Re-thinking oral history – a study of narrative performance

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In the past twenty years scholars have engaged with exploring the function and process of historical narrative-making in increasingly popular forms such as film history, public history, material culture, art history, landscape history and living history. With regard to oral history, however, the relevance of postmodernist approaches has been remarkably neglected. This paper argues that oral history is a highly distinctive example of historical narrative-making, created by ‘ordinary’ people and contextualised by the professional historian, providing us with a fascinating alternative to constructing and imagining ‘histories’ beyond more conventionally understood ‘texts’. Specifically, I endorse the value of deconstructing and analysing subjectivities that determine narrative construction in and of oral history (This article is drawn from a BA dissertation entitled, ‘History is the work of a thousand different hands’: a study of the value of oral history, incorporating a case study of the socio-cultural histories of men and women’s home front experiences in West Sussex 1939–1945, submitted in May 2015. The testimonies drawn upon in this paper were originally collected for the purpose of the BA dissertation. Full written permission was obtained from all interviewee’s to use and quote from their testimonies. Where individuals have requested to be anonymous, an alternative name has been used.). Treating individual testimonies as mediated cultural processes rather than ‘direct’ experience, the process – rather than the product – of oral history, suggests the need to accept and understand the nature of the narrativisation of the past as history.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)529-548
Number of pages19
JournalRethinking History
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 8 Jun 2017


  • Oral History
  • Narratives
  • Performance
  • Memory


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