Chapter 8 – Power and Empowerment

Chapter summary

There is much potential within oral history practice for breaking down hierarchical power relations, and in its early years the methodology was consciously deployed to empower social groups whose voices were not heard within traditional historical narratives. The power relationship within the oral history interview relationship was also recognised, and alternative models of practice, such as the notion of shared authority, were utilised to attempt to devolve power. More recently oral history has been used as a method of advocacy in which the interviewer uses the stories of marginalised or silenced groups to advocate on their behalf. With wider use of digital technology, however, there is less need for intermediaries and it enables a more direct form of communication through storytelling, thereby negating some of the power imbalances that formerly prevailed.

Discussion points

  1. How effective were early attempts to give a voice to the marginalised and the silenced?
  2. In what ways can oral history be empowering for respondents?
  3. How can oral historians diminish or negate the power imbalance in the interview relationship?
  4. To what extent is advocacy a more democratic practice within oral history?


A: Early uses of oral history to empower silenced or marginalised groups

i) Holocaust survivors – a number of projects were set up following the end of World War II to systematically record the testimony of survivors of the Jewish Holocaust.

Yad Vashem: maintains a database of all victims of the Shoah and stores testimony from around the world.

The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum has extensive collections of sources relating to the Holocaust including an oral history collection which can be searched online.

The Voice/Vision Holocaust Survivor Oral History Archive at University of Michigan is a repository of testimony. The transcriptions are available on the website.

ii) the Left

The Oral History of the American Left is held in a collection at New York University (there are no online transcripts or recordings).

The Scottish Working People's History Trust is committed to recording the memories of working people in a wide range of trades across Scotland.

iii) Black and ethnic minorities.

The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program at the University of Florida holds a digital collection of several thousand interviews with Native Americans, African Americans and civil rights activists.


The LGBTQ Digital Collaboratory is a digital resource for oral histories with LGBTQ individuals and groups across North America.

The Rainbow History Project is a Washington DC based resource containing oral history interviews relating to LGBT lives.

OurStory Scotland is committed to recording the life stories of the LGBT community in Scotland.

B: Advocacy

Panos was an organisation that aimed to advocate on behalf of poor and marginalised people around the world. It closed in 2013 but its oral histories are available.

Further reading

  • R. Bauman (ed), Folklore, Cultural Performances, and Popular Entertainments: a Communication-centred Handbook (Oxford, 1992)
  • R. Bauman, Verbal Art as Performance (Prospect Heights, Illinois, 1977)
  • K.M. Langellier and E.E. Peterson, Storytelling in Daily Life: Performing Narrative (Philadelphia, 2004)
  • Pollock (ed), Remembering: Oral History Performance (Basingstoke, 2005)