From stepchild to elder: Has oral history become ‘respectable’?

Sean Field


In the spirit of constructive debate and reflection, allow me to reflect on the following issues. In the 1960s and 1970s oral history proliferated through radical challenges posed by oral historians to various intellectual and political ‘status quos’ and discriminatory practices. Then in the 1980s and 1990s, heated debates around the significance of memory and narrative construction energised many oral historians across the globe.[1] Oral history also faced various critiques, with some describing oral history as ‘unreliable’ or the ‘stepchild’ of academia. But in the new millennium has oral history become ‘respectable’, perhaps even ‘mainstream’? And if yes, should we interpret these as positive or negative assessments?

These questions stem from a dialogue that occurred in 2008, when Alessandro Portelli visited South Africa, and gave a seminar at the District Six Museum in Cape Town (jointly hosted with the Centre for Popular Memory and other organizations). He was asked from the floor: has oral history become ‘trendy’ and ‘lost its critical and subversive edge’? While the questioner was mainly referring to the South African context, I think this is a significant question for oral historians to think about in relation to their respective national contexts and for IOHA to consider on an international level. A few days later, at a seminar held at the Robben Island Museum, Portelli suggested that it was less that oral history had lost its subversive edge but that it has become ‘more respectable’ and that this has implications we need to think about. In this brief intervention, I want to present some related thoughts, not as a developed academic argument but as a way of starting this debate forum for the IOHA website.

Firstly, allow me to use the South African context as a starting point. It is well documented that during the 1980s anti-apartheid struggles, oral history and history institutions had radical intentions to not only critique how popular forms of knowledge were silenced or marginalized by academic and archival institutions but to also politically undermine the apartheid regime. Then in the post-apartheid period since 1994, many South Africans have been caught-up in a testimony ‘fever’ that commenced with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and has propelled an on-going boom in post-TRC memory initiatives. There have of course been similar trends in other post-authoritarian countries across Africa, Latin America, Eastern Europe and Asia. But in the South African context, the growing acceptance and use of oral history and testimony-based methodologies, especially by government institutions, raises the troubling scenario that it might be used to validate new master narratives and marginalize critical voices. For example, the drive to promote oral history work through South African government departments is to be welcomed but they tend to assume that the uncritical or simplistic ‘recovery’ of oral histories of communities that were previously oppressed or marginalized, will automatically support or advance the building of a new nation-state. Moreover, the implementation of oral history methodology in the post-apartheid school curriculums and its greater use at universities is significant but what are the implications of this greater institutionalization?

I am eager to hear if oral historians in other countries, especially post-authoritarian societies are grappling with similar or different memory dynamics relating to the socio-political transition towards democracy. For example, is the way to continue the radical traditions of oral history through developing it into a ‘discipline’ as Jose Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy has argued in Brazil?[2] Although he acknowledges that this has paradoxical dimensions.

Secondly, the digital technological revolution has made it easier to record, disseminate and archive ‘memories’. This revolution is shaping oral history practices around the world but what is motivating this rapid increase in memory initiatives?

Is it the fear of forgetting what triggers the desire to remember, or is it perhaps the other way around? Could it be a surfeit of memory in our culture creates such overload that the memory system itself is in danger of imploding, thus triggering the fear of forgetting? …our secular culture today is in such a terror of forgetting and it tries to counteract this fear with survival strategies of memorialisation. [3]

The digital revolution of course not only makes it much easier to record and copy but also so much easier to erase. But we cannot only be driven by a fear of forgetting or a fear of individual/collective memories being erased or lost. And while memorialisation is especially crucial for post-conflict societies it also poses the risk of ‘fossilising’ individual and collective memories in books, monuments and archives. In short, if we record oral histories only for the purposes of conservation is there not a danger of ‘fixing’ particular views or conceptions of the past? Surely such a static approach is an anathema to the empathic and open-ended approaches adopted by most oral historians.

