Sunday, October 8, 2017

Thoughts on oral history and psychology

"It is not by speeches and majority vote that the great questions of our time will be decided — as that was error of 1848 and 1849 — but rather by iron and blood." Otto von Bismarck

Memory is a key subject in the psychology; one might think it would follow that how people talk about history should be an obvious area of inquiry within psychology. Since I have started working with Dr Richard Roche on research concerning reminiscence and memory, I have started reading a bit about oral history (i.e. the study of history via interviews with those who witnessed historical periods or events). However, although oral history has interacted with disciplines such as education, sociology, and gender studies, a search of the terms "oral history psychology" returns slim pickings. There is an ongoing project by the  British Psychological Society conducting oral history with psychologists on the subject of their own discipline, as well as an interesting study using oral history methods to predict divorce, but otherwise very little of direct relevance to these two areas.

Ronald Grele and others remind us that oral history is constrained to what people can remember, and we know that human memory is fallible. Although we have our own introspective insight into the limits of memory, researchers such as Elizabeth Loftus have indicated how we may place more faith in our memory than might be justified. The cognitive and developmental psychology of memory is also helpful in detailing predictable faults in typical memory and its development over time (e.g. consider the reminiscence bump, or the tendency for people to have greater autobiographical recall for events occurring over a certain period, usually from around adolescence to early adulthood).

However, oral historians have also pointed that, with a critical perspective, even narrators who are unreliable may be informative in their own regard. An intriguing essay from Kathleen Blee discusses her experience of conducting oral history with female former members of the Ku Klux Klan; people who were involved in the Klan at a time when it was a dominant force in their communities. When Blee (herself a white woman) would challenge the interviewees on some of the points they were making, they often did not moderate their racism. Blee got the impression that they were treating her challenges as "public talk", and that they could always return to a "private talk" where overt racism can be assumed as the norm. There are interesting parallels here with the false consensus effect, whereby one assumes that one's own views are closer to those of others than might actually be the case. As long as the veracity of oral historical accounts can be contrasted with other sources, a more nuanced picture of the intersection of time and mind can be built up.

Paul Thompson has pointed out how local history in particular might give the inhabitants of a town or community a sense of context or meaning for where they live. Historians, and the documents available to them, have typically given preference to shifts in political power rather than a description of everyday life and how it changes over time. Indeed, where the history of ordinary people's lives is dealt with, is in generally in aggregate. However, oral methods (the study of history via interviews with those who witnessed historical periods or events) can open up other lines of historical enquiry (e.g. family life in the past). Consequently, where historians or others raise concern that an oral history may not be statistically representative, they may be missing what some of their colleagues are really aiming for. Grele argues that really what matters is whether an oral history represents "typify historical processes". Thus, oral history may be seen to be judged by the qualitative standard of transferability rather than the quantitative standard of generalisability, and like qualitative enquiry, there is scope for probing meaning, as opposed to getting a quantitative measure from a representative section of the population. Furthermore, the opportunity to probe the day-to-day lives of people in the past offers a greater chance to apply psychological insight to our history.

Oral history is often conducted in older respondents. When I imagine some interviewing me in 40 years, I imagine a future where posts on social media may be used in an effort to capture the zeitgeist. Of course, this will raise other issues, such as the substantial risk of such content being lost over the decades (bebo anyone?). Consider also the echo chamber effect, that leaves many users of the internet with arguably not much greater breadth of information than their grandparents had. In any case, a full understanding of human memory in the broadest terms should invite more psychologists to start talking to historians and archivists.

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