History and the Languages of History
in the Oral History Interview: Who
Answers Whose Questions and Why?*
Ronald J. Grele
Questions of memory, consciousness, and meaning in the oral history interview, of necessity, focus on two interrelated methodological issues: the role of the historian/interviewer in the creation of the document he or she is then called upon to interpret, and the creation of that document within a particular historical and social space and within a particular historical tradition ( Friedlander, 1975; Frisch, 1979; Grele, 1985; Passerini, 1980, 1987; Portelli, 1981; Schrager, 1983). Most analysis of this type has highlighted the potential of the oral history process to change our conceptions of the traditional task of the historian, but, for the most part, we have been silent about the ways in which our own disciplinary discourse, its assumptions, and its context, influences that process. Our concern may be, as we tell ourselves, to map that area described by Harris ( 1985) "where memory, myth, ideology, language and historical cognition interact in a dialectical transformation of the word into a historical artifact" (pp. 6-7), but we have not been particularly concerned about how our own professional discourse may set the template for that map.
Thus, for all their unquestioned brilliance, works based on oral histories have veered between the poles of an enthusiastic populism, where the historian disappears in the name of giving voice to "the people," and a traditional conception of "objective" historiography, where the historian/author assumes a privileged position as interpreter of the interpretations of those he or she interviews. All God's Dangers by Rosengarten ( 1974), exemplifies the first pole. Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World by Hall et al. ( 1987), the second. Both books are obviously sympathetic to the democratic impulses contained in the oral history process, but they do not reveal to us the hidden interaction between the participants to the interview that makes that democratic impulse a reality. There-____________________