Perhaps we need to ponder one of the central motives of the earlier waves of oral history work, which was to contribute to forms of social change, both in and beyond academic or archival locations. I am not suggesting a return to a romantic notion of oral historians ‘liberating the world’. Rather, I am suggesting that if we are true to the dynamism of peoples’ oral story-telling and performances, then disseminating people’s stories through multiple forms of media is highly significant. In addition, then the more sensitive and critical task is to explore ways to critically disseminate the different, even competing versions, memories and interpretations of the past. This less didactic approach has the potential to stimulate more debate amongst researchers, informants and other audiences.[4]

By contributing to social change I also mean developmental change in contributing to improving how economically poor and socially marginalised peoples live their lives.[5] In this context, I admire those oral historians who do not just record the stories of interviewees but craft a deeply ‘collaborative’ relationship with informants. I long to hear more about such projects, which I suspect are happening in various national contexts across the globe but are seldom heard of because they tend to happen outside of academic institutions.

Thirdly, there are many indications that oral historians are internationally making greater use of visual and audio-visual recording devices. This is to be welcomed in my view. Also, there are more oral history and photography publications due in the future. However, I wonder whether oral historians internationally have sufficiently debated and responded to the post-structural critique of oral history being guilty of logocentricism i.e. giving primacy to ‘words’ over ‘images’. I am not suggesting that oral historians are per se ignorant of this, the plethora of oral history works dealing with memory and imagination is testimony to that. Rather, I have been wondering whether one way of responding to this critique is to analyse and reflect on the profoundly visual aspects of human memory. To make the point concretely, I am fascinated by the fact that in the process of oral history dialogues interviewees construct/perform spoken words, sentences and stories to convey a sense of their mental images and feelings about the past. The story-teller’s various acts of conveying ‘verbal pictures’ is surely at the dialogic heart of the oral history enterprise.[6] Are there perhaps new ways in which we can analyse and interpret this significant aspect of memory construction and oral story-telling?

What then is my response to questions posed at the outset?: Bearing in mind significant differences in oral history practices across national contexts, I am agreeing that oral history methodology has in a sense grown-up and become ‘respectable’. But this is paradoxical. On the one hand, it is a positive phenomenon in so far as it refers to the growing maturity and acceptance of oral history work across the globe. On the other hand, it has negative implications if oral historians are less critical of forms of discrimination and oppression, not only in the past, but also in the present. I am not suggesting we should be ‘fighting at the barricades’ but rather if oral history is to do justice to its democratizing and anti-discriminatory ethics, then at very least, as Verena Alberti put it at a 2008 CPDOC conference in Brazil we can be ‘intellectual activists’. Moreover, I would argue that our central commitment is not one of merely studying forms of agency over time but to also explore ways in which we as oral historians can also be agents of social change through our oral history projects and related activities. By conceiving our roles, as agents of change, in whatever professional capacity we are employed in, is I would argue, key to retaining the critical edge of oral history work.

What do these questions and arguments mean for IOHA? IOHA is of course not an overtly political organization, and neither should it be. But it is precisely the democratizing potential and critical slant of oral history methodology that has been, and continues to be, one of the central reasons why both academic and non-academic researchers are attracted to using the methodology.

IOHA and the oral history movement do, and should continue to, embrace a diversity of voices from countries of the North and South, and various ideologies within an over-arching commitment to democracy. The approaches represented have varied from liberal to socialist to ultra-left ideological positions and a range of modernist and post-modernist conceptual paradigms have been adopted by oral historians. In my view, this ideological and conceptual diversity amongst oral historians internationally is its strength not its weakness. At a bare minimum, I think we need to continue providing spaces, at conferences, in publications and on our website, for such a diversity of oral history voices and positions to be articulated. These debates must be constructive and stimulate oral historians of different ages to not just do oral history projects in their own contexts but to also critically reflect on how and why they engage in oral history and memory-work. Moreover, if I may be so bold, I would like to hear more discussion about the intertwining relationships between oral history projects, historiography and ‘the politics of memory’. And how are these complex dynamics being interpreted and negotiated in different national contexts. I am excited about the possibilities for discussing these issues at our next conference in Prague 2010.

