Chapter 1 – Introduction: Turning Practice into Theory

Chapter summary

In oral history research, practice (the doing) and theory (the analysis) are entwined. An oral history interview elicits information about the past, but it is also a communicative event which demands we try to understand not just what is said but how and why it is said, and what it means. The application of theory helps us to undertake this analysis. In addition, the practice of oral history has resulted in theoretical innovation so that today oral historians not only utilise theoretical frameworks from other disciplines but also have developed a theoretical toolbox of their own. This chapter surveys the history of oral history, its development from a 'method of recovery' to an analytical practice and, in the process, its transition from a social science to cultural history. It discusses the various stages of analysis, from the interview to the transcription and the interpretation.

Discussion points

  1. What were the motivations of the pioneers of oral history in the 1940s, 50s and 60s? In what ways have oral historians' motivations changed?
  2. Why is oral history so intellectually promiscuous in its use of theory?
  3. What are the implications for oral history's shift from a social science methodology to a method of cultural history?
  4. What are the key differences between analysing an interview and a transcript of that interview?


A: Agnes Leask

Agnes Leask was interviewed by the author in 2002 for a project on women and gender in Shetland. Agnes is a crofter who has lived all her life in Shetland. She speaks with a Shetland accent and uses Shetland dialect. In the first extract Agnes is speaking about how she and her family made a living when they first took over a croft (small farm). The written extract is taken from the author’s transcript of the audio recording, rendered in standard English. If you compare the transcription below with the audio recording, you can identify what is missing from the transcript in terms of speech rhythms and pronunciation.

We had planted some the first year but only a little bit. We came here in 1958, and then we got into the swing of it. We planted a few the first year and the chap who had the contract for the school canteen got a sample from us and then he said plant more they were good. So for several years we ploughed up as much as we could, sold about a ton of tatties to the school canteen every year which generated a bit of ready cash, but it was a lot of work cos in those days you didn’t have the sprays to keep down the weeds, it all had to be hand mown, so it was a case of getting Joanne into her pram on a nice dry day, wheel her down to the field, [??] away until she started gaggling for something to eat. And at that time there was practically no work in Shetland at all and Davy sort of Did odd jobs with his tractor for folks roundabout, neighbours roundabout. It wasn’t a great deal of money coming in but we sort of scraped by.

Source: Shetland Archive SA3/3/395

The second extract from Agnes Leask is transcript of an earlier interview carried out in 1986 by a native Shetland speaker (Isobel Mitchell) which captures Agnes’ speech much more accurately and phonetically.

Hit wis a crof’ probably aboot maybe twal’ or fourteen acres, hit wis a braa good crof’, da Twatt crofts wis braa good quality, but dey wirna excessively big. But it wis a crof’ at wis big enoch ta hae like milkin kye fur da hoose an rair young beasts fur sale an dat sorta thing, plus der ain corn fur mael an suchlike as dat. But of course a wife wi a lok o young bairns couldna wark it tad a same extent as if dey’d baith been warkin.

A standard English transcription would read something like this:

It was a croft probably about maybe twelve or fourteen acres, it was a very good croft, the Twatt crofts was very good quality, but they weren’t excessively big. But it was a croft that was big enough to have like milking cows for the house and rare young beasts for sale and that sort of thing, plus their own corn for meal and such like as that. But of course a wife with a lot of young bairns couldn’t work it to the same extent as if they’d both been working.

Source: Shetland Archive 3/1/162/1

B: History of oral history

The early history of the oral history movement can be traced online through some of the early collections.

The New Deal Federal Writers’ Project (FWP)

This was a project designed to give work to unemployed artists and writers during the Depression in the United States. More than 6000 writers were employed to interview more than 10,000 men and women. The collection of 2900 life histories and 2300 accounts of slavery is held at the Library of Congress and can be viewed online.

Columbia University Oral History

The Columbia University Oral History Project was founded in 1948, and today the Columbia University Center for Oral History (CCOH) is one of the world’s leading centres for the practice and teaching of oral history. The archive holds more than 8000 transcripts and recordings which can be searched here.

Studs Terkel (1912–2008)

Studs Terkel was an American writer and broadcaster who recorded oral history interviews via his radio programmes on WFMT in Chicago, addressing themes such as race relations, working life, the Depression and the Second World War.

George Ewart Evans (1909–1988)

George Ewart Evans was a pioneer of oral history in the UK who conducted a large number of recordings between 1956 and 1977 documenting rural life, especially in Suffolk in East Anglia. He wrote many books, including Ask the Fellows that Cut the Hay (1975) and Where Beards Wag All: the Relevance of Oral Tradition (1973). His recordings can be listened to on the British Library Sound Archive website:

Ronald Blythe (b.1922)

Ronald Blythe is an East Anglian writer whose book Akenfield, first published in 1969, is an evocative portrait of life in an East Anglian village which illustrates the potential for a new kind of history, telling the stories of ordinary folk in their own words. Akenfield is still in print and it has spawned a celebrated film, directed by Peter Hall, and a sequel, Craig Taylor's Return to Akenfield, which is also based on oral histories undertaken in the same villages as Blythe frequented.

Paul Thompson (b.1935)

Paul Thompson is one of the pioneers of oral history as a methodology for academic research. From 1974–77 he conducted the ‘The Edwardians: Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918’ project, which collected life history interviews with more than 400 individuals from all parts of the UK. The transcripts can be accessed online from the UK Data Service.

Further reading

  • L. Abrams, Myth and Materiality in a Woman's World: Shetland 1800–2000 (Manchester, 2005)
  • R. Blythe, Akenfield: Portrait of an English Village (London, 1969)
  • G.E. Evans, Ask the Fellows Who Cut the Hay (London, 1956)
  • A. Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories. Form and Meaning in Oral History (Albany, NY, 1991)
  • P. Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History (3rd edn, Oxford, 2000)