What is Oral History?
By Jon Malek
In a number of disciplines in the Social Sciences and Humanities (as well as others) the practice of Oral History has become a popular method for writing histories of individuals, groups or communities. In History, this has become a very popular method. The process of Oral History occurs between a researcher and an interview participant; the style of the interview often depends on the interviewer, who may have a list of specific questions or may simply ask a participant to speak about their life experiences. These interviews can be conducted for a variety of purposes. Sometimes participants are asked to talk about specific events (such as the experiences of working in a Winnipeg garment factory in the 1970s) or they can be more broad (such as asking about one’s life history). These are often used for specific projects, but it is also common for Oral History projects to record the lives of a generation before they are gone. The goal of Oral History is to record the memories and experiences of participants while they are still alive and recognizes the historical value of every individual’s life experiences.
Oral History, or recording people’s life stories, has been practiced since voice recording was possible, however, it became more popular in the 1960s and 1970s. At this time, university researchers, journalists and community members benefited from the increasingly accessible audio technologies available. The CBC aired interviews between journalists and interviewees to represent some of the folk cultures in rural Canada. Some academic researchers in Canadian universities recognized the value of adding the voices of people who experienced events in history and became strong supporters of this method. At the same time, ethno-cultural communities took to recording the experiences of community members as a way of preserving the memories of early generations, who were often the first settlers in a community. This led to an increased number of community histories, and something referred to as the “democratization” of history. Much of historical writing is based on documents that are housed in archives that can be far away, and many people do not have the time or resources to search out these documents; however, by turning to those who actually experienced history, community researchers were (and still are) able to write their own histories.
There was considerable opposition by some academic researchers, however, to the growing use of Oral History. There was – and still is – a belief that a historical source is not reliable unless it is written down. The idea behind this argument is that a person’s memory is flawed and sometimes things are remembered incorrectly, or stories told are intentionally changed. This is true, of course, and there are a number of studies that look at this phenomenon, but there still remain a few things that can be said in defense of this method. First and foremost, I think, we need to recognize that every historical source was written down by a person – writing down your own or someone else’s memories do not make them more reliable. Also, while it may seem that more “official” documents like government statistics are reliable, there too remains many doubts. For example, in a piece I wrote on the First Filipinos in Canada in March, I discussed how the term “Malay” was used by government census data as a catch-all term to refer to individuals from different ethno-cultural and national backgrounds. Thus, when we see that term today in a census from the turn of the twentieth century, we simply do not know what it refers to specifically. And there is of course the point that documents are written by people who may have a specific point they are trying to emphasize, or may not even have access to all the information in a matter being discussed. So, it is not fair to assume a written document is more accurate that an oral testimony. Moreover, memories often are correct and some research suggests that errors are made in one’s testimony for reasons larger than simply forgetting.
This leads to one of the benefits of Oral History. While I do believe they are excellent sources of information of past events, they are also excellent sources of how those events were lived, experienced, and interpreted. Reading a newspaper article about the Winnipeg General Strike of 1919 might yield factual information and even some opinions of the event, but one is not able to ask inquiries of the author, or of the people the author may have spoken to. In an Oral History interview, a researcher is able to do so. In one case, a researcher interviewing Japanese-Canadian women who were incarcerated during World War II notes how these memories are often presented in a positive light, and negative experiences were overwhelmed by positive interpretations. At first, she was perplexed by why these women would intentionally not discuss issues such as racism, but she later realized that this was not because the women forgot those experiences – how could one, after all? – or that they had not experienced them, but because, as their lives went on, they needed to move on from those memories. To live healthy and positive lives, these women emphasized certain aspects of their memory and intentionally repressed others. To some historians, this is a terrifying prospect, that informants could not be giving them “pure” truth. Such expectations are, I believe, unrealistic and, honestly, unfair. When an Oral History researcher approaches their participants, they are more interested in their life experiences and, more importantly, what those experiences have meant to them. One researcher notes that it is not the job of the Oral Historian to point out factual inaccuracies in a participant’s testimony, or even to wonder why the inaccuracy was reported; rather, it is the researcher’s job to respect the narrative of the researcher and try to understand how what they have said is true to their own self.
In my own work, Oral History is a major methodology for the above reasons. The recording of people’s life experiences, memories, and the meaning of both of these recognizes the value of each individual’s life and emphasizes that no two experiences are the same. Furthermore, projects like these bring out commonalities of experience – such as immigration and settlement in Canada, for instance, for the well-being of children – but also emphasize how experiences of these events can differ widely. Oral History – whether conducted by university or community researchers – is a tool that offers valuable insights, recognizes the worth of each lived experience and gives voice to those who might not otherwise be heard.
- High, Steven. “Sharing Authority in the Writing of Canadian History: The Case of Oral History.” Contesting Clio’s Craft: New Directions and Debates in Canadian History (2008).
- Sugiman, Pamela H. “Memories of internment: Narrating Japanese Canadian women’s life stories.” The Canadian Journal of Sociology 29, no. 3 (2004): 359-388.
- Sugiman, Pamela. “Passing Time, Moving Memories: Interpreting Wartime Narratives of Japanese Canadian Women.” Histoire sociale/Social History 37, no. 73 (2004).
Jon Malek is a PhD candidate in History at Western University, and is a member of the Migration and Ethnic Relations program. As part of his research on the history of Filipinos in Winnipeg, Jon would be happy to talk to members of the community about their life experiences. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org and information can be obtained at www.pearloftheprairies.ca.