In closing then, I am arguing that to describe oral history methodology and the oral history movement as reaching a state of ‘respectability’ is fine. Provided we do not lose sight of the radical or democratic intentions that motivated so many of us to do oral history projects in the first place. Provided we continue to keep the dynamism of oral story-telling alive in how we disseminate stories and memories through multiple mediums. Provided we continually critique ourselves and strive to learn from each other. But most of all we need to remain open to learning from story-tellers, who remain our primary site(s) of inspiration. How we understand and draw from the creativity inherent in dialogues with story-tellers should motivate us to continue the process of conceptual reflection and debate on the stories they tell each other and us.

[1] It is not my aim to do a history of oral history here, for a very useful overview, see Al Thomson, ‘Four paradigm transformations in oral history’. The Oral History Review, (2007), accessed 22/2/2008.

[2]Jose Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy, ‘The radicalization of oral history’, Words and Silences, n.s. 2, no. 1, (2003), pp 31 – 41.

[3] Andreas Huyssen, ‘Trauma and Memory: A New Imaginary of Temporality’, J. Bennet and R. Kennedy (eds.), World Memory, Personal Trajectories in Global Time, (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 16 – 29.

[4] For example, see Ciraj Rassool and Sandi Prosalendis (eds), Recalling Community in Cape Town, Creating and Curating the District Six Museum, Cape Town: District Six Museum Foundation, 2001.

[5]See various project examples in, Hugo Slim and Paul Thompson, Listening for Change, Oral Testimony and Development, London, Panos Publications, 1993.

[6] See my, ‘Turning-up the Volume: Dialogues about Memory Create Oral Histories’, South African Historical Journal, 2008, Vol. 60 No. 2, pp 175 – 194.

2 Responses to “From stepchild to elder: Has oral history become ‘respectable’?”

  1. I will venture this initial response moved by the curiosity on the potential of this Debate as an adequate concept and tool and responding to a request from our able webmaster.

    Sean Field’s piece, provocative and solid, has landed right at the center of my very own feelings for Oral History over the years. I came to OH tired of the rigidity of Cultural Anthropology as a disciplinary field. But whether I liked it or not, I came to oral history precisely as a cultural anthropologist, trained in ethnographic research, and a practitioner for whom reliability and validity are the key for legitimacy. Oral history was for me little more than an important methodological resource to gain access to views of the people, a magnificent tool to “seize control of memory” if I dare telling the truth of what I learned.[1] As I moved away from this instrumental understanding of both my role as an ethnographer and of the role of oral history as methodology, I started exploring (and continue to do so) the amazing work that has been done over the years and all over the world, by oral historians. It is now clear to me, and in ways that I am only gradually learning, that memory is to be approached as the fundamental and amazing human trait. Memory is therefore not only key to understand and define what oral history is, but it is a key to understand the very human experience.

    Sean Field argues that describing “oral history methodology and the oral history movement as reaching a state of ‘respectability’ is fine.”

    I pause and consider what it is meant by “movement.” Perhaps the challenge is precisely to define what it is meant by “movement” and to perhaps take the discussion on step further: Is the aspiration for maturity an aspiration of Oral History to be recognized for what it is,a disciplinary field of its own right?

    I think the practice (the literature, the reproduction of oral history in academic programs, the contestation for meanings and theoretical understandings of memory as object and subect of inquiry) makes the question little more than rhetorical.

    But I also think that it is important to face and live with the impossibility to conceptualize oral history as a discrete reality. I want to propose that its legitimate state of being as a distinct practice of multiple origins will always have multiple -and often competing- directions. Perhaps what matters is that we can ask this question collectively, and not so much if there is one answer to it. Because when we reach any form of consensus as to what is the theory(ies) and the definition(s) of oral history, we will continue subverting it with a multiplicity of practices, that as oral traditions, care little for the official sanction.

    Anyways, just a few thoughts. Thanks Sean for starting the conversation.

    [1] See for example Beckett, Jeremy. “Against nostalgia: Place and memory in Myles Lalor’s `oral history’.” Oceania 66, no. 4 (June 1996): 312. Academic Search Elite, EBSCOhost (accessed February 15, 2009).

