Oral History and Modernity: a photographer’s critique
Owen Logan (Research Fellow, School of History, Divinity and Philosophy, University of Aberdeen) [BIO]
The development of oral history as an institutional practice and an academic discourse in the 20th century coincides with that of the documentary movement in photography. Indeed both these oral and visual methods have been spoken of as movements and in practical work documentary photography and oral history interviewing often overlap. However unlike photography, oral methods and the theoretical discourse based on orality, have been relatively isolated from critical realist discussions founded upon early anti-naturalist theory in photography. The critical attention to orality, brought about particularly by post-modernism, failed to link the development of these different strands of popular representation.
The paper draws on debates in photography to contextualise the historical development of oral history as a practice with a strong tendency towards naturalist categories (taxonomies) of research which, for example, emphasise memory rather than history, communities of individuals rather than dispersed social networks, and of course the spoken word over the written. It argues that with the global expansion of internet sites and personal ‘blogs’ the rationale which underpinned oral history in Anglo-American institutions has been exhausted; and that the occurrence of the misnomer ‘oral history’, as opposed to ‘living history’, continues to make it difficult to distinguish the most distinctive and genuinely democratic feature of this ‘movement’– the scope it gives to self representation. The paper concludes that oral sources are best situated methodologically by utilising the concept of the social whole in historically reflexive terms.