Oral History and Thoughts on the Individual

For this post, I really wanted to take the time to dissect how individuals and their personalities clash and mesh with both culture and society when collecting historical research from others I have broken the post into three sections: Individual/Personality, Culture, and Society.


There are many reasons that it is important to focus on the individual when looking and studying history. First, it is the 'individual' that makes history. Yes, most of history focuses on rich, royal and upper class individuals, as well as powerful religious leaders (or leaders with huge followings) and only a few of them at that. But the history of even large countries has been forced to include individuals that do not fit those classifications. A few nameable examples are: Joan of Arc of France, Rasputin of Russia, and Martin Luther King in the United States. Second, all of us as human beings are making history as we live. Yes, maybe our history will be noticed by few and cared about by even less. But if we look at our actions and our behavior, it directly effects those in its path. My tiny town of Brooklin has made national news a few times for its behavior that I know of... and both of these times- one person's behavior, belief system and ingenuity or stubbornness have been the catalyst for the large event. I have been told that the local soup kitchen would have closed a few months ago if one person had not stepped in. One person in the right position systematically denied disabled children a good education and fought and insulted parents in his attempt to save money in my area. Now he is retired and living in the same town... and seems confused that he is 'not well respected'. His handiwork can be seen by anyone dealing with the children in our town... and little pleasure is taken I assure you. I am sure that there are so many other examples, but individuals and individual's lives do clearly change the world, culture and society around them. An individual can describe a social and cultural situation that he has been involved in... and see it differently from the other twenty who experienced it... and the other individuals who were indirectly affected by the situation.

Taking the time to learn about individuals and their distinct personality bents gives you clues about how a person thinks about the world and where their biases and perceptions lie. Keeping an open mind and truly trying to understand the person that we wish to collect information from will help give our information more meaning. The information that someone gives on a topic will vary in so many ways, including their general way of looking at things, people involved and how the individual felt about them, ways it affected the individual or his loved ones/family, how society itself views the situation, how their past history colors how they view the more recent past and present, and how the individual's present situation can color their views on the past. So attempting to understand the person behind the information you seek should become as important as the information itself.

Some questions that would be useful to consider when trying to decide if someone makes a good person to interview can be easily summed up. Determining if the person is honest, able to try and deal objectively with the past, and other personal information about the interviewee is key. Does the individual have anything to lose by objectivity? Is the individual able to be objective about things that caused great pain or hardship? How does the individual view his life and those around him? Determining an individual's unique traits and how a person reacts to people, his environment, joy and hardship, etc... give us clues about how accurate the interview itself will be... and how useful.

There are a few reasons that truly understanding an interviewee's family life and social situation are important when collecting oral history. Understanding how the individual has lived, grown up, choices they have made such as marriage and children, and the social environment in which that person has had to make life changing decisions will not only help shape our questions to better fit the individual's probable experience (not useful to ask a poor individual who lived all of their life in California what the White House was like to visit during their lifetime unless you are sure they went there!) If you are asking the interviewee what the individual Jeffery Dahmer was like, you will surely get a different viewpoint based on interviewing his parents or neighbors... or the parents of one of his victims. An individual who has been raised in poverty and managed to scramble out of it to an upper class existence may think that welfare is useless because everyone else could do what he did, or may recognize that his circumstances were helped by others, etc... knowing how this individual thinks, currently lives and has lived gives us important cues when using the individual as a source to collect oral history.


Culture helps the historian to place individual facts into a greater context by looking at the different groups that individuals can belong to in order to help us understand the different cultures... and have a window of understanding into the people that we are interviewing. Culture is usually behaviors that are shared by individual groups. And as culture must be taught or learned through an individual's life experience, we as historians can truly understand culture only by learning it from other people. A book can only go so far in this regard. So, by looking at individual experience and comparing them to others in the same group, we can learn a lot about the experience itself, but the collective group experience and how culture can affect the group experience itself.

The word 'ordinary' suggests a faceless void. It is also almost demeaning and seems to suggest that anything ordinary shares the same background and story. However, this is not true. Ordinary people- as opposed to celebrities or very powerful people- tend to exist in shadow in a historical perspective, but that does not mean that these lives are even similar let alone the same. These 'shadow' individuals can tell us a great deal of what life is like for many that are not in the limelight. People who live complicated and earth changing lives that are not in the newspapers. In some instances such as studying social changes, the ordinary man will necessarily give better answers than the powerful or the celebrity- as the famous will be more untouched by grassroots changes. The ordinary man can show us the emotions and turmoil of change as it happens, one person at a time. The ordinary person can help us to see what tiny, minute emotions and behaviors and movement go into the large scale version of social change. Without these 'collages' of information from people who have lived in the very 'trenches' of history, we will not have a truly accurate picture of history... and we certainly will not have one that we can understand on a truly human level.

Inner facts are so important because they can fill in the gaps that basic knowledge can never fill. Reading that something is bad is a fact, but someone who was there telling and describing to you how bad it was adds an element that helps to cement the fact as true... and brings genuine understanding. The key to truly understanding events such as defining social moments is also in the concept 'inner facts'. Casual observation can give us the knowledge that a transportation strike is happening in France... but why? Why the strike? Why now? What brought the idea and organization into being? Who started it?

The importance of putting 'inner facts' into their historical perspective cannot be overstated. If the historian or reader is unable to understand what the facts that are presented really mean, they will not end up meaning much about the original topic. Certainly oral history not in context can tell us about humanity and emotions and the basic human dilemmas... but when placed within an appropriate historical context we can learn how the emotions were evoked, what the suffering or joy really, truly meant, and how the emotions and behavior made the changes that the individual did or helped make the changes of an individual together with a collective whole. And the information given by one individual about an experience and then added to the stories of others, can give us a rich and diverse picture of not only the event in question, but the culture that the event happened in as well.