  2. Freund says:

    I want to thank Sean for a stimulating discussion paper that raises many important points we need to tackle in the near future. I will briefly describe the situation in Canada and then respond to some of Sean’s points.

    1. Oral History in Canada
    Oral History in Canada is a paradoxical phenomenon. Although the use of oral history inside and outside of academia has increased steadily over the last century, it continues to be a marginalized in academia. Many academic historians remain skeptical of the validity of oral history on a very superficial basis that does not go beyond the debates of the 1970s. If historians use (or even create) oral histories as sources, they quite often do this without being informed by international oral historiography. This has to do with the more recent history of oral history in Canada. It successfully developed as a movement with an association and a journal in the 1970s. It was based on a broad coalition of academics from many disciplines, journalists, teachers, activists, artists, and archivists. Archivists carried the movement. When government funding of oral history at state archives was slashed in the 1980s and 1990s, these archivists had to withdraw from oral history. The movement’s institutions nearly collapsed. Yet, at the same time, so much oral history is done in Canada. But most academics doing or using oral history do not see themselves as oral historians or as part of an oral history movement. And a large field of oral history — the collection of oral history and oral tradition of Aboriginal peoples for land claims cases — is completely separated from academia. So far, there are no connections. There is a bit of a silver lining on the horizon: Since the early 2000s, there has been a revival of old and an emergence of new institutions. My colleague Nolan Reilly and I assumed responsibility for the Canadian Oral History Association ( and its journal ( We are also in the process of building an Oral History Centre ( at the University of Winnipeg. And our colleague Steven High has built a state-of-the-art Oral History Centre at Concordia University in Montreal ( These are new, fragile beginnings.

    2. Who dominates oral history discourse and practice?
    To respond to some of Sean’s points: If we talk about oral history as a method, I think we can agree that it is a neutral tool that can be used for both, subversive tales and master narratives. One danger I see both in North America and in Germany is that oral historians increasingly lose their leadership in society’s debates and practices of oral history. One field in which oral history has made major inroads — albeit with little influence by oral historians — is the increasing use of the “eye-witness” in “histotainment” à la History Channel in North America and Guido Knopp’s history shows in Germany. Here, elderly people are put in front of the camera, with the ever-same background and lighting, often brought to tears by their memories, whether they were prisoners in concentration camps, Allied bomber pilots, or German Wehrmacht soldiers. These emotions suggest authenticity and reinforce the popular assumption that it must be true because “they were there.” In North America, we see another phenomenon also working with emotions: digital storytelling à la StoryCorps. Here is their self-description: “Since 2003, over 35,000 everyday people have shared life stories with family and friends in our StoryBooths. Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to share, and is preserved at the Library of Congress. Millions listen to our broadcasts on public radio and the web. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind” (, accessed 20 February 2009). Next to other non-profit organizations (e.g., there are also several commercial storytelling companies, e.g. and We know too little about this phenomenon to assess in which ways it is a forum for the voices of the marginalized or a diversion from the underlying social inequality and injustice that give rise to so many of these stories. It is a phenomenon oral historians must and are best qualified to study.

    In both cases, I believe, storytelling or witnessing tend to reinforce national master narratives. In Canada and elsewhere I would therefore love to see more institutionalization of oral history at universities, because universities are sites where oral history can be taught from a critical perspective. This should include media education, i.e. the use of oral history in the media. We need to train our students not only in oral history as a critical approach to history and to society more generally, but also as the future makers of ‘oral history’ outside of oral history. Rather than hoping that History Channel and StoryCorps will go away, and rather than expounding that what they do is not oral history, we need to gain a footing in these new strongholds of ‘oral history’ by educating students who will move in there with a more critical eye towards memory, experience, storytelling, testimony, and authenticity.

