What Can Oral History Teach Us?

What Can “Oral History” Teach Us?

[This blog was first published as a short paper on the ActiveHistory.ca website earlier this month]

When Ruth Sandwell approached me to be on a 2010 Canadian Historical Association round-table panel on historical synthesis designed to put various sub-fields into conversation, I jumped at the opportunity. It is a rare thing to have such a wide range of historians participating in a single session. Too often, round tables bring together groups of like-minded people with predicable results. This session promised to be different. And to some degree it was. What I did not anticipate, however, was that instead of finding broad new horizons, I left feeling slightly claustrophobic. Much of the discussion, and one or two of the presentations, seemed to be aimed at shoring up the disciplinary walls still further – making them higher, stronger. Alan McEachern’s delightful presentation, for example, cleverly began with a photo of the “Canadian History” section at Chapters bookstore (such as it is). He then digitally erased those books written by journalists, Pierre Berton and others. In the end, we were left with a handful of real history books written by university-based historians. Others, it seems, were simply imposters. At this point, I had to stifle the urge to call out: “maybe we can eliminate all those who forgot to renew their Canadian Historical Association memberships, too.” Of course, I did no such thing. But it did cause me to imagine what it would be like if the disciplinary walls came tumbling down. What if the study of the Canadian past was understood, fundamentally, as an interdisciplinary field of study? Other disciplines have opened themselves up – why not us? As my contribution to this online forum, I would like to offer “oral history” as an example of an interdisciplinary craft that has made the transition.

My roundtable presentation began with the question – what can “oral history” teach us? In an influential essay first translated into English in the 1980s, Alessandro Portelli asked a related question - “what makes oral history different?” His answer surprised many. Oral sources are not objective, he wrote: they are highly subjective. But that is their great strength. Oral history therefore tells us “not just what people did, but what they intended to do, what they believed they were doing, and what they now think they did.” Oral historians must therefore work on both factual and narrative planes, as well as on the past and on the present. Memory, subjectivity and narrative have been at the interpretative core of the field ever since. We therefore try to see the past through the eyes of someone else – coming to an understanding of “their truths.” This development represents a fundamental shift in perspective. Instead of mining for data, oral historians now approach the interview as a life story narrative. We have learned that there can be a great deal of meaning in the form and structure of oral narratives, as well as in the information provided.

Oral history was not always conceived of in this holistic way. Before Portelli and the cultural turn, oral historians spent a great deal of time re-assuring other historians that oral history was a legitimate methodology. To that end, we erected impressive social scientific scaffolding to justify interviewing people – talk of “sampling” and “representivity” pepper our writings from the ‘70s and ‘80s. Often, oral narratives were cast as just another source. Our interpretations were therefore built on a wide source base, rather than a deep one.

This defensive posture was not entirely irrational. Critics of oral history, then as now, pointed to the subjectivity of the interviewee’s story, the “problem” of memory, and the difficulty of going beyond “anecdotal” evidence. How do we know what we are hearing is true? After all they could be lying or just mis-remembering. As a graduate student in the 1990s, I would occasionally be accused of “presentism” because I sought to draw connections between past and present. Some historians also felt uncomfortable with the fact that oral historians are co-creators of the source recordings, as it implicated us in unaccustomed ways.

We, as historians, do not speak of “objectivity” much anymore, but it continues to structure everything that we do. I was taught that my authority as a historian was based on the distance between myself and the subject at hand –the more the better. Accordingly, I was instructed to write in the third person and not to insert myself in the text, except safely in the preface or the acknowledgements. Even in our post-modern and post-colonial moment – the subjective, when it is acknowledged at all, is usually located in our sources and not in our own writings or our location as researchers.

In recent years, a growing number of Canadian historians have grappled with the structuring power of nation. Recent workshops on “place” and “transnationalism” in relation to Canada have sought to break us out of the national boxes in which we have operated. Ian McKay’s “liberal order framework” has similarly sought to problematize Canada itself – making it something more than an empty box where the stuff of history happens. All of these projects have served to challenge the supremacy of the nation, or to at least ask penetrating questions of what has often been taken for granted.

