Readings in oral history, October 2014 (part 2)

Shopes, L. (2014). “Insights and Oversights”: Reflections on the Documentary Tradition and the Theoretical Turn in Oral History. Oral History Review, 41(2), 257–268. doi:10.1093/ohr/ohu035

This paper discusses the documentary (and archival) tradition within oral history, and what has been perceived as a more recent theoretical turn. Shopes outlines the perceived narrative of the development of oral history, from practitioners considering “the interview” as an archival document, to a later view of it as a narrative construction.

Deconstructing this view, Shopes argues that some influential oral history practitioners were conscious of the narrative nature of their material and that their work shows an awareness of oral history as a “mutual creation”, with some anticipation of concerns about memory and inter-subjectivity (Shopes 2014, 259). These assertions are supported by frequent quotations from early practitioners, demonstrating that theory was not necessarily absent in the early days of the development of oral history as a discipline.

Turning to view the tradition from the documentary side, Shopes notes that the impetus to document and archive has not been completely subsumed into the theoretical turn. This is evidenced by the drive to disseminate large quantities of long interviews on the web (and sometimes leading to a loss of “a sense of quality and significance” (Shopes 2014, 261)).

Shopes remains convinced that much of oral history work is broadly documentary in intent, and political in purpose, producing:

“interpretations that reveal the operations of power both overt and subtle, recognize contingency, and respect agency, which in turn can be used to cultivate awareness, inspire understanding, and perhaps leverage change” (Shopes 2014, 267–268).