights and theorising into debates. Thus Nordic-Baltic oral historians’ emphasis on folklore and story-telling draws attention to cultural traditions, Palestinian oral historians document lost human landscapes, in Latin America the testimonio tradition celebrates individual lives against backdrops of hardship and political struggle, in South Africa oral historians help to represent a violent past and build partnerships across divides, while in societies where silence was the norm, as for example in Soviet Russia, oral historians are developing ways to talk and remember in the context of forced public forgetting.
To engage with oral history in the twenty-first century is to acknowledge the significance of individual testimony and its production in a social relationship, the interview, within the context of the past and to listen and to be challenged by the telling. Perhaps that is why its reach has never been greater amongst teachers and researchers seeking understandings of ourselves, of others and the emergence of the times we live in today.
Submitted by Joanna Bornat, Open University on Wednesday, 22nd March 2017