If geography and the nation state have traditionally bounded our understanding of Canadian history (many of us would probably self-identify as “Canadianists”), oral history has been resolutely internationalist in orientation and local in practice. One only has to glance at the field’s major readers and textbooks or the syllabi available online to see what I mean. Students in my oral history seminars therefore read books and articles from all over the planet, and apply this shared theory and practice to their deep listening of individual life stories or place-based ones – essentially, thinking globally but acting locally. Methodology and ethics, rather than geography, have defined the field.

What is remembered and why is vitally important in oral history. Meaning and memory can be found in the words spoken, but also in the form and structure of the oral narratives as well as the voice and body. People’s relationship to their own stories – where they linger and what they skip over, helps us understand the logic of what we are hearing. The life story approach differs from traditional testimony in several important respects. First, testimony involves an eye-witness report on an event or a moment in time. Holocaust survivors, for example, are asked to answer what, when, who, and where. Their recorded interviews typically begin and end in the violence perpetrated. A life story approach, by contrast, finds meaning in the context of a life lived; the “before” and the “after” are therefore vitally important; it also puts memory front and centre. This expanded frame tells us more about what was lost and how this event shaped their subsequent lives – the silences, absences, activism and memories. A life story, once told, is itself an act of synthesis. Accordingly, historical synthesis need not be tied to the nation.

As a community of practice, oral historians emphasize process over product (or subject matter); and reflexivity over confident assertion. As with First Nations history, research ethics is at the core of our conversation. Oral history is also an interdisciplinary field of inquiry, where community-university collaboration is becoming the norm. Certainly, our community of oral historians at Concordia University’s Centre for Oral History and Digital Storytelling (http://storytelling.concordia.ca ) provides ample evidence of this broad appeal. Our affiliated members include faculty and graduate students from fifteen academic departments. There are also more than 40 community groups and artists affiliated with the Centre, engaging with the past in a diversity of ways. There are installation and performance-based artists, film-makers, historical societies, museums, immigrant groups, school associations, activists of various stripes, and larger institutions like Parks Canada. This diversity has spilled over into our teaching, with non-history majors regularly filling half the seats in the oral history seminar. In 2010-11, we are offering a new seminar in “Oral History and Performance” that is co-taught by faculty in History and Theatre.

Over time, I have come to realize that there is no ideal “location” for the historical researcher. In our Montreal Life Stories project (www.lifestoriesmontreal.ca ), a five-year Community-University Research Alliance that is exploring the life stories of Montréalais displaced by war and genocide, we have team members interviewing parents, grandparents, other community members, people from outside their community, and so on. Each location leads to a different kind of conversation – not better, not worse: just different. There is methodological strength in this kind of diversity. The outcomes of this shared conversation also range from radio programs to digital stories, from theatre performances to memoryscape audio tours, and so on. Scholarly publication is a key aspect of this output, but only part.
So let’s return to the question of synthesis. One of the best examples of an alternative synthesis, drawn from oral sources, is Daniel James’ path-breaking book Dona Maria’s Story. At one level, it is a book about a working-class woman in Argentina who was an early trade unionist and a Peronist. At another level, it is about the promise and price of Peronist Argentina. In Dona Maria’s story, then, we find Argentina in microcosm. Of course, this is her synthesis and it is highly subjective. But this is precisely what makes it so interesting.

In our effort to understand the past, we tend to place our evidence into nicely labelled boxes. We impose order on disorder, teasing out meaning from our sources. As an oral historian, I find it equally important to understand how people define themselves and those around them. How would they organize the past and label those boxes? How would they frame the story being told? This approach to history-writing, “knowing with” rather than simply “knowing about”, places the relationship between the past and present as well as that between the researcher and researched at the centre of our analysis. Historical synthesis need not be limited to what we know about the past, but creatively engage with our subjective relationships to that past. The result is a much more personal historical writing than we are used to; one that is much more likely to cross disciplinary boundaries and even traverse community-university frontiers.

Steven High, Canada Research Chair in Oral History