Mariko Thomas: Oral History Explanation

Some benefits and limitations of oral history and auto-ethnography

Oral histories or the practice of collecting narratives, is not a new phenomenon. For example, Chinese scribes in the courts of the Zhou dynasty wrote down the sayings of important people, and the Spanish used oral accounts of indigenous peoples’ to build a history of the Mayan and Incan empires. A few centuries later, 1930’s US government began recording the songs, stories, and rituals of Native American’s on wax scrolls in the, and the U.S. bureau of labor hired out-of-work journalists to take oral histories of industrial workers’ employment experiences (Nevins, 1996). To say the least, oral history as a method has had a soft spot in human consciousness for eons, partially due to necessity (i.e. oral cultures) and the accessibility of the method, and partially due to the human attachment to storytelling and narrative as a way of remembering.

The beginning of oral history as a research practice is often credited to Allan Nevins, who began the Columbia Oral History Research office on a shoestring budget in the 40’s (Ritchie, 2003; Yow, 2005). However, many scholars would argue that the practice of telling and receiving oral histories would be more accurately credited to centuries of indigenous storytelling, where oral histories were used to understand place, tradition, ancestors, and morals (Dorson, 1972; Armstrong; 1993; Basso, 1996,).  Auto-ethnography on the other hand, was a formalized methodology that was born somewhat later, and most credit its popularity to a post-modern turn away from scientific objectivity and towards the subjectivity of the human experience (Ellis, Adams, & Bochner, 2010). As a research method, auto-ethnography allowed scholars to engage in reflexivity (see Collier, 2003) and highlight their positionality, experiences, and intentions, as well as indulge and engage in storytelling and narrative structures and practices. Because both oral history and auto-ethnography use narrative, identity-work, and subjectivity as major theoretical tenets of their processes, they have the potential to work well together methodologically. This kind of hybrid methodology could allow researchers to engage in more reflexive and transparent research than possible when using solely oral history. Possibly, the accompaniment of an auto-ethnography with a series of oral histories would allow the reader to clearly understand the researchers’ motivations for doing the topical or ethical choice of projects or subjects. Additionally, it could alleviate the accidental push of an unrelated personal perception on the collected oral history; as the researcher would need to maintain a constant critical reflective stance in narrating their own story while collecting those of others.

Still, while these methods are ontologically well-suited for one another, they both have their benefits and limitations. For example, several common critiques of oral history as a methodology that could also be applied to auto-ethnography include the lack of reliability and validity (Hoffman, 1974), the potential for researcher bias based on competitive funding (Ritchie, 2008), the possibility of oral histories being collected too late to actually change anything socially or politically (Ramirez, 2002), the potential for nostalgic ramblings or obfuscation of painful events (Thompson & Bornat, 2000) or simply the disappearance of memories (Ritchie, 2008), and the subjectivity of experience and ways of storying experience (Kirby, 2008; Ellis, Adams, & Bockner, 2010).

Reliability, which is defined as in regards to oral history as the ability to tell the same story every time and validity, defined as the ability to back up and oral history against other historical data (Hoffman, 1974) is the forced application of scientific objectivity on attempts to research the human spirit, and completely ignores the messy, dynamic, self-realizing experience of storytelling. Kirby (2008) writes that the critiques of oral history are often due to an inappropriate framing of the epistemological realities of storytelling. He argues that scholars should consider phenomenology when working with oral history, as it has the potential to reorder the way we consider truth and memory. Phenomenology was Husserl’s response to rationality, and provides room for the lack of consistency in memory and experience by positing that we have no prior innate ordering of knowledge without the subjective, embodied experiences we have each had so far in life. Citing Edward Casey (1947), Kirby (2008) writes that the unreliability of memory could actually be its greatest strength, as we remember different things in different ways depending on where we are in life, and how the question was asked. None of these memories are incorrect, but rather articulate more expansively the monumental variability of human experiences. This is particularly useful when taking several oral histories in a particular community, because there are usually several tellings available for any historical event (Dorson, 1972). The framings of events always can change depending on perspective (i.e. was Robin Hood a menace or a savoir?) and for example, as many accounts as there might be of Black slaves hating slave-owners, there are also a few of them preferring Southern whites to northern whites (Dorson, 1972).  Ritchie (2008) also spoke to memory, though more on the individual functioning of it more than the way it works in communities. While acknowledging the common critique that scholars have as far as interviewee’s not remembering events the way they happened, or being very old; he remarked that long-term memory works in a decidedly different way than short term memory. While short-term memories are often fleeting in older people, being closer to the end of life generally sparks and reflection and review process, where people begin to remember the major events of their life with the kind of clarity they perhaps cannot remember what they had for breakfast with. This reflection process also allows for fomenting self-analysis and realizations, which often happen in the process of telling a story, giving the researcher less to analyze, as the interviewee often performs their own analysis as they tell the story.

