Oral history is a catch all term applied to two things, both the process of conducting and recording interviews with select people in order to obtain information from them about a past event.[1] Whereas Mass Observation was a sociological study into British society and the people within it, though elements are shared between the two the use of memory can be seen as a divisive factor shaping their varying methodologies.  This essay will discuss how the use of memory in oral sources creates a distinctly different methodology from that employed by the Mass Observation research team.

 

Mass Observation was a social research organisation, founded in 1937 by Tom Harrisson, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings.[2] The purpose of mass observation was to readdress the apparent imbalance of the recording of the social consciousness. Through gathering facts about the daily thoughts, habits and activities of men, women and children, predominantly working class, it sought to raise awareness about the every aspect of the lives of the British people whose voices would otherwise be silenced. The dire conditions of the 1930s could be seen as a major factor for motivating the early Mass-Observers as the growing power of both the media and the government was seen as warping the common voice of the people.[3] Mass Observation thus sought out extensive facts and figures, gathered through interviews, responses to monthly directives, diaries and also covert surveillance.[4] The two main methods of collecting this data, according to Penny Summerfield, were the team of full-time observers and also the panel of voluntary members who responded to monthly directives, referring to these methods as the “twin pillars of Mass Observation’s research methodology”[5]. It is also important to note that in excess of 500 war diarists also took part in the Mass Observation movement from all over the country. As well as the national contributions of observers, Tom Harrisson also recruited a team of ‘observers’ to conduct ‘an intensive survey of a single town’, Bolton in Lancashire. He trained them briefly in ethnographic methods and sent them out to observe and describe the everyday behavior of the people in the town; this study was known as the Work town project.[6]

 

Oral history has been defined as:

“a field of study and a method of gathering, preserving and interpreting the voices and memories of people, communities, and participants in past events. Oral history is both the oldest type of historical inquiry, predating the written word, and one of the most modern, initiated with tape recorders in the 1940s and now using 21st-century digital technologies.”[7]

The audio recording of an interview, is rarely used to supplement other historians works, instead they favor the typed transcripts. There are problems with this such as it detaches the listener from the emotion which the interview could be displaying the pauses and influxes in peoples voices go unheard and the tone and rhythm are missed, which could alter the message of the interview as a whole.[8] Also the audio recordings are often destroyed, which Portelli states, acts as a symbolic case of the destruction of the spoken word, turning an oral source a visual one. Interviewing is unlike any other type of information gathering from primary sources. Extracted from a living person, who has the ability to alter change and be coerced into answering the questions of the interviewer. That being said there tends to be a preference with historians with the written word, however illogical as Tosh has highlighted many written historical accounts as simply being “oral sources written down.”[9] Within an interview it is important to note that there are two people actively participating, meaning that an interview is a collaborative effort ensuring that the rapport between the interviewee and the interviewer plays a significant role in the formation of history. The rapport between the two can ensure that an interview is a positive one, conversely poor rapport can kill an interview dead. An example of this is that of Daniel James, who when conducting an interview in an Argentine labour community had his skills tested due to his own ideology conflicting severely with that of his subject, not aided by the conditions in which the interview was taking place.[10] Furthermore, the power of selection can alter the meanings and the message about the topic they are researching, for example they select who to interview and also what questions to ask. So the complaint Gurney puts forward about mass observation having a layer of interpretation from the middle class still exists for oral history, as though working class people could be interviewed their words are to some degree being doctored and guided by the historian. Finally the historical discourse is controlled by yet another barrier, the potential to exclude people’s memories all together for the power to publish it resides with the historian. The recording of memories usually take place sometime after the event, at a point of reflection and composure of the subjects life. This could be seen as a dilution in their historical worth as accurate documents, as they become subjected to outside influences, which distort the personal insight of an event to reflect the collective memory of society.[11] As a result the retained memory is subsequently altered by popular discourse, changing with the public’s opinion of the event.[12] Portelli also highlights the fact that the repetition of an interview will never return the same results also stating an interview with the same person could be indefinitely continued which alludes to the unfinished nature and incompleteness of oral sources.[13]

