Chapter 4 – Subjectivity and Intersubjectivity

Chapter summary

The oral history interview is a three-way conversation: between the interviewer and the narrator and between the narrator and discourse or culture. Oral historians are interested in the interpersonal dynamics between the parties cooperating to produce a memory story, but also in the relationship between the narrator and publicly available discourses or versions of the past. The unmediated or pure narrative does not exist, though historians debate the extent to which subjectivity is dependent on or independent of public formulations. This chapter explains subjectivity and intersubjectivity before going on to introduce ways of understanding intersubjective encounters influenced by gender, race and political stance, and by means of the theory of scripts, composure, the cultural circuit and feminist approaches to the issues raised by the power imbalance intrinsic in many oral history interviews.

Discussion points

  1. What are the variables that are most likely to influence the intersubjectivities in an oral history encounter?
  2. Is it possible or desirable to control or neutralise these subjective variables?
  3. How constraining (or liberating) are publicly available discursive constructions for oral history respondents?
  4. What do you understand by the cultural circuit?
  5. How should oral historians respond to narrators who have actively prepared their memory frame?


A: Recognising dominant discourses in oral history narratives.

Robert (pseudonym), born 1934, interviewed by Lynn Abrams in 1997 for research on the child welfare system in Scotland

Robert was placed in foster care at the age of three. His oral history narrative was constructed in relation to a discourse on ‘normal’ family life. This extract illustrates how Robert was both troubled by his status as an ‘orphan child’ while at the same time proud to represent himself as a member of a family.

PW: Kids will be kids and you used to get the brickbats at school , Glasgow orphan this that and you were called names and again – it wasna so bad, it was acceptable to you as a kid, it was one kid to another idea but again you see if there was any devilment, you speak about vandals and that nowadays you know but if any of the kids got up to devilment then and that you know, the adult parents mine can do no wrong it those Glasgow orphans and that you know that's what you’re up against but you just took it and rode with it you see, but you got this you see, there was a differential kinda system there you see


We was better looked after than the bloody kids with their mother and father I can tell you that, we really were, I'd used to stand on a rostrum and tell them that you know and yet you was underdog you know in the playground and that you see, you were a Glasgow orphan [indistinct]. In fact you couldn't be bloody jealous right enough because you were better off than they were. And I'll tell you another thing that was a good thing; down through the years I've seen an awful lot of friction in families, blood brothers and sisters and fathers mothers and that, I've seen an awful lot of friction and it saddens me to see it, and often say to myself well thank god I wasnae blessed with any of them, you see you get cynical throughout your life.

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

B: Recognising the three-way intersubjective relationship

Mary Ellen Odie, interviewed by Lynn Abrams, 2002

Mary Ellen's oral history narrative was constructed within a context of a pervasive discourse within Shetland of the strength, endurance and power of women in the past. This extract, in which we talk about the ‘hungry gap’, is illustrative of the impact of the intersubjective relationship between the interviewer (a women's historian researching the history of women in Shetland) and a local expert with an interest in women's stories, including those from her own family.

But that hungry gap must have been such a frightener. And one thing in relation to women that I certainly know affected the people in North Yell particularly we have Thomas Irvine's very poignant note at the end of the list of names of people, was the potato famine it happened just the second year after the Irish, and North Yell got a really bad blight. It was then that the … meal roads of North Yell were introduced seriously after that year. But then the meal roads had to be introduced just before when the hungry gap had really widened in the late 30s, that was a bad bad time. It comes out, I tell you where it comes out quite graphically is in the Napier Commission [Royal Commission on the crofting system] where people describe what it was like to be, to have your last meal and then know that after that it was just the bare essentials. My great granny knew how to cook a starling, do you believe that? … Her man was drowned and she was really left destitute, 1851. And they caught starlings in a girn? It was just a kind of set up with a stick and a net over the top and then they likely went under for the food when they went in the poor things it collapsed and they got the starlings. And they cooked limpets and whelks and all that. So that was always sort of a by word when we thought mam was being a bit mean … and she says I never had to eat whelks like Granny did.

Further reading

  • S.B. Gluck and D. Patai (eds), Women’s Words: The Feminist Practice of Oral History (London, 1991)
  • L. Stanley, The Auto/biographical I (Manchester, 1992)
  • P. Summerfield, Reconstructing Women’s Wartime Lives: Discourse and Subjectivity in Oral Histories of the Second World War (Manchester, 1998)
  • P. Summerfield, ‘Dis/composing the subject: intersubjectivities in oral history’, in T. Cosslett, C. Lury and P. Summerfield (eds), Feminism and Autobiography (London, 2000)
  • V. Yow, ‘“Do I like them too much?” Effects on the oral history interview of the interviewer and vice versa’, The Oral History Review, 24 (1997), pp.55–79.