The Meaning and Implication of Oral History Essay

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The Meaning and Implication of Oral History


In the United States the institutional beginnings of oral history can be traced back to Allan Nevins’s Oral History Project at Columbia University in 1948. As a field it developed in the early 1980s and at this time advocates started to seriously reflect on its methods and implications. Today oral history and public history are considered the growth engine of the historical discipline, absorbing many historians who are competing in a tight job market. However, the importance of oral history goes beyond practical considerations. Its methodological innovations enhance yet at the same time challenge the discipline. In this paper I will discuss some of the key issues anyone who intends to “do”
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It has also been viewed as an alternative that allows scholars to get around the historical discipline altogether. For Michael Frisch, who has reflected on the craft and implication of oral history for two decades, these two visions of more history or no history are not entirely satisfactory. Oral history has a greater potential because it can make history more meaningful—it can be a qualitative improvement, it can make for better history. Functioning within the realms of history, this approach can enrich an already extant knowledge base. It can also be more responsive and reciprocal than the history that is written exclusively for an academic audience and lacks relevance for the public at large.

Even if oral history is conducted within institutional confines, it has potential to reach the masses. In other words, oral history can be used for social and political purposes more readily than a monograph on an obscure study that is only interesting to a handful of scholars. Frisch sees the challenge of oral history in learning how “social history, community studies, and public presentation can combine in scholarship that is at once intellectually trenchant, politically meaningful, and sharable with the communities from which it comes.”

Frisch’s call for political sensitivity and the democratization of history has been echoed by many of his colleagues, including the British sociologist Paul…