 

Mass Observation sought to create a qualitative body of knowledge which provided a unique insight into people’s lives through sources, “rich in intimate details about people’s lives, thoughts and feelings”[14]. The focus of the research was centered very much on the working class British public, to study the “behavior problems of our own lives, as actually lived in the houses and factories, pubs and chapels and shops in this sort of civilization”[15]. In essence, it sought to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’. To achieve the level of understanding of the British public which the movement sought, the topics were eclectic, covering areas such as; cinema, anti-Semitism, jokes and Christmas shopping.[16] The variety of topics which Mass Observation focuses upon ensures that some, though not all, are useful and relevant bodies of knowledge which aid in creating a collection of information about the British public in the era in question. However few reports were bizarrely esoteric, such as report 3210 in 1950 titled, ‘the Toilet Preparations of Men’, topics such as this were obscure and aid little in the development of the sociological study. Although more focused in their aims, Oral history has also been used as a device to gather the experiences of certain types of people whose voice would otherwise go unheard.[17] In this way it has been closely linked to the rise of social history and ‘history from below’ in the 1960s. Examples of this are the extensive works focusing on slave narratives, the working classes, women and the illiterate. Furthermore, Tosh also recognizes the merits of oral testimony in recording domestic routines and everyday aspects of life, which would otherwise rarely be documented.[18] Oral history also records ‘old wives tales’ and folklore which are as important to cultural studies as more traditional sources.[19]  Thus, following this view “Every old man that dies is a library that burns”.

 

The inclusion of hitherto ignored groups makes history, in the words of Paul Thompson, “to put it simply, more democratic.”[20] Though considered to be a democratic form of history, it must be understood that the control of the historical discourse still remains firmly in the hands of the historian.[21] Alessandro Portelli argues that “the historian may validate his or her discourse by ‘ventriloquizing’ it through the narrators’ testimony.”[22] The final shape of the testimony is in the hands of the academic and not the individual. In a similar way the researchers for Mass Observation came from a distinctive group of social and gender backgrounds, which shaped their views upon their subjects. Peter Gurney has described Mass Observation as nothing more than a middle class adventure and the expense of the working class. This notion seemingly stands up when using the figures found in James Hinton’s book, The Mass Observers: A History, 1937-1949, of the self-attributed class makeup of the Mass Observation in 1939 which saw only 19% consider themselves as working class making 81% middle class and above. Penny Summerfield further highlights that most panelists were lower middle-class men, who politically would be considered ‘left of center’. Although Summerfield states the sense of being listened to was particularly important for women, who despite having the vote, there deprived of a voice in traditional political parties, the time constraints of having children severely limited the number of female participants.[23]

 

Oral history, according to historians such as Marwick and Taylor, retains less historical worth than the written word stating that, “oral accounts are particularly subject to fallibility of the human memory”[24]. To many twentieth century historians they saw oral history as being severely limited in their historical worth and should subsequently be treated as “specious nonsense”, containing elements of plausibility but are to be considered as inaccurate and false.[25] This viewpoint is supported by Taylor who criticizes the practice of interviewing by stating they provide nothing more than an arena for ‘old men to drool over their youth’, this over simplification illuminates various issues.[26]

 

