People as historical sources

by Claire Dyer (2002)

Oral traditions and oral histories provide another way to learn about the past from people with:

  • first hand knowledge of historical events, or
  • their own experiences, which in themselves form the raw material of history.

Recently, spoken words that make up oral histories have gained importance as primary sources. Historians and others find out about the lives of ordinary people through spoken stories and tales. Oral histories provide important historical evidence about people, especially minority groups, who were excluded from mainstream histories, or about societies that did not leave behind written sources. A good local example of this is the 'praise poem' from indigenous

African culture, which predates European contact, and tells us about leaders and events in the time before and during the history writing of white settlers in South Africa.

Oral histories are as old as human beings. Before the invention of writing, information passed from generation to generation through the spoken word. Many people around the world continue to use oral traditions to pass along knowledge and wisdom. Interviews and recordings of community elders and witnesses to historical events provide exciting stories, anecdotes and other information about the past.

The value of doing oral history – 'history from below'

"Your memories live longer than your dreams. Memories never fade, if you got a good memory. Those years will never come back again. But if you have your memories like me, you can't be lonely, because you have your memories"-Mrs G.J.

Centre for Popular Memory, University of Cape Town

Oral history deals with the life experiences of ordinary people. Apart from being interesting, oral histories accomplish the following:

  • They shed new light on well-known events and provide different perspectives and a more fascinating, richly layered history that captures the human spirit and memory of an event.
  • They provide an inclusive platform for the writing of history by providing opportunities for the elderly, the disabled and minorities to be heard.
  • They connect us with the history of ourselves, our families, our community and the young with the old, the local with the national and the national with the international.

Because of this it can be argued that Oral History is People's History or 'history from below' rather than the history of one group, usually wealthy, that often sponsor the writing of their own history. For example many of our elders can remember the Great Depression and its effect on families in South Africa or the Second World War and the participation of South Africans in that war. There are many important events during the struggle for freedom in South Africa including the Defiance Campaign of the 1950's, the participation in bus boycotts, or the march of women to the Union Buildings in 1956. People remember the Rivonia Trial, the Sharpeville Massacre and the assassination of Verwoed and the shootings of the children in Soweto in 1976. People remember the death of Steve Biko in 1977, the necklace murders of the turbulent 1980's, the forced removals of the 1960's and 1970's, the student uprisings in the 1980's, the negotiations and marches for peace in the late 1980's, the release of Nelson Mandela and the elections of 1994.

Many were there themselves! Even as teachers, we have stories to tell and share. So oral history is alive and waiting for us to access it as an invaluable source and resource.

It is important for us as learners, at whatever level, to understand that we ourselves already are building our own histories and will become invaluable sources of memory in the future. For example, what do present school learners know and what will they remember about HIV/AIDS and its effect on South Africans in the early twenty first century? What will they be able to tell their children and grandchildren about September 11, 2001 or about the recent Soweto bombings? They are already experiencing history and would have memories of these events that can one day act as sources of memory. What do you as an educator remember about the experiences of the 1960's and 1970's? Although we have lived through apartheid for much of our lives, there are also positive memories relating to music and fashion and other cultural experiences, which reflect the time in our country and a part of a bigger world. What do parents and teachers remember about the music of Miriam Makeba, Jonathon Butler, Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Joan Baez, Ray Charles, Tracy Chapman, etc., to name a few? What did they sing about? How does it reflect history and memory?

We all have stories to tell as learners, teachers, parents and members of the community.

Oral history in school

Oral history methodology can be introduced to Foundation Phase learners as they are expected to know their own lives and how their families have developed and changed over time. The NCS for Foundation Phase emphasizes story-telling and questioning skills when doing family history. Encourage learners to find out about:

  • Time and place of birth (their own, their parents' and if possible, that of their grandparents')
  • Great /significant events (national or community) that took place at the time (for example: a drought, animal disease or locust plague, a flood, a war, an election, a great invention or discovery, etc.).
  • Languages spoken that might have died out or are still being used today (and therefore encourage them to use the language of the person being interviewed if they can speak the language. In this way, we help to prevent languages from dying out.

Oral history research makes their experience of doing and understanding history much more interesting and relevant to context and time.

How accurate are oral histories?

We need to view oral histories in the same way as any other kind of historical source and consider the following:

  • We need to assess and ensure the accuracy of the data gathered. We have to face the question: how accurate is this oral history? At the very least, we must be aware of the limitations of oral history in order not to mislead ourselves into believing that oral history automatically gives us accurate accounts of past events. However, this is not unique to oral history sources. Oral sources should be used in conjunction with other historical sources. A single interview is often not, as it raises further questions that need to be answered.
  • Because oral history depends on living people as sources, we have limits; we can go back only one lifetime.
  • People tend to forget; their memories are not always reliable.
  • People may dramatize or exaggerate an event because or their own interests or agendas in the present.
  • The interview may provoke certain answers at the expense of others.
  • The interviewee may try to impress the interviewer by giving "desirable" answers.
  • The interviewee may fear talking about a sensitive topic.
  • When the story is eventually written down, there is no guarantee that it will be a true reflection of what the interviewee had to say. The written version will not reflect the emotions or body language displayed in the interview that, along with the words, enriches the interview. Also, the written version may not reflect the way in which the person uses language: people often mumble, do not talk in sentences, and do not use punctuation. They do not necessarily relate something chronologically and they can leave things out.
Questions to think about before you do an oral history interview

(adapted from Moher, J. (1993). Step-by- Step Guide to Oral History)

