oral history

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oral history, compilation of historical data through interviews, usually tape-recorded and sometimes videotaped, with participants in, or observers of, significant events or times. Primitive societies have long relied on oral tradition to preserve a record of the past in the absence of written histories. In Western society, the use of oral material goes back to the early Greek historians Herodotus (in his history of the Persian Wars) and Thucydides (in his History of the Peloponnesian War), both of whom made extensive use of oral reports from witnesses. The modern concept of oral history was developed in the 1940s by Allan Nevins and his associates at Columbia Univ. In creating oral histories, interviews are conducted to obtain information from different perspectives, many of which are often unavailable from written sources. Such materials provide data on individuals, families, important events, or day-to-day life.

The discipline came into its own in the 1960s and early 70s when inexpensive tape recorders were available to document such social movements as civil rights, feminism, and anti–Vietnam War protest. Authors such as Studs Terkel, Alex Haley, and Oscar Lewis employed oral history in their books, many of which are largely based on interviews. In another important example of the genre, a massive archive covering the oral history of American music was compiled at the Yale School of Music. Oral history had become a respected discipline in many colleges and universities by the end of the 20th cent., when the Italian historian Alessandro Portelli and his associates began to study the role that memory itself, whether accurate or faulty, plays in the themes and structures of oral history. Their published work has since become standard material in the field, and many oral historians now include in their research the study of the subjective memory of the persons they interview.

See S. Caunce, Oral History (1994); V. R. Yow, Recording Oral History (1994), R. Perks and A. Thomson, The Oral History Reader (repr. 1998).

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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.