In contrast to mass observation sources, which are recorded at the time of the event, memory is very much unique to the discipline of oral history. Annette Kuhn states memory “is neither pure experiences nor pure event. Memory is an account, always discursive, always already textual”[27]. Memory is not simply the neutral recollection of past events and experiences. Instead it is a process, which requires the use of images, stories and experiences from past life. The memory is placed within a narrative and they are told in a way which has been in part shaped by “our social and cultural context”[28]. Daniel Schacter’s states the memory is about the way people, “convert the fragmentary remains of experience into autobiographical narratives that endure over time and constitute the stories of our lives”[29]. Memories are not produced from one moment to the next, they are viewed in a wider period of time, with Portelli stating that “memory is not a passive depository of facts, but an active process of creation of meanings”[30]. In essence memories are as much about the present as they are about the past. Concerns with the use of oral sources stem from the fallibility of memory and in particular its susceptibility to be ‘infected’ by outside influence. Abrams notes that any person whose testimony is being taken would have their memory warped by others, as the interviewee, “‘borrows’ ideas, motifs, sayings and whole, ‘memories’ about the past from their family, community or wider culture”[31]. In essence any memory expressed in an interview exists within a field of memory work that is going on at many levels within society. The way in which people construct memories to resemble the popular version of events has created a subcategory within the oral history discipline known as collective memory.[32] For historians of oral history, memory and the process of remembering are central features to oral history.

 

To conclude, the differences in the methodology between Mass Observation and oral history sources are not limited to the use of memory, though it is key for the conditions under which the sources are produced the sources vary at a very basic sensory level. Memory allows for the use of judgment in deciding relevant elements of the past however the narrator/ interviewee has their memories guided and to some extent altered by the historian, which detracts from the freedom enjoyed by Mass Observation researchers in the recording of their experiences. Memory is a prominent reason for the varying methodologies, however not the only factor for their variation.

 

 

Bibliography

 

Abrams, Lynn, Oral History Theory, (London: Routledge, 2010).

 

Calder, Angus, ‘Mass-Observation 1937–1949’, in Angus Calder, (ed.), Essays on the History of British Sociological Research, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 121-136.

 

Cockett, Olivia, Love & War in London: A Woman’s Diary, 1939-1942, (Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005).

 

Edy, Jill, Troubled Pasts: News and the Collective Memory of Social Unrest, (Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 2006).

 

Harrisson, Tom, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings, “Anthropology at Home,” The New Statesman and Nation, January 30th, 1937.

 

Heimann, Judith M., The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998).

 

Hunt, Nigel, Memory, War and Trauma, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).

 

Marwick, Arthur, The New Nature of History, (Chicargo: Lyceum Books, 2001).

 

Munslow, Alun, The Routledge Companion to Historical Studies, (London: Routledge, 2006).

‘Oral History: Defined’, The Oral History Association, http://www.oralhistory.org/about/do-oral-history/, last accessed 08/01/2014

 

Perks, Robert and Alistair Thompson, ‘Introduction’, in Robert Perks and Alistair Thompson (ed.)s, The Oral History Reader, (London: Routledge, 1998), pp.ix-xiii.

 

Portelli,Alessandro,  The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991).

 

Portelli, Alesandro,  ‘What makes oral history different’, in Robert Perks and Alistair Thompson (ed.)s, The Oral History Reader,( New York: Routledge, 1998).

 

Robin, Antony, Jeremy Kushner, We Europeans?: Mass-observation, ‘race’ and British Identity in the Twentieth Century, (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2004.

 

Thompson, Alistair, ‘The Anzac legend: Exploring national myth and memory in Australia’, in Raphael Samuel and Paul Thompson (ed.)s, The Myths We Live By, (London: Routledge, 1990); pp.73-82.

 

Schacter, Daniel, Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind and the past, (New York: Basic Books, 1996).

 

Summerfield, Penny, ‘Mass-Observation: Social Research or Social Movement?’, Journal of Contemporary History, 20, 1985, pp.439-452.

 

Taylor, A.J.P, Oral History, (Vol.1, iss.3), p.46, cited in: “The Voice of the past”, Paul Thompson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978).

 

Thompson, Paul, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, Third Edition, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 [first edition 1978]).

 

Tosh, John, The Pursuit of History, Fourth Edition, (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006 [first edition 1984]).

