Linda Shopes “Making Sense of Oral History” offers some key information for beginners on how to work with oral history interviews as historical evidence. Shopes describes oral history as a dialogue between interviewer and narrator. The questions shape the responses, as well as the narrator’s frame of reference, and what the narrator deems is crucial information. Alessandro Portelli posits, “Oral history refers to what the [narrator] and the interviewer do together at the moment of their encounter in the interview.” The interviewer must choose her questions with care, because the questions will shape the narrator’s responses, and those responses will inform the next question. This creates a feed-back loop of each participant shaping the response of the other. It got me thinking about how potentially different the responses of the same narrator would be with a variety of interviewers. How do you account for the variables in age, sex, race, and personality? How reliable are the narrator’s perceptions? Would they change depending upon the interviewer? I believe the answer is yes. But how would we take this into account when assessing the oral history account?
Shopes advises us that perceptive questions are best, and that we should also encourage the narrator to recall details. It is the interviewer’s job to find clarity in the account, and evoke assessments of what it all meant then and what it means now. She states that we must remember that all interviews are shaped by the context within which they are conducted, which includes the purpose of the interview, and the states of mind and physical condition of the narrator and interviewer.
Even with all the variables that exist with oral history accounts, for the historian, oral history interviews are valuable sources of new knowledge about the past and offer new perspectives on it. Shopes states, “Oral histories also eloquently make the case for the active agency of individuals whose lives have been lived within deeply constraining circumstances.” Oral history is an excellent way of giving a voice to those who have been denied the opportunity of sharing their perspective. It is also one way to bring the past alive, it makes the past seem more real, and vivid, when you have an individual you can relate to as a person. Often, depending on the presentation, history can be dry and dull. But many oral history interview are good stories. They are often deeply personal, and the emotional account of individual experience draws listeners in. Oral history is a way to open the listener to a life which may be very different from her own in a non-threatening way. It can be a vehicle to connect us all in the human experience, which is something quite powerful.
However, Shopes cautions that oral history interviews are not necessarily unproblematic. Interviewers must use criticial judgment when using these interviews, and just because an account is deeply personal doesn’t necessarily make it true. Also, just because a person lived through a particular time or experience, doesn’t mean they automatically completely understand what happened. So what is the answer? Shopes relays that we should consider the reliability of the narrator and the verifiability of the account. She advises that we compare the account both with interviews on the same subject and with related documentary evidence. If the interview seems reasonable in this context, and if it builds upon or supplements this evidence in a logical and meaningful way, one can assume a certain level of confidence in the account. If not, then we must account for the reason for these inconsistencies. It is also common for narrators to get names and dates wrong, conflate disparate events into a single event, and even relay stories of questionable truthfulness. This lack of truthfulness may be merely forgetfulness, or purposeful distortion.
Shopes describes oral history is an interpretive event, not so much an exercise in fact finding. The narrator compresses years of living into a few hours of talk, selecting what to say and how to say it. Shope states that an “interview is a storied account of the past recounted in the present, an act of memory shaped as much by the moment of telling as by the history being told.” What the narrator says is also an expression of identity, consciousness, and cultural assumptions. As important as what is said is what is not said, what a narrator may misconstrue, ignore, or avoid. Silences may signify misunderstanding, discomfort with a difficult subject, or mistrust of the interviewer.
Oral history accounts can be problematic in a variety of ways, and it is up to the interviewer/historian to corroborate and verify the overall truthfulness of the account. In addition, we must keep in mind how easy it is to influence the responses, based on not only what the questions are, but who is asking the questions. Consideration should be given to who is the best person to ask this particular group of people questions.
These stories of oral history are a remarkable way to bring the past alive, and make an otherwise unimaginable experience relatable. These historical accounts are as much an expression of an individual’s identity as a recollection of a significant moment in their life. To be successful, an interviewer must be skilled in selecting questions and phrasing with care, having carefully researched the time period and major events in advance. The interviewer must be skilled in the ability to listen and formulate the next question, while also interpreting silences. Above all, a good interviewer must have good people skills. Oral history is a way to capture a moment in time, in the life of one person. But when you connect these stories together, you not only wind up with a fascinating account of the past, you also connect each person to another, weaving a powerful statement on the human experience. While oral history accounts offer a new perspective on events, you are also creating an opportunity for understanding and compassion between people who may lead very different lives, and it is this connection that makes oral history so remarkable.
Shopes, Linda. “Making Sense of Oral History,” in Oral History in the Digital Age, edited by Doug Boyd, Steve Cohen, Brad Rakerd, and Dean Rehberger. Washington, D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services, 2012, http://ohda.matrix.msu.edu/2012/08/making-sense-of-oral-history/