Historical 'Authority' and the Value of the Oral Interview

History is an ancient and ever varying discipline whose practitioners continually redefine the parameters of what constitutes ‘history proper’. Indeed, the very notion that there exists proper techniques to investigate the past has been ridiculed into complete obscurity by most. Today in Canada and elsewhere, historians reconstruct a past based on their personal reflections with an expansive and diverse body of evidence. Genres and subfields have been developed which allow historians to further delve into the individual and collective human experience, in hopes of finding nuance in the past. But each historian reconstructs a version of the past using methodologies that are unique as well as common. Clio’s Current provides insight into contemporary issues using historical perspective, and to do so we must continually reassess our understanding of historical methodology. In today’s post we further investigate the research kit of the historian, with a focus on the oral history interview.        

Some of the earliest known works of history were produced from the transcribed stories of the ancient Greek poet Homer. The Iliad and the Odyssey were generated from such stories, and thus history in a sense emerged from the practice of oral recollection. Today many historians have developed a number of theories about individual and collective memory which provide a framework for examining oral stories of the past and their use in the writing of history, but most refer to oral history as a methodology rather than a theory. From this point of view, oral history is the systematic generation, asking, recording, and transcription of questions and their answers.

If history is both an art and a science – a question that we have pondered previously on Clio’s Current – than the same can be said of historical methodologies. That is to say, for example, that the oral history interview is performed using common traits in an unstandardized manner. In 1990, historian Michael Frisch coined the phrase ‘shared authority’ to explain the collaborative nature of the oral history interview. Empiricist historians of the early twentieth century claimed authority over the writing of history because they were trained to systemically conduct research. The idea that historians hold authority over the past gradually wavered from any notion that the practice of history was empirically pure, but university-trained historians nonetheless tried to maintain their hold on historical authority throughout the twentieth century.   

With the rise of ‘new social history’ in the 1970s and 80s, some scholars in Canada began to revisit traditional histories with a focus on marginalized groups. These historians sought to return a measure of agency and voice to women, children, Indigenous peoples, and others who had gone unexamined in the predominant books of Canadian history. The subject matter was unquestionably different, and yet the methods of historical research and authoritative voice remained largely unchanged. The university-trained Canadian historian, regardless of subfield expertise, remained the proverbial ‘gate keeper’ to the past. It was this notion that Frisch challenged in the 1990s when he spoke of authority sharing, but he was not the first to do so.

Although most historians turned away from oral history, some embraced what it had to offer. The introduction of affordable tape recorders in the 1960s launched the practice of oral history in North America. In Canada, historians such as Barry Broadfoot turned to oral history to challenge the authority of the professional university-based historian. Broadfoot travelled from British Columbia to Ontario and back, recording the personal recollections of ‘average’ Canadians. He then transcribed their stories in what would become a national best seller, Ten Lost Years. This book and others were considered by some to have offered a version of the past that was more pure than that produced by the subjective research hand of the professional historian, and thus commenced yet another chapter in the ‘history wars north’.   

Meeting this challenge, many professional historians in Canada turned a destructive pen toward oral history practitioners. If oral history was a method of historical investigation, it was certainly flawed, or so the argument went. Those who suggested that oral history was flawed argued that human memory is inherently misleading. As a practice based on subjective recollection, memory runs contrary to the never-ending search for objectivity. Historians rarely speak of objectivity anymore because we recognize that reality and memory are human constructs, where the imagination has the ability to significantly ‘alter’ ones recollection of the past. Any reconstruction of the past is based on evidence, but it’s important to remember that all evidence is subject to the human condition. From this perspective, memory is highly questioned as a means to ‘properly’ investigate the past.

The impact of myth and the unconscious in the process of memory reconstitution thus undermined somewhat the initial optimism with which some historians in the 1960s and 70s embraced oral history as a means to revisit the past from the perspective of those marginalized and ignored in traditional histories of Canada. Memory was corrupt and individual agency was the chosen culprit. Yet oral history has not been dismissed completely. Subjective and collective meaning is now understood by historians to be embedded in the narrative structures that people employ to describe the past. In other words, historians recognize that oral history is shaped by a variety of factors. In an oral history interview distinctions between researcher and subject, and between past and present are blurred. Both participants must learn to trust each other and share authority over the past, in a demanding process that Frisch has referred to as one of ‘social and self-discovery’.

All memory is a mix of objective and subjective evidence. All memory is therefore valid, but must be used in collaboration with other forms of evidence to reconstruct the past. Historians now seem more cognizant of the potential advantages and disadvantages of using oral history, so to further problematize oral recollection by suggesting that memory and narrative of the past is inherently flawed is to do more damage than good. The current direction of oral history in Canada seems to emphasize the impact of the unconscious as well as imagination in structuring memories of the past, so it seems prudent to embrace the investigation and use of oral history rather than disown it.