The Methods of Oral History

The Methods of Oral History

  • The Methods of Oral History

By Aondofe Iyo




The methodologies of oral traditions, oral history and documentary sources are essential ingredients of the historical trade. However, it is instructive to note that, the methodology of oral traditions and oral history that this writer is proposing for the reconstruction of the histories of the Caribbean and Central America are still selectively accepted in the academia. This maybe due to what Yeo described as, “history is different, is different from different points of view, different locations, and different class positions” (Cited in Bornat, 1993, p.77-78). Oral tradition and oral history, therefore means “finding a dictionary for the language of the voiceless…however disconcerting these voices may be” (Bornat, ibid. pp. 77-78). Herein lies the relevance of this proposal. Through the use of oral historiography, many of the voiceless in the Caribbean and Central America will be heard. Their cries of political, social, and economic alienation within the emergent globalisation will be better appreciated. For the moment, social scientists are more concerned with the macro level of the crisis of globalisation. These scholars are assiduously constructing theories that they think are capable of dealing with the negative impact of the phenomenon called globalisation without consulting with the segment (the majority of the voiceless) that is feeling the impact most.


The question of validity and reliability of oral historiography is the concern of many practitioners of oral traditions and oral history, especially in western societies. While no one in oral societies doubts that memories are faithful repositories of the sum total of past human experience, in western societies, on the other hand, doubts about the validity and reliability of oral traditions persists (Vansina, 1985, p. XI). I have argued elsewhere that oral societies have larger capacities for retention of past historical events than so-called literate societies (Iyo, 1995 and 1996). This is because, in oral societies, individuals are aware of their historic roles as preservers and custodians of events around them for posterity. The opposite takes place in literate societies where individuals are aware of several formalised organs for such preservation. Indeed, in oral societies, culture is reproduced by remembrances put into words or deeds. In oral societies, memories are acted out in folktales, songs, and folklore, to mention just a few of the organs. In oral societies, the mind through memory carries and transmits culture, customs, and tradition from one generation to another.


The argument that human memory cannot be trusted has been disposed by series of research projects among groups of people around the world who have demonstrated remarkable propensities for retaining historical truth over long periods of time. Ethno-historians have demonstrated the veracity of orally communicated history among Amerindians, Africans, and south Asian groups. The series of ethnographic materials produced on these cultures are overwhelmingly oral and rich in ancient historical traditions. Thus, the Icelandic family sagas, for instance, were transmitted orally for hundreds of years among a people who had lived for generations in one place, in familiar landscapes, and trained their young people with a propensity for storytelling in the art of the saga (Barbara Allen and L. Montell, 1981, p. 69).


Oral traditions and oral history share a certain similarity: they are as much documents of the past as they are of the present, because they are told or narrated in the present tense. They are representations of the past expressed in the present. To attribute to oral traditions to the evanescent present as some sociologists and anthropologists have tried to do, is tantamount to reductionism (refer to my critique of Bohanan in Iyo, 1990, 1994, 1995, and 2000, forthcoming). As demonstrated in many cases in Africa, the Caribbean and Central America, oral traditions and oral history are valid tools of investigating and writing about the past. Oral traditions and oral history must be understood in the context of the past meeting the present (apologies to Stricklin and Sharpless), just as every generation tries to rewrite its history. This is perhaps what Moss meant when he noted that, “documents record a discrete synthesis arrived at by reconciling the interest of parties at one point in time” (Moss in Stricklin, et al, 1988, p.9).


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Iyo, A. (2000). Deconstructing and reconstructing the colonial and post-colonial historiography of Central America and the Caribbean through the use of oral historiography. San Salvador, El Salvador: V Congreso CentroAmericano De Historia. Retrieved from:

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