Status of the research technique known as oral history
Interviews with contemporaries: the basic principles of oral history
Passing on history by word of mouth is not a new concept. In fact it is the oldest means of preserving history in existence. What is relatively new, however, is the practice of systematically requesting elderly people to tell us about their memories of certain figures or events in the context of historical research. The planning, carrying out and analysis of interviews with witnesses to the events or figures we are interested in are the main components of the research technique known as oral history, a technique which has only been widely practised since the 1960s. It is used by historians, ethnologists, musicologists, sociologists and other academics, but also by the organizers of local history projects and interested laypeople.
Despite it being a rather makeshift solution, the English term "oral history" has become widely accepted even in German. Approximately equivalent alternative expressions include "remembered history" and "orally ascertained history", which was used as the subheading to a book on the subject. There is no generally recognized definition of these terms. Oral history only describes the research method– i.e. via an oral exchange or conversation – but not the purpose of the historical research.
One thing that is for certain is that oral history has, to some extent, become associated with the voice of "the ordinary people". This gives it the image of being a democratic or left wing research method - despite the fact that oral history was originally used in the USA as a means of collecting information on the biographies of the elite. It is regarded as a useful way of documenting "every day history" or "grassroots history", and Anglo-American literature in particular contains many examples of the successful employment of this technique. However, oral history as a research method, (the technique was used particularly widely in the 70s and 80s), is not without is critics, who claim that interviews with contemporary witnesses cannot be taken as "real" sources, but as retrospective interpretations only. Interviews conducted in 2004 about the year 1940, they argue, provide no reliable information about 1940 but say a lot about 2004. As with memoirs, oral history is less about memory than about reconstruction. What is true is that the researcher must be aware that historical interviews are products of communication which are shaped by the perspectives of both the interviewee and the interviewer – sources which come into being through teamwork. If the interviewer is careful and attentive, and the reader too in their interpretation of the spoken word, the resulting interview can be seen as an useful addition to the information gained from conventional sources.
Anybody who conducts interviews as part of a historical research project has a double responsibility: towards the interviewee and towards the material. He needs to be aware of the socio-political significance of the discussion situation (an interviewee who sees the interview as a form of therapy, for instance, is not ideal). Direct contact with elderly and possibly lonely people requires more tact and empathy than work in an archive. The interviewer also needs to be able to treat the material he collects professionally and unsentimentally, aware that it is not for his personal use but for publication in some form or another. A simple transcription cannot suffice- interesting statements need to be given a wider context, critically interpreted and given the power to speak anew to a wider audience through publication in an essay or article.
GRAF, WERNER: Das Schreibproblem der Oral History. In: Literatur & Erfahrung, Heft 10: Oral History – Geschichte von unten. Berlin 1982, S. 100-105.
HOWARTH, KEN: Oral History. Stroud (GB) 1999.
NIETHAMMER, LUTZ (Hrsg.): Lebenserfahrung und kollektives Gedächtnis. Die Praxis der „Oral History“. Frankfurt am Main 1985. Thompson, Paul: The Voice of the Past. Oral History. Oxford (GB) u.a. 1978.
VORLÄNDER, HERWART (Hrsg.): Oral History. Mündlich erfragte Geschichte. Acht Beiträge. Göttingen 1990.