In addition to the recognition of subjectivity, another large benefit of oral history and auto-ethnography is the ability to give voice to groups that have been previous silenced (Dorson, 1972, Stucky, 1995, Ramirez, 2002) as also incorporate listening and silence as a practiced methodological tool on meta and material levels. Silence can function in three ways. It can be used as a form of communication (Carbaugh, 2002); it can work to oppress certain groups (Covarrubias, 2008); and it can serve as a way of maintaining cultural boundaries and protecting oneself (Covarrubias & Windchief, 2009). All of these become relevant when working with oral history and auto-ethnography, because in order to truly understand how to tell a story, you must also know how to listen to one, and understand the multiple meanings of silence. In Carbaugh’s (2002) reflection on teaching public speaking on a Blackfeet reservation college, he struggled with getting many of his students to speak before fully understanding that for Blackfeet people, the act of speaking publically is something reserved for older wiser people in the community, and only supposed to happen when there is both a relevant event and something important to say. This kind of understanding could help oral historians in understanding that just because they think someone might give a good oral history, or are especially interested in their story, doesn’t mean it’s culturally appropriate for them to share their life stories without culturally-decided on good reason. Additionally, Carbaugh found that the painful silence he experienced while teaching was really listening, and actually a communicative and present awareness that he struggled to interpret as communication at first. This is another aspect to keep in mind when collecting oral histories, as listening can vary depending on the culture and the western approach to be afraid of, or to fill silence is often a rushed instinct that doesn’t allow others the space to gather their thoughts and sit with themselves.

Covarrubias (2008) also commented on silence in classrooms with American Indian students, but in regards to silence as a tool of discrimination, where the silence of instructors to call our certain culturally-insensitive behaviors or comments works to further oppress groups. In this, she reflects that silence is indeed a communicative tool, for the choice to engage in silence as opposed to addressing something is a message that the ‘something’ in question is not worth of addressing. Both oral history and auto-ethnography have worked against this kind of silencing, as the recording, writing, and publication of previously ignored  stories based on subjective experiences often have to do with unsavory matters like discrimination, oppression, or overall trauma. Gluck (1977) wrote that women working in oral history were particularly triumphant in uncovering many of these tales, as they approached taking oral histories from a feminist standpoint with a recognition of what it felt like to be silenced. Covarrubias’ (2008) essay serves as a reminder that the absence of communication about something is always still communication in and of itself, something that the ideological resistance of both these methods addresses.

Lastly, silence can work as a protective function for cultural maintenance and can help us understand why certain oral histories cannot be simply recorded then removed from context. Covarrubias & Windchief (2009) found that American Indian college students often use silence to build a wall between themselves and their white peers, so that aspects of their cultural traditions and understandings escaped the scrutiny of others who had no desire to learn about them respectfully. Basso (1996) also commented on cultural maintenance, though with less to do with explicit silence. In Basso’s work, lack of knowledge about the Cibecue’s use of place names to reference certain value and moral systems meant lack of knowledge about most stories told, as stories were often shortened into indexical place-names to refer to an entire tale and an entire lesson. The only way Basso was able to understand these references was through years of immersive listening, of being unable to comment on what he heard. Basso’s work can help us with oral history in that in expresses how we may not always be able to immediately contextualize the meanings of what someone is sharing, or without relevant cultural knowledge, we night contextualize them incorrectly. Overall silence and listening play a large role in the praxis-based collection of oral histories and the ideological uses of auto-ethnography; in that the often ignored part of communication is necessary for cultural reflectionality and generally learning how to truly listen and give someone the space to tell their own story.


Oral history and auto-ethnography…combined!

Oral history and auto-ethnography have been combined before with positive results, though rarely officially stated as such. For example, Boyd’s (1974) text Rolling Thunder offered a book-length example of oral stories collected from a medicine man in Utah, combined with his own experience of taking the oral histories and existing in Rolling Thunder’s space for an extended period of time. The movement between his own reflections on his uncomfortableness and naivety, the historical implications of this, and his attempts to understand the land with the verbatim tales of his subject allowed for a co-constructed vision of Utah and their time together. Similarly, Ramirez (2002) didn’t methodologically articulate it at the time, but his essay about doing oral histories also provided potent example of how oral history and auto-ethnography could be used as a combined method to “meander,” using “story’s ability to bend time and space” (p.92?). In it, he identified himself as a young Latino gay scholar in the 1980’s who was perturbed by the university’s habit of collecting oral histories of only those already hailed as important or powerful. Because of this he decided to ‘cheat, ‘ and collect stories of members of gay communities on the streets, tales of triumphs, suffering, aids, love, poverty, and survival. While he felt that this process came too late for many sufferers of the Aids epidemic, he found that stories like these still have the potential to join historical memory for better defenses against future crisis, as “memory is about history and history about survival.” (p. 94). Because the essay moved back and forth between the kinds of oral histories he collected and his own engaged reflection on his social positionality and experience as a researcher; the essay showed the methods could offer a multi-faceted and transparent story of a time; thereby side-stepping Ritchie’s (2008) concern about hidden researcher bias.

