Part II. Interviewing, Introduction

Robert Perks, Alistair Scott Thomson

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EXACTLY WHEN HISTORIANS began to use interviews to gather information about the past, and whether this can be characterised as ‘oral history interviewing’, continues to be debated. As early as the fifth century BC, Greek historian Herodotus was questioning eyewitnesses, and in early eighth-century England the Venerable Bede, author of The History of the English Church and People,
valued oral evidence over often hagiographic paper records: ‘countless faithful
witnesses who either know or remember the facts’. At the end of the eighteenth
century, Samuel Johnson argued, in the absence of documentary sources, for a series of interviews with participants in the 1745 Scottish rebellion against the English, remarking that ‘all history was at first oral’.1 Most recently, oral historians, drawing on the work of French social theorist Michel Foucault, have considered whether their method also has its roots in confession and storytelling.2 Yet interviewing was not until recently a technique routinely embraced by a historical profession largely fixated on paper-based research and frequently hostile to eyewitness and interview data. In other spheres, we know that journalists were routinely using interviews from the middle of the nineteenth century onwards, and by the turn of the twentieth century anthropologists and social investigators were valuing interview evidence.3 These were influences on the emergence of the modern oral history movement that forced the reassessment by historians of the interviewing methodology. And the invention
of recorded sound at the end of the nineteenth century, and particularly the advent of portable tape recorders in the 1950s, liberated researchers from laborious note taking, at the same time focusing attention on the process of recording memory.4 That initial frisson of hearing the authentic voice and the excited discovery of previously undocumented memory has given way to a more acute reflection about the interview relationship. It is this that we explore in this section.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Oral History Reader
EditorsRobert Perks, Alistair Thomson
Place of PublicationAbingdon Oxon UK
Number of pages12
ISBN (Electronic)9781315671833
ISBN (Print)9780415707329, 9780415707336
Publication statusPublished - 2016

Publication series

NameRoutledge Readers in History

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