Chapter 3 – Self

Chapter summary

Oral history can be a revealing process. Many oral history interviews, particularly if they take a life story approach, invite the narrator to reflect on and present a version of the self. The self, understood in Western terms as the autonomous and self-contained individual, is constructed through the intersubjective relationship between consciousness and discourse, and the oral history interview offers the opportunity, via a narrative performance, to present a self with which the narrator is comfortable. Composing the self through narration serves the purpose of differentiating the self from others and anchoring the self in the social. This chapter outlines some current theories around oral history and the self, focusing particularly on the life story interview and the injunction upon the narrator to achieve coherence or composure. It is important to remember, however, that self narration in this form is not universal and may be the preserve of the privileged or dominant in societies.

Discussion points

  1. Is it possible for oral history to reveal the authentic self?
  2. How do the theories of coherence and composure aid understanding of self narration?
  3. How does the so-called confessional culture influence self narration?
  4. Why might some narrators be unable to construct a continuous narrative of the self?
  5. Is the narrated self gendered?
  6. What is the difference between the life history and a life story?


A: Self as distinctive and reflexive

Deborah (born 1949) interviewed by Lynn Abrams in 2009

This extract from Deborah's life story in which she reflects on the generational differences that separate her from her mother serves to distinguish Deborah's sense of self from that of her mother and her mother's generation.

LA: You didn’t even want to get married!

Deborah: No and she made one birthday cake once with a china top and a crinoline and she said she could have killed me when she saw my reaction em so she gradually

LA: So you weren’t the girly girl that she maybe wanted.

Deborah: Yes, so that was a big disappointment to her, a huge disappointment to her. But I mean er, as I grew up and she saw that you know I could actually groom myself like she, because she was always well groomed. My mother was a person who, before my father came home in the evening, she would go upstairs and change and put make-up on for the dinner, for the evening’s dinner, you know. And she would wear make-up during the day and she couldn’t understand why some other women in the village didn’t. Extraordinary standards.

In this second extract from Deborah's oral history she is reflecting on her attitudes to religion. It demonstrates what we describe as ‘reflexivity of the self’, that is, the facility of the interviewee to reflect on themselves in the light of the present self while in the process of speaking about the past self. In other words, oral history is a process whereby the narrator creates a distinction between the person doing the telling and the protagonist at the centre of the story. The sections which indicate that self reflection are highlighted.

I was probably about 14, but there was no question em you know, I said I absolutely said I had no belief and I felt it was wrong for me to be confirmed but again it was part of the, part of the village thing wasn’t it, you know … my parents had standing, it was an expectation, well I mean I had started rebelling by then so em. I absolutely loathed going for the mothering Sunday service because you – I was quite a shy little girl I think at the time – you had to sort of get up and put your hand up and promise to do things and then go up and get this biscuit with violets on it and I loathed it, absolutely loathed it em...

B: Coherence

Ronald Walker interviewed as part of Paul Thompson's oral history project 'Family Life and Work Experience before 1918'

This extract from a long life history interview is chosen here for its demonstration of a coherence system, that is, a system or framework of thinking that gives an account coherence – to the narrator and the audience. In Mr Walker's case the coherence system used is that of early twentieth century religious evangelicalism. There are many other places in this interview transcript that reinforce this point.

Q: Did your parents bring you up to consider certain things important in life?

Yes, in the narrow non-conformist tradition. Lying was the unforgivable sin, so I'm afraid I've been unforgiven a few times. Turning the other cheek was regarded as a good thing. They would have been pleased if I'd shown any interest in the Methodist ministry which, of course, I didn't.

I was taken by the scruff of my neck very early in life and told to 'sign here', where I pledged total abstinence [from alcohol] for the rest of my life, and I satisfied my conscience when I grew up that that was got under duress and I'm afraid I'm not a teetotaller and I'm not ashamed of the fact that I was made to sign something that I did not quite understand at the time.

In this extract Mr Walker manages to achieve narrative coherence between the past and the present, between the Edwardian world in which religion was a central force in his life and that of his parents, and the secular present (the 1970s):

I think my parents – thinking of my parents I think they were very sincere in their beliefs. I don't care to discuss whether their beliefs were right or wrong, but they were very sincere about it. All their lives they prayed together. Every night my father read a portion of the Bible to my mother, late at night, and on his deathbed he sent for us all – typical of the time, apart from brother who died beforehand – he knew he was dying and most embarrassingly he confessed himself a great sinner before he died. He had a feeling this was the sort of thing to get off his chest. His children, my generation, I'm afraid we were falling away from this sort of thing. We went to chapel because we had to. I remember we didn't HAVE to, we went there to please our parents, but I don't think any of my sisters or myself had, at that time, any – we were losing our childish convictions and hadn't got any others, at that time. Hadn't replaced them with anything else.

The full interview transcript is available from the UK Data Service here.

C: Counter conventions of the Self

Slave narratives: Interview with Andy Anderson

Andy Anderson was interviewed by the Works Progress Administration in 1937 as part of the Federal Writers' Project. He was 94 at the time of the interview. This extract demonstrates how some narrators experience difficulty in conforming to the basic (western) conventions of the autobiography. In Mr Anderson's case the statement of when and where he was born departs from the conventional practice of stating date and place of birth.

My name am Andy J. Anderson an' I's bo'n on Marster Jack Haley's plantation in Williamson County, Texas. Marster Haley owned my folks an' 'bout 12 udder fam'lies ob cullud folks.

How come I's took de name ob Anderson, 'stead ob Haley? It am dis away, my pappy was owned by Marster Anderson who sold him to Marster Haley, so he goes by de name ob Anderson. Dey use to call me Haley but aftah Surrendah, I'se change de name to Anderson to have it de same as my pappy's.

A series of extracts from this interview can be read here.

More information about the WPA Federal Writers' Project can be found here along with a series of interview transcripts.

D: Frances: Discovering the self in interview

Frances was interviewed by Lynn Abrams in 1997 for research on the child welfare system in Scotland. Frances (pseudonym) had been placed in foster care as a baby. At the time of the interview she had only recently discovered members of her birth family. In this short extract Frances exhibits what we might describe as an incoherent self:

When I found out I was Jewish I thought now I should've had a chance to follow my culture, that's maybe my only regret after … being amongst Jewish people and thinking, you should know this, because reading up, you'll never be a Jew.

Frances' transcript can be accessed at the University of Strathclyde Oral History Centre collection.

A longer discussion of Frances along with some of the other interviewees on this project can be found in:

L. Abrams, '"Blood is thicker than water": family, fantasy and identity in the lives of Scottish foster children’ in J. Lawrence and P. Starkey (eds), Child Welfare and Social Action in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries: International Perspectives (Liverpool, 2001), pp.195–215

Further reading

  • M-F. Chanfrault-Duchet, ‘Textualisation of the self and gender identity in the life story’, in T. Cosslett, C. Lury and P. Summerfield (eds), Feminism and Autobiography (London, 2000)
  • S. N. G. Geiger, ‘Women’s life histories: method and content’, Signs, 11:2 (1986), pp.334–351
  • C. Linde, Life Stories: the Creation of Coherence (Oxford, 1993)
  • U. Neisser and R. Fivush (eds), The Remembering Self. Construction and Accuracy in the Self-narrative (Cambridge, 1994)