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Oral history method

Mgr. David Weber, historian, Institute of Contemporary History, AS CR

The narrated "Memory of a Nation", or what is the oral history method

Oral history is one of the research methods used by various social sciences and arts such as history, sociology, anthropology, ethnology, politology, psychology, musicology, and art history, as well as by a broad group of researchers and interested persons working either between the various disciplines or on the borderline between science and lay practice.

If we were to give oral history have a more exact theoretical definition, it could be this: It is a number of elaborate procedures, which are still developing and being perfected, through which an arts and social sciences researcher works towards new knowledge on the basis of oral information from people who were participants in or witnesses to events, processes, or the era that the researcher is studying, or persons whose specific experiences, positions and opinions can enrich the researcher's knowledge of themselves or of the reviewed issue in general.

Oral history as microhistory

Oral history is characterised by several traits that differentiate it from other methods of scholarly work. First, it is a qualitative research method, typical with its democratising concept of history. Unlike other approaches - such as the traditional concept of the political, economic, social, and military history, often examined on the basis of "non-oral" sources - it tries to give floor to the ignored (or "historiless") strata of the society, reflecting more on the small history (microhistory), individual experiences, history written "from below", the everyday dimension etc. Qualitative research, then, is understood as a sort of research that perceives an individual's message as a specific cognitive value, not attempting to generalise its content using quantifying (for example statistical) processes within broader contexts.

This is not to say that quantitative approaches using statistics, public opinion polls etc. have no say in researching the past, or that their cognitive value is lower than that of qualitative approaches. While many sociologising or economising approaches to historical research prefer quantitative methods, oral history works primarily with interviews as products of qualitative research, trying to reflect broadly on sources and results obtained in other ways (for instance on the basis of archive research). Both methods have their pros and cons, and thus only a combination of either can yield as "objective" image of the past as possible.

Do witnesses always and under all circumstances speak the truth?

The oft-emphasised relationship between oral history and "objective facts" is an important issue. In the traditional concept of (not only) historical scholarship, a historian-researcher collects, analyses, and compares information contained in various types of sources (primarily written, but also material, iconographic etc.), trying to use "objective facts" to reconstruct the image of the past "the way it was", and then presents the resulting image - in the form of a specialised study or a final monograph - to both experts and the general public. The historian-science-society interaction does not take place in the vacuum - it happens in the real world; in addition, those remnants of the past that are used as one of the bases for (re)constructing the history came into existence under similar conditions. The preference of the sources, work with them, their interpretation, and the presentation of and social reflections on the researchers' results are the reasons why there are various "schools of history" and, generally, approaches to researching the past, which continually transform and develop. This is also why work with oral sources, which were perceived as "too subjective" (and thus unreliable) in comparison with other sources (e.g. written), was rejected at a certain time. At any rate, it remains true that the information obtained on the basis of individual communication can hardly be perceived through quantifying measures used in work with other types of sources. Interviews are based on the past experiences of an individual, are influenced by the distance in time as well as the environment where they are conducted, and depend on the respondent's personal motivation; as such the information contained in them is essentially subjective in comparison with other sources. We should add that an oral history researcher does not perceive this property as a disadvantage - but rather as a part and inevitable quality, which is the primary reason why he or she conducts interviews. This way, oral history enables a researcher to obtain new information, knowledge, and facts, which enrich, expand, or correct his or her previous image of history, and the respondent's experiences and message enable the researcher to add an individual dimension to their concept of history.

Oral history as subjective evaluation of history

The focal point of oral history is examining a human being through capturing, analysing, and interpreting their verbal and non-verbal communication, and from the epistemology viewpoint, all types of "communication about the past" are equal despite their positive and negative aspects (from a written document to a statesman's statue to StB files to a gramophone record to a notice board poster to an e-mail spam message). This viewing angle also erases the strict - often polar - differentiation between the "objective" and "subjective" historical sources. In historiography, this endeavour should comprise a considerate utilisation of a maximum of legally available sources, obtained and usable in an ethically problem-free manner, be they written, pictorial, material, oral, audiovisual, or "virtual" from the Internet.

At any rate, it needs to be said that respect for the human as an individual with everything that this entails is the basic prerequisite for work with oral history. In principle, there are the following two interconnected planes - planes of respect: the technical and theoretical/methodological plane; and the ethical/legal plane.

It is this comprehensive approach that differentiates oral history from other, less technical or even completely unscholarly approaches to work with interviews and oral renditions in general. Without following these principles, it is very difficult to achieve serious scholarly results; in addition, the researchers' failings in this respect may compromise their professional and human reputation, let alone the risk of litigation and legal regress.



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