Oral history

Penny Summerfield, Department of History, University of Manchester.

The mission of oral history in Britain in the 1960s and 70s was to recover lost histories and give ordinary individuals a place in history. The recovery of pasts that leave no trace in conventional records, and that have been ignored by historians and public media, has an enduring importance. It can re-orientate historical enquiry.

Since the 1970s there has been a shift from the expectation that oral history produces information, or ‘data’, to the understanding that oral history gives access to historical subjectivities. This shift has brought with it interest in the numerous ways in which an oral narrative is imbued with meaning: the dynamics of the oral history interview, notably the life review and pursuit of composure; the narrative forms that are used; the relationship between memory and culture.

Far from constituting ‘contaminations’ that need to be eradicated, many oral historians see ideology and popular culture as integral to memory and argue that these relationships need to be analyzed. All this complicates the protocols and ethics to be used, but should not discourage the use of oral history. On the contrary, it is an exciting and developing methodology which has a vital role to play not only in recovering the past but in expanding the meaning of ‘history’.

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