oral history

views updated May 18 2018

oral history An approach to writing history that relies in large part on interviews with elderly people who provide retrospective data on the events, attitudes, and activities of their childhood, adolescence, and adult life—in effect a transfer of the interview survey method from sociology to social history, or the large-scale collection of life-histories. There is an internationally organized Oral History Society with its own journal (Oral History) and a number of national Oral History data archives. The standard text is Paul Thompson's The Voice of the Past (1978). The articles in Thompson's Our Common History (1982) are typical of the field.

The time-periods and topics that can be covered by this approach are clearly restricted, and typically include a focus on family life, social structure and social relationships, employment in the market sector, work in the informal economy, leisure activities, perceptions of major public events, and attitudes and values as reconstructed in old age. In a fascinating study of childhood delinquency (Hooligans or Rebels? An Oral History of Working-Class Childhood and Youth, 1889–1939), Stephen Humphries demonstrated that hooliganism, vandalism, teenage gangs, and classroom rebellions have a long history among underprivileged children and youths, and are not simply a product of recent social changes in contemporary societies. Oral history interviewing can be used in a rough equivalent to the national survey (with samples truncated by the deaths of age-cohort non-survivors), studies of local communities, and casestudies of particular social phenomena, such as the changing pattern of home-based employment.