  1. How did I choose the person to be interviewed? Were the people I interviewed the right ones for my research?
  2. How did I prepare for the interview? Did I prepare enough?
  3. What did I use for equipment? Did it work satisfactorily? What changes should I make?
  4. What kinds of questions did I ask? What kinds of questions worked well/not so well?
  5. Where did I conduct the interview? What in the environment affected my interview? How?
  6. Did my subject want to talk? How did I encourage my subject to talk? What "masks" did my subject wear? Did my subject drop the masks?
  7. When did I tell my subject the purpose of the interview and how it would be used? Did my plans to use the interview seem to matter to the subject?
  8. How accurate were my subject's memories?
  9. How accurate was my subject's reporting of her/his memories? How do I know? Does it matter?
  10. Who controlled the interview? How?
  11. How did I feel while interviewing?
  12. How did my subject feel while being interviewed?
  13. Would it be useful and possible to return for another interview?
  14. How do these results affect my original goals? Do I need to adjust my research design?
  15. When I transcribe, will I write exactly what was said or will I begin light editing right from the start? How will I decide what to write and what not to write?
  16. How can I ensure that the transcription is accurate? How can I ensure that the transcription reports what the subject wanted to say?
  17. Who owns the interview and has the right to decide how the completed interview and transcription will be used?
  18. Next time, what would I do the same? What would I do differently?
Working with oral sources

Local studies will be enriched if learners are encouraged to interview people. The students of this country could be creating invaluable resources. These interviews could also later be used in the class as oral sources. When working with oral sources learners need to be made aware that:

  • Memories may be faulty
  • Older people often remember the past as much better or much worse than the present.
  • Not everything is remembered and the person might choose not to tell everything s/he remembers.
  • Although oral sources may be unreliable, they are still useful. They reflect what people believe about events in the past and show how these events have been remembered.
  • Oral sources should be cross-checked with other types of source
Story-telling in History

“Story-telling can be a powerful way of engaging learners imaginatively with the past: and of introducing a topic so that they can form a mental model of the past world. Stories give information and detail, and supplya context, a visualization of a different world.”

(Fines, J & Nichol, J. (1997). Teaching Primary History: The Nuffield Primary History Project, Oxford: Heinemann)

The telling of the story contributes to the creation of a common second record for the learners. Stories told to learners must be based on real evidence from the past - they are not fiction set in the past. A story helps learners form a context that will give more meaning to some follow-up work with sources.

Another idea might be to tell a story until a crucial point, and then ask the learners what they think happened next. They can argue the options in small groups and then record their differing perspectives on newsprint or on the chalkboard. Work with sources will then provide the 'what happened next' of the actual event. Giving learners the opportunity to argue develops their skills and is a way for them to see the validity of their suggestions. This skill also needs to be developed in writing.

Drama and Simulation (role play) in history

It is important in the teaching of History to show learners that what they are doing has relevance to them today. History is also about now. A further consideration is how, through teaching and learning in History, we can help learners to respect themselves, to learn to think and to learn to communicate. Effective communication is worth gold in today's world. A good way to do this is through drama, role-play and verbal responses.

Drama is something that needs careful thought and preparation. It is not relevant or useful on all occasions; and it needs a great deal of concentration and effort for it to succeed. It also has limited use; dealing only with those areas where you can afford the time that drama takes.

Having said that, drama is also a valuable means of developing historical understanding in learners and complements the process of history as enquiry. Drama can help to concentrate understanding on specific moments in the past, allowing learners to 'climb inside them' in the process of understanding. It can also help learners to understand that some questions raised in the study of the past might have a range of possible answers.

Drama needs to be linked closely to the historical situation and to real evidence about the past. Often an historical resource such as a story, document, picture or artefact provides a good starting focus for a piece of drama. This will occur when the learners already have some knowledge of the topic. Drama can also be a process of building a story, being used as an entry into a topic that will be developed during further lessons.

The teacher might also take a role in the drama, taking on the role of one of the characters. This need not necessarily be the leader. It could also, for example, be that of someone who needs to solve a problem and the learners are asked to offer ideas and solutions that they will all consider.

The central point in this is that whatever the form the drama takes, it needs to be based on real people and situations from the past.

An important historical learning and understanding gained from drama is the ability to empathize – to really feel what others felt. The kinds of empathy resulting from drama include a straight personal empathy in which a learner begins to feel a little of what a character or group under study felt, and empathy for a situation in which the learners begin to understand the constraints within which people or groups in the past operated.

Simulation or role-play is closely linked to drama. Again, the aim of role-play is to try to help children to understand why people acted as they did in the past and needs to be based on real evidence about real people in the past. This can only be done successfully once the class has spent some time working with the evidence. The simulation can be as simple as giving learners a role, describing the situation, and asking them to come up with a solution or solutions.

Simulations can also come in other forms such as board games or staging class debates on historical issues.

Defining and using resources

Facts that are available as proof of events is called evidence. Historians need evidence in order to build up an accurate picture of the past, but because all the relevant evidence may not be available they can only establish part of the actual events.

Physical evidence
For example, roads, buildings, canals, bridges, etc.
Sources: Maps, the surrounding area
Written evidence
Sources: Newspapers, magazines, books, public records, relevant documents in private collections, libraries, archives
Pictorial/visual evidence
Photographs, sketches, paintings, maps and films
Sources: Libraries, archives, museums
Any objects that relate to the area or people you are studying like flint arrowheads, a modern chair buried under a landfill, or a car
Sources: The environment, museums, family heirlooms
Oral evidence
Relates to recent memories and can be obtained through interviewing people. We must remember that the lives of ordinary people are often not written down
Sources: The community, interviews, sound recordings
Archaelogical evidence
Relates to artefacts found on archaelogical digs
Sources: Museums, private collections
The internet