Oral history and auto-ethnography can also both work effectively as performance methodologies, as they both acknowledge the importance of body and place (Stucky,1995; Spry, 2011), and consider narrative as indelibly connected to the physical act of telling (Taylor & Littleton, 2006). Stucky (1995) and Pollack (2005) both argue that performing oral histories is an important pedagogical tool in getting others to really engage with the life stories of their interviewees by the need to embody them, while Spry (2011) quips that because most auto-ethnographic performance begins like a CSI episode (In a place, at a time, with a body), the evidence of whatever story needs to be told can’t be disengaged from the body telling it. From this, I imagine a performance where the performer is both themselves, and their interviewees, flipping back and forth between their worldview and another’s in an ultimate practice of empathy.

In a privileged moment with an oral historian named Rose, I heard her say that every person has a story they are just dying to get off their chest, and until that story is shared, no other truthfully topic based narratives will emerge. Perhaps even the researchers have that on some level, and if we allow ourselves at least a few pages of auto-ethnography when engaging in large scholarly works, we help avoid the risk of pressing our own thoughts, stories, and perspectives on those of others. Acknowledging our own stories, however briefly, can give the research we do an obvious and clear frame. It can set the stage, or provide the lens for where the research is analyzed and understood. It is impossible to strive for objectivity in methods like these, so I believe that delving into and nourishing the myriad of subjective experiences present in an oral history situation could result in multi-layered, multi-dimensional, meandering and winding (Ramirez, 2002) and overall, subjectively beautiful research.


Oral history, autho-ethnograpy, identity, nature, and urbanity

Memory is the fourth dimension of every landscape –Janet Fitch

The practice of combining oral history and auto-ethnography to access place, nature, and identity has the potential to reinforce what many scholars both western and indigenous have argued to be an indelibly important theoretical and material construct; that place and identity are inextricably linked to one another, and that our understandings of both non-human nature and ourselves come largely from our relationships (or lack of relationships) with the land. Carbaugh & Cerulli (2012) wrote that place talk is meta-talk, meaning that when people communicate about places, they are simultaneously communicating and reifying history, identity, community in regards to place. Freeman (2001) also supported that narratives work to access history, identity, and culture simultaneously. Armstrong (1995) similarly supported this link, and using the example of the Okanagan language she grew up speaking. In Okanagan, the root syllable for ‘body’ or ‘self’ is the same root syllable for ‘land’, reflecting the human bond with landscape, and the mutual affectability of one on the other. In this sense, identity and place are impossible to understand fully without considering one in the same breath as the other, and because communication about place is a formative sense-making process to connect both land and self (Basso, 1996; Carbaugh & Cerulli, 2012), the highly narrative methods of both oral history and auto-ethnography have the potential to braid well with one another to allow researchers the dynamic, multi-disciplinary, emotional, and reflexive lens necessary to research place and nature conceptualizations.

If we can ascertain that environment, place, and identity are connected, the next step is to understand how oral history stories, peoples’ narrations of them, and identities are linked. Somers’ (1994) writes, “we come to be, whoever we are (however ephemeral and multiple) by locating ourselves or being located in stories rarely of our own making (p.167). Stories rule our conceptualizations of the world, and we often ‘do’ identity by performing our own range of narratives (Taylor & Littleton, 2006). Hecht (1993) considers identity to appear in four frames: the personal, enacted, communal, and relational. The personal identity has to do with who we tell ourselves we are when nobody is around, the enacted has to do with what we perform, the communal is our group identity, and relational is a multilayered phenomenon that allows us to be both a daughter and mother simultaneously. All of identity frames however, are created and perfected through the stories we tell, meaning that the act of giving an oral history or writing our own auto-ethnographies is an act of identity production and maintenance. The practice of these two methods with specific concern to place and nature is all at once the development and realization of a relationship with the natural environment, and the recording of research.

