The Main Problems Related to Oral History

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About this sample


Words: 1308 |

Pages: 3|

7 min read

Published: May 14, 2021

Words: 1308|Pages: 3|7 min read

Published: May 14, 2021

History is simply the past, and the way the past can be saved from vanishing or extinction is only through recording it. Writing has been created initially to record the past events, inventions, achievement, sagas, and others, but what about the past that has not been recorded in the written documents? Or how can the present be recorded for the future use? The unwritten records of the past had definitely reached people orally, and this method of passing history called Oral History. According to the Oral History Association, “Oral history is a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events” (OHA). Oral history is the systematic collection of living people's testimony about their own experiences, and it is not folklore, gossip, hearsay, or rumor. It is to turn the memories of people into history by making interviews with them, so basically memory plays a big and crucial role in oral history. Oral history also serves for the use of research, museum exhibition, public presentations, documentaries, and others. According to the Columbian encyclopedia, ancient societies depended on stories that passed to them orally with the absence of writing to know the history and so to transfer it to the generation after them. It also clarified that, “In Western society, the use of oral material goes back to the early Greek historians Herodotus and Thucydides, 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 University” (CU). To produce an oral history, there are procedures need to be followed, and there are many problems involved in doing oral history, but some of most important ones are going to be clarified in the next coming lines.

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Doing an oral history is not easy to do, and it requires certain methods and steps to come out with a piece of oral history. It is all about setting a project with some procedures that interviewers must follow to make this project successful. The very first step is demining the goal of the project and making sure that it could be achieved depending on the resources available because “too many projects have ended with little to show for their efforts except boxes of tapes, unidentified, unprocessed, and unusable” due to the limited resources. Also, one of the most important procedures or steps to follow is doing the interview. Interviews are being done through a well-informed interviewer questioning people who participated or observed past significant events and recording their conversation through audio or video format. The interviewer goal should be clear so to add a historical record. Furthermore, any random taping or personal diaries that lack the interaction between the interviewer and the interviewee do not be considered an oral history. Historians have made rules and principles to deal ethically with the interviewees, but they set an exception for each rule because oral history is a very wide range of study and also to allow interviewers become more creative in doing their interviews, as Ritchie explained. Furthermore, the number of people an interviewer needs to satisfy the research needs does not necessarily to be many. If two informants are able to produce valuable information, it means the purpose has been achieved. On the other hand, the interview must not be less than an hour neither more than two hours in order to keep both of the interviewer and the interviewee focused, excited, and comfortable.

Various issues involved in doing oral history. On the top of the list is skepticism, lots of suspicions are being happening about whether oral history should be trusted or not due to the different perspectives people have or because people become biased toward a particular side or figure or against it. When Thucydides interviewed participants of the Peloponnesian War, he was skeptical of their testimony, and he claimed, “different eye-witnesses give different accounts of the same events, speaking out of partiality for one side or the other or else from imperfect memories” and that is exactly means every person has their own point of view on the events happening in front of them since they have different experiences than other people (Ritchie 20). Another issue historians care about when it comes to interviews is memory because “Oral history interviews are often conducted years after the event, when memories have grown imprecise,” so interviewing immediately after the event can collect an accurate information about that event. Besides, there is skepticism related to the accuracy of the sources whether they categorized as objective or subjective. Oral historians describe the unchanged or unbiased information as “objective sources” while the “subjective sources” consider as unreliable and so could change by time. Moreover, an impartial history could be written when collecting information from different people who experienced the events on the time they occurred. For instance, in 1773, an English writer called Samuel Johnson reasoned that, “a man, by talking with those of different sides, who were actors in it and putting down all that he hears, may in time collect the materials of a good narrative” (Ritchie 20).

Furthermore, issues regardless interviewers and interviews could highly impact on the shape of how oral history is being presented. Interviewers need to put in mind that the locus of the interview influences the kind of responses the interviewee gives. The best thing to do to nail the interviewee’s satisfaction is letting her/him choose the place. Furthermore, interviewers should make sure that nothing could interrupt the interview; the atmosphere of the interview is directly proportional with the psychology of the interviewee and his will of answering questions. Moreover, interviewers need to have certain qualifications to be able to avoid issues might occur during their interviews, such as communication and body language skills. If not, that would badly impact on the interviewer by feeling confused and hesitate and so the interviewee would not be able to explain further important information. An interviewee must be able to deal with the interviewee’s emotions when asking questions because the informant might not be able to continue or might need some time to heal, and it should be totally okay if the interviewee asks to leave. Another point regards the interview is that the interviewer might lose the tape or the video of the interview she/he recorded, and it should be fine if the informant refused to schedule another interview.

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Likewise, when it comes to problems regards oral history, the term “embargo” must be highlighted. How could this term be related to oral history? It is quite vague to be understood at first, but this term is so much related to journalism and news where interviews are a decisive approach. “If there is any possibility that the information you intend to gather could libel, damage or perhaps even endanger your interviewee or third parties, then you will need to consider an embargo” (Bryson 89). In situations like this, revealing the information gathered for a research about some important people like a politician or public figure without having the permission to do so could lead to further harms. Away from the dangers that could affect the informant, introducing an embargo would be very severe for scholars who have accessed to the research, and “It might draw undue attention to the interviews, sensationalising and dramatizing the content and encouraging requests for access under the terms of freedom of information or data protection legislation,” and it makes the interview cost much and time consuming.


  1. Bryson, Anna and Sean McConville, eds. The Routledge Guide to Interviewing: Oral History, Social Enquiry and Investigation. Routledge 2014.
  2. “Oral History: Defined.” Oral History Association. “Oral History.” The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia®. 2013. Columbia University Press. 21 March 2020.
  3. Ritchie, Donald A. Doing Oral History: A Practical Guide 2nd ed., Oxford UP 2003.
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The Main Problems Related To Oral History. (2021, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 25, 2024, from
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