Interactive Oral History Interviewing

By Eva M. McMahan; Kim Lacy Rogers | Go to book overview
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The chapters in this volume represent, in the broadest sense, an interpretive perspective of inquiry ( Rabinow & Sullivan, 1979, 1987) that has flourished in oral history since the 1970s ( Frisch, 1990; Grele, 1985; McMahan, 1989; Portelli, 1991; Thompson, 1988). This perspective considers oral history interviews as subjective, socially constructed, and emergent events; that is, understanding, interpretation, and meaning of lived experience are interactively constructed. Oral history, Portelli ( 1991) noted, "tells us less about events than about their meaning," and, hence, has a "different credibility" than written sources. "The importance of oral testimony may lie not in its adherence to fact but rather in its departure from it as imagination, symbolism, and desire emerge" (pp. 50-51).

The oral history interview is a unique documentary form in which the "evidence originates in the act of oral face-to-face communication" ( McMahan, 1989, p. 5). The impetus for this collection was our fascination with the multifacted complexity of that method; and our belief that, despite many books that address methodological issues, no single work takes as its focus those complex, interactive processes that constitute the oral history interview. Our purpose in developing this volume, therefore, was to provide a variety of chapters that, taken together, address the possibilites and constraints inherent in oral history interviewing.

In chapter 1, History and the Language of History in the Oral History Interview: Who Answers Whose Questions and Why? Grele addresses power relations in interviewing. He reminds us that political ideology undergirds both the view of the historian and the narrator, and he demonstrates "how the political praxis of history is manipulated."

Culpepper Clark's chapter (2), Reconstructing History: The Epitomizing Image, deals with the process of self-construction in the oral interview. Using a case study of efforts to desegregate the University of Alabama during the 1950s and early 1960s, he shows how narrators manipulate their recollections to construct their desired personal histories. The chapter serves as a cautionary discussion of narrators' willingness to change their stories to fit an altered historical context.


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