Oral History Workshop

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On 15 March DAD ran an HE level oral history workshop led by Dr Tim Strangleman, Director of Research and Reader in Sociology at the University of Kent. The participants included students from UCA Maidstone as well as invited local film makers. Dr Strangleman gave both a theoretical and practical introduction to oral history – what it is, its strengths and weaknesses and “how to do it”.

A definition of oral history is the “recording of personal testimony delivered in oral form. Its strengths lie in the fact that it can be seen as “history from below”, it is democratic, humanistic and provides a route to meaningful understanding of men and women. It weaknesses are that it can be seen as lacking in objectivity, reliant on fallible or selective memories, conducive to nostalgia, not general enough and oral histories often give rise to myths.

However, it is just this tendency for myth making that is also the very strength of oral history. Stories can be seen as ‘tropes’ or morality tales which are important in the making of communitiesand identities: through oral histories communities create their own stories around which the community as a whole coheres. Myths remind us of the fact that events do not have singular meanings, and that “….errors, inventions and myths lead us through and beyond facts to their meanings” (Portelli).

Oral history can both expose and fill in the gaps of official history.

In terms of “doing oral history”, Dr Strangleman emphasised the importance of attentiveness, self awreness, reflexivity, respect, and, importantly time and concentration. Questioning should be done in such a way as to elicit a response from the interviewee – no leading questions! Photos and material objects cn be used to elicit responses in a way that leads from concrete descriptions to more abstract discussion of what the object means.

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