Unstable materials. Part 1: Memory and oral history

“…oral history is made primarily of such unstable materials as memory and language…” (Portelli 2011).

Sometimes memory can be selective, sometimes it is unreliable, fallible. For those interested in history (when the historian is after FACTS) this makes memory seem deeply flawed. This has led to scepticism about the practice of oral history, suggesting that the historical material that is being gathered in oral history is on shaky foundations because it is based on memory.

This criticism was levelled at oral history as it gradually became a more widespread practice:

“Critics ….claimed that oral history evidence could not be relied upon because memory was notoriously unreliable. ….’Facts’, it seemed, were incompatible with the supposed fragility of memory.” (Abrams 2010, 80).

It was answered with an insistence that the problems facing the oral historian were the same for historians facing using other sources; the motivations of those recording material for posterity should always been taken into account. (Although Thompson (2000), suggests that this was less common for people dealing with written sources than with oral ones – “Discussion of the bias similarly inherent in all written documentation is by comparison sparse.”)

Despite this defence, the debate about reliance on memory made some oral historians respond by concentrating on “…the production of information, which could be weighed by the traditional methods of historical inquiry for its reliability and verifiability.” (Grele 2007, 43).

Over the intervening years, oral historians have grown to understand that although the memories retrieved during oral history interview are not necessarily fully reliable in all their facts, this does not mean that the narrator is lying. In fact they are telling the truth as they see it, but it may not map to historical fact with 100% accuracy. This is because:

“….memories are not pure; they are contingent. They are as much about the present as the past.” (Abrams 2010, 79).

In memory, “…we convert the fragmentary remains of experience into autobiographical narratives that endure over time and constitute the stories of our lives.” (Schacter 2008, 71). We use memory in an autobiographical sense, to tell ourselves and others the story/stories of our lives. We make our own narratives of events, we give existence meaning through use of our memories, through them we construct identity/identities. Because of this, how we remember and why (as well as what) are interesting lines of study for the oral historian.

As Portelli points out, factual mistakes (Portelli calls these “’wrong’ tales”) in oral histories “allow us to recognize the interests of the tellers, and the dreams and desires beneath them.” (Portelli 1991, 2).

Gradually memory has become

“….no longer just the source of oral history but the subject of what we do.” (Abrams 2010, 78).

Update (January 2015)
There are follow-up posts to “Unstable materials. Part 1”. See Part 2, Part 3 and Part 4.

Further update (5 January 2015)

Another follow up post, Part 5.


Abrams, L. (2010). Oral History Theory. Abingdon: Routledge.

Grele, R. J. (2007). Oral history as evidence. In T. L. Charlton, L. E. Myers, & R. Sharpless (Eds.), History of Oral History: Foundations and Methodology (pp. 33 – 91). Plymouth: AltaMira Press.

Portelli, A. (1991). The Death of Luigi Trastulli and other stories: form and meaning in oral history. New York: State University of New York Press.

Portelli, A. (2011). Review Oral History Theory. Oral History, 39(1), 109–110.
Schacter, D. L. (2008). Searching for Memory: the brain, the mind and the past. New York: Basic Books.

Thompson, P. (2000). The Voice of the Past. Oxford: Oxford University Press. (Third Edition.)