While oral history and other narrative approaches have not often been included in western academic work about nature, Endres’ (2011) essay argued that communication scholars would do well to include oral history methodology in their research, as the method has the potential to illuminate stories from populations most often ignored in environmental work (see Pezzullo, 2001, Sze, 2007 and Finney, 2014) and has the potential to extend to the more-than-human world at some point, as the practice of letting an organism tell its own story can have monumental results. Endres (2011) cited the Scott Polar research institute, which focused on collecting stories of scientists and others who lived in the artic, in order to chart climate change in a more narrative and emotive way; recommending that personal historical accounts of people can provide a wealth of information on the human dimension that the graphs and instruments of scientists often cannot reach. Additionally, she wrote on another project she works with comprised of over 100 stories surrounding a uranium processing facility in the stages of environmental remediation., Much to her surprise, taking oral histories of members rarely began with a story or instance related to environmental matters or the processing plant itself, but instead with a childhood story, a memory of delight or trauma; allowing her to draw the conclusion that despite the focused environmental or place-based bent of giving and taking oral histories on this subject, people tend to understand their own role in an environmental crisis through first understanding and storytelling about themselves.

Oral history and environmental narratives from rural locations are popular in scholarship because they are somewhat romantic, and carry the perception that the scholar doing the research is really ‘in the field’ or close to something more romantically indigenous or untouched. However, collecting oral histories in urban spaces may be just as pertinent (if not more so) to current global crisis, as understanding how someone makes sense of nature, place, and their own history in an urban environment could offer more creative solutions in understanding and alleviating things like nature-deficiency disorder (Louv, 2008), or the radically higher amount of minorities in high urban areas that have little access to out-of-door spaces (Finney, 2014). People in all walks of life find ways to access nature in the most unlikely of ways. A public park, an abandoned lot, or a tried up ditch can all offer a small sliver of wonder in the midst of a concrete and ‘nature-less’ space. However, accounts like these are not often connected with ecocultural dialogue, because environmental talk still persists in associating ‘green’ or ‘wild’ with understandings of nature (Milstein, et. al, 2017).

Lefebvre writes that urban spaces function similarly to ecosystems, and include aspects of sociology, history, and identity in their processes (Gottdiener, 2010). However, cities are ecosystems that are often dictated by public policy and communication law that distinguishes where boundaries are laid, divisions in class, and what kind of signs, shops, and parking are allowed to be where (Drucker & Gumpert, 1991, Flusty, 2000, Mitchel & Stahaeli, 2011). Whereas studying rural spaces can have more to do with natural history and boundaries based on natural features, urban spaces tend to follow strict zoning laws that divide and control space and who lives in that space, therefore controlling the way communication (and identity) can function. Still, attention to laws and policy often fail to tell the entire story of an urban area, and much data can be gathered from storied accounts. For example Thompson & Bornat (2000) wrote that oral histories of young children can often aid in mapping urban spaces, as their memories of which alleyway was dangerous or safe, or where the girls were permitted to play versus the boys gave the kind of map that even zoning history often cannot express.

Sze’s (2007) book Noxious New York told the story of high asthma rates in young Black children resulting in Black mothers forming a coalition that protested the amount of toxic waste that their specific neighborhood was exposed to. While this research was completed using a combination of methods, oral history accounts of movements like this could serve to publicize and remember minority voices who are often not credited with disrupting environment degradation. Gottdiener (2010) wrote that many critiques on urban studies had to do with how they are often researched as conglomerate communities with little focus paid to the individual experiences that make up those communities. Oral history has the potential to highlight some of the individual experiences present without completely disengaging them from the place that helped construct them. For example, the late 90’s Drifters and Dockers project was completed by an oral historian who floated in a raft down Thames River and got out to take an oral history of a passerby every time the boat docked itself, making an interactive map of the river with clickable oral histories that commemorating the emotional attachment of community members’ urban relationship with the natural feature running through the city (Thompson & Bornat, 2000). Another project titled ‘Millscape’, documented the decline of a famous Mill that once offered most of the employment in a community in the UK. Using pictures, sounds, interviews, and an interactive gallery, the oral historian provided a range of stories of townspeople’s relationship to labor, time, and wheat in the context of the mill. Further work in oral history and urban ecocultural identities could focus on children’s understandings of nature for example, where they play, engage with, and conceptualize nature to be. Another application might be urban gardens, where oral histories of people who have lived in a tiny high-rise apartment their whole lives relate to their houseplants, pigeons, or any other non-human organism found in the city. These kinds of stories are crucial, because they highlight the way that cities are in-fact a part of the natural world and environment, and do work to upset the boundaries between ‘here’ and ‘out there’, something that could potentially result in more environmentally conscious and connected urban areas.