FOCUS OR DIGRESSION: The Oral History Interview

Lateef Rahaman is currently a research scholar doing his Global Internship in Digital Humanities, Columbia University. He is an information technology engineer from Kwara State University, Malete, Nigeria. He participated in the OHMA program in the Spring of 2015 as part of his training. Watch the full lecture on YouTube.

As a beginner in the study of art, humanities and social sciences, I see oral history as an act of gathering knowledge about past events through interviewing participants and witnesses, and the recording of what you find out about historic events. Bearing this in mind, I wanted to know the processes, techniques, methodology and challenges involved in oral history.

On Thursday, April 2, Alessandro Portelli, Professor Emeritus, Anglo-American Literature, University of Rome, La Sapienza, talked about his career as an oral historian at the weekly session of OHMA’s Oral History workshop. Portelli is the author of many books and articles including The Death of Luigi Trastulli and other stories, Form and Meaning in Oral History and “A Dialogical Relationship – An Approach to Oral History”.

In this workshop, he was able to answer most of the questions that baffled me about oral history. Oral history is an old way of collecting information about events. It can be used to straighten recollected stories and arrive at facts about past events.

I asked him a direct question, “What are the most challenging parts of your career as an oral historian and how did you overcome the challenges?” He responded by saying, to come to terms with himself, he needed to ask himself questions such as “How did he get involved in oral history?” “Why is he working as an oral historian?” “What is he doing right or wrong?” “What did he do right that made people believe him as an oral Historian?” “How can we trust memory?” He also brought up the question of starting an oral interview on an event with one topic in mind and ending up getting information on other events or another topic because of the interviewee’s digressions.

He mentioned the huge challenge in transcribing the recorded recollection of past events from oral sources most especially if the person being interviewed speaks in a local language. Interpreting words that have no exact meaning in English language is also a challenge.

In the class, he talked about how to make use of all aspects of the interview in analyzing oral history. Oral sources enable us to discover facts, what people think about events and how historians try to reconstruct the past. Oral history tries to explain how the works of an anthropologist is connected with the work of a historian.

I was excited about the speaker’s (Portelli’s) approach to the use of oral interviews as a tool used for recollecting past events. Portelli’s work motivated me to continue to develop the approach and practice that can be used in the project for which I am being trained – the African Mother Tongues and Minority Languages Digitization Project. It also emboldened me not to be deterred by events (most especially digressions) that may arise in the process of the interview.

In the project, I will be interviewing African locals about their mother tongue, how the language has affected their life, the history of the native language. The project asks: Is their tradition related to the native language?, Do they prefer to speak in their mother tongue instead of the official language and why?, and so on.

In the process of an interview, we may also involve a family member of the interviewee (husband or wife), who may also assist in remembering the part of the events the interviewee has forgotten to mention or s/he chooses not to mention. As Portelli notes, the relative at times may set the tone of the discourse for the interviewee.

I also understand that the interviewee always knows more about an event than the interviewer, otherwise there is no need for the interview. The interviewer’s purpose is to learn and given the interviewee the impression of a learner who will assist in getting facts and knowledge from the interviewee.

In conclusion, oral history is a method of studying and recollecting past events that cut across all disciplines.

View Alessandro Portelli making his presentation at the OHMA workshop.