Oral history

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"Record and preserve memories of an older generation"

Introduction

Oral history is a method which records and explores the biographical accounts of people's lives.

Its primary technique is the life story interview, with the oral historian guiding the respondents through their stories.

However, it differs from the life story in so far as it is primarily a historical project and need only cover an earlier period of the interviewees' lives, such as their childhood or education or work, but not continue the life stories up to the present.

Oral histories typically aim to record and preserve memories of an older generation. This method provides the opportunity to study history through first-hand accounts of those people who have actually experienced it; in particular it gives a voice to those who may have been marginalised in society.

Oral history has, like the feminist and life story interview techniques, become increasingly alert to the co-constructive, collaborative nature of the discourse in the interview. To quote Portelli (1998), "oral historians have had a growing awareness of its practice as a 'dialogic discourse' (cf. Bakhtin) which involves not merely the utterances of the narrator, but, in addition, the relation with the researcher in the interview and his/her subsequent finished study" (p.23).

Another issue for consideration with all qualitative interviews, which oral historians have particularly addressed, concerns validity and reliability.

How can interviewers be sure that what they are told is accurate or true?

In response, oral historians have argued that their interviews have a double validity, conveying both information and description on the one hand, and feelings and changing consciousness on the other, and so offer both objective and subjective evidence. As Portelli argues, "oral history is not merely interested in 'facts' but in the respondent's perception of what is 'true'" (Roberts, 2001, p.106).

See Perks and Thompson (2006) and Thompson (2000) for further information on oral history interviews.

Example

Study Title: 2000
Study Title: Family Life and Work Experience before 1918, 1870-1973
Principal Investigator(s): Thompson, P.
Date of Fieldwork: 1969-1973

Abstract: This study comprises over 450 oral history interviews, undertaken in the early 1970s and formed the basis of the first national oral history project in the United Kingdom. The interviews covered the period from childhood until 1918. They were open-ended, using an interview guide in a flexible approach, and averaged over three hours in length. The project intended to present a broad analysis of the demographic and occupational structure of Britain in the period 1880-1918, covering themes such as: stratification, ideal styles of life, physical types of community, family relationships, deviance and crime, religion and education, wherever possible making comparisons with the contemporary situation.

Citation: Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000. http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Interview schedule
Interview extract one

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