    The questions we ask about History Channel, StoryCorps et al. are questions we also need to address to ourselves. As Sean argue, we should “explore ways in which we as oral historians can also be agents of social change through our oral history projects and related activities.” Al Thompson gave an interesting example of this kind of social change in an interview he gave to Miroslav Vanêk and myself at the IOHA meeting in Mexico. Explaining the value of oral history as a form of advocacy, Al described how in the mid-1980s working-class women would tell him that they had nothing to say, he should talk to their husbands, even though he told them he was doing a project on working-class women. “There was a sense that a working-class woman’s life story was not of historical significance. That’s not true anymore, because there has been so much oral history work just done in Brighton in England where I lived that working-class women know that their stories are history. So they won’t say: ‘Go and interview [my husband] Joe.’ They’ll say, ‘Yes, I have got a story that is important. They have been affirmed. That’s one of the great successes of oral history that there are lots of groups of people now who see themselves as historical subjects.” Thus, as Sean suggests, we need to begin to study oral history’s impact on society. We should ask difficult questions and not assume that the impact is always positive only because it is well-intended. But I also want to emphasize that a study of the other phenomena (History Channel etc.) is more urgent, because it seems more powerful and because critical self-reflection has always been part of oral history.

    3. Archiving, Memory, Generation
    Another point Sean makes is that about archiving: “In short, if we record oral histories only for the purposes of conservation is there not a danger of ‘fixing’ particular views or conceptions of the past?” Government records will always receive priority in government funding for archives. The last kind of record state archives will stop archiving is that of government records. They are already fixing a particular view of the past (and have systematically done so for the last 200 years). How underrepresented oral history is in state archives is quite obvious from a Canadian perspective, where government cutbacks to archiving oral histories have been severe and enduring. Thus, as a counterweight to government records, oral histories are necessary.

    But I agree with Sean if we consider more narrowly the field of oral history: within oral history, we tend to interview old people. We tend to interview people who witnessed or participated in the events we research. We hardly ever interview, however, our interviewees’ children or grandchildren to find out how memories are negotiated and transferred within families (and, by extension, in society). We can learn a lot here from oral historians’ work with children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and of Nazi perpetrators or bystanders. When we interview someone in 2009 about a strike in 1959, we also record the values and views of 2009. When my students in 2059 want to find out about life in Canada in 2009, they will find in oral history archives only the recorded memories of 60- and 80-year olds. They won’t find many young people’s stories from 2009 (they can of course interview these young people in 2059, but they will get 80-year-olds’ views). Thus, we need to expand our archival vision of oral history to include all living generations. This will not only ensure a greater diversity of views. It will also enable a systematic study of long-term processes, because interviewing young people allows ourselves and researchers after us to re-interview them when they are older (similar to the British Up series). The next time we plan a project, we should budget some money for interviews with members of other generations.

    4. Visual memory and Neurosciences
    Regarding visual memory, one important field of research we need to pay close attention to is that of the neurosciences. Their research on memory and the brain moves our discussion of collective memory from vague metaphoric terminology that speaks of collective memory but actually means social discourses to an understanding of individual memory as a socially, communicatively formed process. To give just one notorious example: “In the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan repeatedly told a heartbreaking story of a World War II bomber pilot who ordered his crew to bail out after his plane had been seriously damaged by an enemy hit. His young belly gunner was wounded so seriously that he was unable to evacuate the bomber. Reagan could barely hold back his tears as he uttered the pilot’s heroic response: ‘Never mind. We’ll ride it down together.’ …this story was an almost exact duplicate of a scene in the 1944 film ‘A Wing and a Prayer.’ Reagan had apparently retained the facts but forgotten their source.” Neuroscience research explains this common phenomenon as “source amnesia”: we have a vivid (visual) memory of an experience, but we got the source wrong: it is not our own experience, but rather a movie, or the photos our parents showed us as children. To be clear: This is not a return to 1970s debates about the reliability of memory. Rather, neuroscience helps us better understand how memory is formed. It helps us understand memory not as a closed container of authentic, autonomous, individual memories of one’s own experiences. Rather, memory is a complex social process that is in flux even and especially during the interviews we conduct. This opens up a range of new questions and new avenues of analysis.

    5. The Aim of Oral History As a Movement
    Finally, in terms of a new aim for oral history: I am a proponent of Ron Grele’s suggestion to use oral history to demystify globalization. It would be worthwhile opening another debate on this topic.

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