Four Paradigm Transformations in Oral History (1)

By Thomson, Alistair | The Oral History Review, Spring 2007 | Go to article overview

Four Paradigm Transformations in Oral History (1)


Thomson, Alistair, The Oral History Review


Abstract This paper reviews critical developments in the international history of oral history and outlines four paradigmatic revolutions in theory and practice: the postwar renaissance of memory as a source for 'people's history'; the development, from the late 1970s, of 'post-positivist' approaches to memory and subjectivity; a transformation in perceptions about the role of the oral historian as interviewer and analyst from the late 1980s; and the digital revolution of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Threaded through discussion of these paradigm shifts are reflections upon four factors that have impacted oral history and, in turn, been significantly influenced by oral historians: the growing significance of political and legal practices in which personal testimony is a central resource; the increasing interdisciplinarity of approaches to interviewing and the interpretation of memory; the proliferation from the 1980s of studies concerned with the relationship between history and memory; and the evolving internationalism of oral history.

Keywords: oral history, memory, subjectivity, interdisciplinarity, internationalism

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The theory and practice of oral history has changed profoundly since its post-World War II origins, and these changes have paralleled--and influenced--wider historiographical and methodological shifts. Our work as oral historians today can be explained and enhanced by awareness of the history of our field and of the forces that have shaped its development.

This essay reviews critical developments in the history of oral history and outlines four paradigm (2) transformations in theory and practice: the postwar renaissance of memory as a source for 'people's history'; the development, from the late 1970s, of 'post-positivist' approaches to memory and subjectivity; a transformation in perceptions about the role of the oral historian as interviewer and analyst from the late 1980s; and the digital revolution of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Threaded through discussion of these paradigm shifts are reflections upon four factors that have impacted oral history and, in turn, been significantly influenced by oral historians: the growing significance of political and legal practices in which personal testimony is a central resource; the increasing interdisciplinarity of approaches to interviewing and the interpretation of memory; the proliferation from the 1980s of studies concerned with the relationship between history and memory; and the evolving internationalism of oral history. I do not attempt to survey the distinctive national or regional histories of oral history, which are readily available in other publications. (3) Although the points of genesis and patterns of development for oral history have varied from one country to another, particular social and intellectual forces have shaped contemporary approaches to oral history and have influenced oral historians around the world.

Oral History and People's History: The Renaissance of Memory as an Historical Source

The first paradigm transformation--and the genesis of contemporary oral history--was the post-World War II renaissance in the use of memory as a source for historical research. Paul Thompson, among others, charts the prehistory of the modern oral history movement, explaining that historians from ancient times relied upon eyewitness accounts of significant events, until the nineteenth-century development of an academic history discipline led to the primacy of archival research and documentary sources, and a marginalization of oral evidence. (4) Gradual acceptance of the usefulness and validity of oral evidence, and the increasing availability of portable tape recorders, underpinned the development of oral history after the Second World War. The timing and pattern of this emergence differed markedly around the world. For example, the first organized oral history project was initiated by Allan Nevins at Columbia University in New York in 1948, and his interest in archival recordings with white male elites was representative of early oral history activity in the United States. …

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