The Complexity of Oral History

In the assigned Oral History Reader, the selected chapters by Paul Thompson, Alessandro Portelli, and Kathryn Anderson and Dana C. Jack discuss the difficulties and significance of oral history. As an undergraduate student finishing a major in history I can say with confidence that typical structure of history coming from the ivory tower does not showcase oral history in any significant manner. As argued by Paul Thompson, the significance of oral history should not be discounted, it speaks to more than mere fact, but personal experience of events. Paul Thompson argues that by bringing attention to the positions of those ignored by historians, by challenging the historians basic assumptions, the oral history approach allows for history to become more democratic. The question becomes whether textbooks, professors, and the personal experiences of the narrator in oral history can mesh together. Wikipedia has effectively harnessed the power of democratically deciphered history, however it leaves little room for the deeper reflection that remains possible.

Alessandro Portelli argues that oral history tells us what people did, wanted to do, were thinking they were doing, and now what they think they did. This is important for the historical narrative, as many times historical arguments come down to the grips andĀ groansĀ over whether something was intentional or unintentional. For instance, many historians to this day are unsure why Hitler invaded Russia in WWII when he did, this is something that plays a more significant part of understanding the history of that war. To understand his decision would require an interview or some sort of explanation on behalf of Hitler. Dana C. Jack points out that it is not just a matter of asking the questions you are concerned with, but allowing the interviewee to speak the full story of what happened according to their own point of view. As is argued, the interviewer plays a very significant role in the process of creating oral history, as those questions suggest and direct the interviewee to discuss what is important to the interviewer and not so much the interviewee. Overall, to implement oral history in a significant manner into the historical record would require an extremely high level of attentive listening on the part of the interviewer, as the smallest of details may alter the direction of the transcript altogether. This level of intricacy within the interview leaves a large margin of error, thus making it difficult to credibly insert oral history into the historical record to the degree that scholars and textbooks have achieved.

Comments are closed.