Part III. Interpreting memories, Introduction

Robert Perks, Alistair Thomson

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MEMORY HAS BEEN a contentious historical source and oral historians have been especially self-critical – perhaps more than most historians – about the nature of their source and approaches to its interpretation. The introduction to Part I, ‘Critical developments’, noted how the first generation of oral historians
contested the claim that memory offered unreliable historical evidence, and at first adapted conventional guidelines for source evaluation such as checking for internal consistency and ‘triangulation’ with other sources.1 By the late 1970s, Alessandro Portelli’s article ‘What makes oral history different’ – reproduced in Part I – typified a more positive and assertive defence of the ‘peculiarities of oral history’. Memory was partial and selective, shaped into meaningful accounts, affected by the subjectivity of the speaker and the audience for the story, and influenced by the passage of time and by ‘collective’ memory. Underpinning this new approach was a model of memory as ‘an active process of construction of meanings’ rather than a ‘passive repository of facts’.2 In order to use oral testimony and interpret the experience and meaning of past events, researchers need to understand this active process through which a narrator creates meaningful stories about that past. Conversely, oral historians now agree that their memory sources are not only about the past, but can also be used
to examine the nature of historical memory and the meanings of the past in the
present for individuals and society. Memory is thus the subject as well as source
of oral history, and oral historians draw upon an exhilarating multidisciplinary
array of approaches to memory and its interpretation. The authors in Part III –
historians, sociologists, folklorists and anthropologists – use rich oral history case studies to demonstrate a wide variety of approaches to analysis and interpretation. References in this introduction direct readers to the wider literature of interpretative oral history.3
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Oral History Reader
EditorsRobert Perks, Alistair Thomson
Place of PublicationAbingdon Oxon UK
Number of pages14
ISBN (Electronic)9781315671833
ISBN (Print)9780415707329, 9780415707336
Publication statusPublished - 2016

Publication series

NameRoutledge Readers in History

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