 

‘Visual Culture and Mass Observation’, The Project, http://www.archiveadventure.wordpress.com/the-project/, last accessed 08/01/2014.

 

[1] Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory, (London: Routledge, 2010); p. 2

[2] Tom Harrisson, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings, “Anthropology at Home,” The New Statesman and Nation, January 30th, 1937; p. 155

[3] ‘Visual Culture and Mass Observation’, The Project, http://www.archiveadventure.wordpress.com/the-project/, last accessed 08/01/2014.

[4] Antony Robin Jeremy Kushner, We Europeans?: Mass-observation, ‘race’ and British Identity in the Twentieth Century, (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2004; p. 103.

[5] Penny Summerfield, ‘Mass-Observation: Social Research or Social Movement?’, Journal of Contemporary History, 20, 1985, pp.439-452; p.441

[6] Judith M. Heimann, The Most Offending Soul Alive: Tom Harrisson and His Remarkable Life, (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998); p. 142

[7] ‘Oral History: Defined’, The Oral History Association, http://www.oralhistory.org/about/do-oral-history/, last accessed 08/01/2014

[8] Allesandro Portelli, ‘What makes oral history different’, in Robert Perks and Alistair Thompson (ed.)s, The Oral History Reader,( New York: Routledge, 1998), p. 65

[9] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, Fourth Edition, (Harlow: Pearson Education Limited, 2006 [first edition 1984]); p.194.

[10] Lynn Abrams, Oral History Theory, (London: Routledge, 2010); p.14.

[11] Nigel Hunt, Memory, War and Trauma, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010); p.105.

[12] Alistair Thompson, ‘The Anzac legend: Exploring national myth and memory in Australia’, in Raphael Samuel and Paul Thompson (ed.)s, The Myths We Live By, (London: Routledge, 1990); pp.73-82; p. 78.

[13] Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991); p.56

[14] Penny Summerfield, ‘Mass-Observation: Social Research or Social Movement?’, Journal of Contemporary History, 20, 1985, pp.439-452; p.439.

[15] Olivia Cockett, Love & War in London: A Woman’s Diary, 1939-1942, (Ontario: Wilfrid Laurier University Press, 2005);p .199

[16] Angus Calder, ‘Mass-Observation 1937–1949’, in Angus Calder, (ed.), Essays on the History of British Sociological Research, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), pp. 121-136; p. 125.

[17] Paul Thompson, The Voice of the Past: Oral History, Third Edition, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000 [first edition 1978]); p.29.

[18] John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, Fourth Edition, (Harlow: Pearson Education: 2006 [first published 1984]); p.310

[19] Robert Perks and Alistair Thompson, ‘Introduction’, in Robert Perks and Alistair Thompson (ed.)s, The Oral History Reader, (London: Routledge, 1998), pp.ix-xiii; pix

[20] Paul Thompson, p.9.

[21] Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991); p.56

[22] Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991); p.56

[23] Penny Summerfield, ‘Mass-Observation: Social Research or Social Movement?’, Journal of Contemporary History, 20, 1985, pp.439-452; pp.441-442.

[24] Alun Munslow, The Routledge Companion to Historical Studies, (London: Routledge, 2006); p. 197

[25] Arthur Marwick, The New Nature of History, (Chicargo: Lyceum Books, 2001); p. 136.

[26] A.J.P. Taylor, in Oral History, (Vol.1, iss.3), p.46, cited in: “The Voice of the past”, Paul Thompson (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1978); p. 70.

[27] Abrams, Oral History, p, 79

[28] Abrams, Oral History, p, 79

[29] Daniel Schacter, Searching for Memory: The Brain, the Mind and the past, (New York: Basic Books, 1996);p.71

[30] Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History, (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991); p.52

[31] Abrams, Oral History, p, 23

[32] Jill Edy, Troubled Pasts: News and the Collective Memory of Social Unrest, (Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 2006); p. 161.

Advertisements