From stepchild to elder: Has oral history become ‘respectable’?
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. 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? 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. 
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.
By contributing to social change I also mean developmental change in contributing to improving how economically poor and socially marginalised peoples live their lives. 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. 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.
 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), www.accessmylibrary.com/comsite/ accessed 22/2/2008.
Jose Carlos Sebe Bom Meihy, ‘The radicalization of oral history’, Words and Silences, n.s. 2, no. 1, (2003), pp 31 – 41.
 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.
 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.
See various project examples in, Hugo Slim and Paul Thompson, Listening for Change, Oral Testimony and Development, London, Panos Publications, 1993.
 See my, ‘Turning-up the Volume: Dialogues about Memory Create Oral Histories’, South African Historical Journal, 2008, Vol. 60 No. 2, pp 175 – 194.