Standardized questionnaires have a few problems, but the biggest one is that no individual is truly 'standard'. So a standardized questionnaire will not glean much information that is truly detailed and can only glean 'standard' responses. To get detailed information, we must ask someone in their own words to describe something... and not trap them into using our words which may not get us the information that we seek. Any question is also subject to an individuals interpretation of the question... and again, humans are not standard. Language and the past can color what words mean to people and so they can also change how a question is interpreted. (An example is I grew up thinking that the word 'couple' meant three or more-except when discussing human couples. So a 'couple' of sandwiches always meant three or more to me- until last year. When I finally realized the reason for past misunderstandings when using the word, I have actively worked to change the definition in my mind. But until then, I would have used the word incorrectly!)

The term 'thick description' can be defined as a very careful and detailed description. A thick description will usually help to uncover a person's reasons and motives for behavior and will also usually give cultural information and context. It can give you ideas for questions that you would never have thought to ask based upon your own cultural bias and can give insight into situations that you as the historian may never have heard of in your own culture. These descriptions can also give insight into how culture has changed over time and ways that society or local communities have changed as a result.


Society is the name given to the human world of interactions and living that are important in determining some of our behavior and the behavior of the people around us. Society forces us for instance to wear clothing... but culture may help determine what type of clothing that we wear. Society includes the human community, how we interact together and our relationships with each other. Both society and culture- while distinctively different- are very interrelated and influence each other. Our culture may be shaped by society and culture itself can, in turn, help shape the society around it. However, society is what 'surrounds' us and where we live... culture is what is in us and how we live.

To really get a good grasp of social history, oral history and other qualitative sources should be used because they will provide the details that will truly make the social history developed and not just a brief outline of time. Brief pieces do not give us a picture of what it was like to be truly human during that time frame and so 'his-story' becomes dry, uninteresting, and also unable to be used to see how humanity has changed or not changed today. Social history without culture or other sources simply becomes a basic black 'outline' and the contents are not clear until they are filled in with the hues of personality, humanity, emotions, and behaviors of individual people. As Hoopes states, qualitative sources bring history to life and reveal its significance and meaning- which help to give history meaning.

Historians should use both types of sources if they truly wish to get a full picture of what they are studying. Using both types of sources makes more difficult projects probably more successful. The two source types can also help to find more information for 'smaller' projects than there would usually be if only quantitative sources are used. Using both sources not only helps make the history more clear and more interesting, but it also helps to make it more accurate as you can compare the sources to see where they agree, disagree and are different or compliment each other. Then the historian can compare the differences and look for other sources to help determine accuracy and why there are differences- something that the historian could not do if it was not recognized that there were differences.

It is important to understand how society impacts groups and individuals for a few reasons. One (and the most important personally) is the need to understand that society does affect us as individuals in our daily lives- whether we understand or pay attention to that reality or not. Another reason is that many individuals are very likely to believe that their personal history really isn't 'important' history, but the tasks of working at jobs, raising families, attending school, etc... contain the marks of the society in which the individual lives/lived. And so, no matter how isolated the individual sees themselves from society around them, they are not... and understanding the different ways that society affects groups and individuals helps to develop understanding and interpret sources.

Many people choose to interview their family members because finding another 'family' to interview that is willing to put up with your nosiness and be as honest with you can be quite difficult. Another benefit is that you will have some basic knowledge of the individuals and personalities involved and so you will better be able to quickly understand what family members would be better for interviewing, which family members might be unreliable, and where the different biases might be a problem. You might also have a better understanding of questions that you want to ask. You also have the added benefit of adding to your knowledge of your family, your heritage and the history intertwined with it all. This kind of project can give greater personal awareness and understanding to the historian about their life, their role in their family and how their family has developed and changed over time.

One problem of interviewing family members is that family members may not always see the information that they have about themselves and their history as important. You, as the historian, must try and get the details of their lives and they may be hesitant to share them with you. They might also have reasons that they prefer not to share information with family members.... maybe things that they have been hiding. Convincing these individuals that it is a good idea to share and even give some details of certain circumstances may be very hard indeed. Some ways to overcome these problems is to know the individual being interviewed really well so that you can address the individual's concerns and also determine if the individual would even make a good interviewee.

Social history defined is a way of looking at history that includes the history of 'ordinary' people, how they lived, and attempts to look at history from the point of view of social trends, movements, etc... Quantitative history is an approach to the study of history that uses physical countable evidence- numbers, tax forms, statistics, etc... as primary sources for facts. A quantitative fact can be measured and 'solidified'. Qualitative history are facts that can be debatable- there are internal facts and are facts that give us understanding of human behavior and not just the behavior itself. It gives you the why the behavior happened and other intangible facts that while harder to pin down- are facts.


So, the term 'society' refers to the idea that we live among other people who have some forms of power to permit us to do some things and stop us from doing others. Culture is defined as the intellectual influences that enable us to see some possible avenues of behavior and refuse to do or see other ideas... and personality is the individual response to the cultural and societal influences around us and how we individually interpret these avenues and expectations and conduct ourselves accordingly- or not, based on our own decision making, learned or innate cues, etc... These three terms (society, culture and personality) describe separate ideas that in some ways can be teased out separately from the other two terms. Yet, like triplets, while they are separate entities, each of these terms describes ideas and behavior that are interwoven together and so... they cannot totally be separated except on a vague and less informative basis. Society and culture can help define people and even how they see themselves, but personality can change and mold culture... which can change society. Or personalities can change social 'expectations' and in doing so change the larger picture of culture and society. So each of these ideas clash and mesh depending on different factors.

What do you think? Do you disagree with anything that I have written? Let's discuss! :)

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