Book Review: Locating Oral History Theory and Practical Methodology

Miren Llona (ed.) (University of the Basque Country, 2012)

This book is a systematic and comprehensive guide aimed at anyone interested in creating oral history projects.

Based on her career as an oral historian, Miren Llona presents us with a total of seven essays aimed at providing a pedagogic as well as an interdisciplinary vision of oral history research. Llona does this using a set of theoretical and methodological reflections which are based on practical examples. The book begins with a prologue, which includes a brief look at the development of oral history research. Here, Llona notes a lack of academic training around this development. This book is thus meant to be a guide for individuals who wish to learn about oral history as a valuable resource for research.

The first part of this work focuses on theoretical and methodological questions. The first essay by Miren Llona ??is a suggestive theoretical reflection on the relationship between memory and identity. The essay deals with highlighting the bodily location of memory, the role it plays in the construction of subjectivity, and the importance of narrative procedures while making the lived experience intelligible. It also includes a set of guidelines to assist in the preparation of interviews, highlighting the importance of the interview as well as its inter-subjective dimension.

The second essay, written by the anthropologist Rosa Garcia-Orellán, introduces the importance of biographical perspectives for the social sciences. For Garcia-Orellán, the practice of oral history presents us with distinct issues that require different responses during research. To do this, it is necessary “to become methodological” and to be open to experimentation. This requires incorporating certain elements of reflexivity that allow us to act appropriately when deciding upon how to convert the oral to the textual. Research, therefore, could be conceived as a reflective stance that mirrors the relationship between the interviewer, the interviewee and the data. (p88)

The third essay, written by the anthropologists Jordi Roca and Lidia Martínez, is a reflection on the narrative structures of life stories. The authors propose the study of life stories using an establishment of a chronological or thematic axis. Building on their experience and work with immigration histories, Roca and Martínez have detected a number of common elements while organizing the histories, namely how the forms adapt themselves to the story or the moments in which changes are introduced, etc. Consideration of these various axes and the positions from which they are narrated essentially breaks the life stories into units of meaning, logically related to each other. This facilitates working with oral sources and serves to reveal new and significant aspects in research.

The following three essays are of a more practical nature, and arise from the research and analysis of oral sources which come about due to the end of the Spanish Civil War (1939). In the first piece, the historian Mercedes Vilanova presents reflections which evolve from working with Spanish Republicans deported to Mauthausen. These reflections demonstrate how from within these sources we can distinguish different perceptions of that experience, conditioned by the social class, age and the level of militancy of the prisoners. The essay also acts as an inquiry into little known aspects, such as male sexual repression, or the use of certain fantasy mechanisms (like those of magical realism) as survival techniques in the concentration camp.

The next essay, written by the historian Pilar Domínguez, brings us closer to another reality of the losing side of the Spanish Civil War, by way of studying the life histories of Republican women refugees in Mexico. Introducing us to the history of Mexican exiles, Domínguez writes of a shelter that was established (not without nostalgia) as a suitable place for the ‘commemoration’ of the defeat and the exile of Republicans. This refuge was built in direct opposition to the amnesia induced during the dictatorship of General Franco. Using the testimony of these women, Domínguez reveals little known or previously ignored aspects about the experience of exile, giving special importance to women and their influence on the history of exile in Mexico.

The last of these essays is by Pilar Díaz, and is based on the experience of women in Francoist Spain, with a focus on work-related issues. According to Díaz, oral sources can clarify many aspects of invisible or subaltern groups, which force us to rethink the ‘objectivity’ of mainstream history. Based on their common experience as women workers, Díaz establishes a certain complicity or empathy with her interviewees, which gives us access to an intimate part of the lives of these women by detecting the existence of tensions and of resistance in the workplace. The testimonies also allow us to discover the existence of a strong disempowerment, originating from the existence of a gender bias. This bias has led to the underestimation of the roles of these women. It is here that Díaz proposes a rebuilding or restoration of memory by building up oral sources.

Finally, the book closes with an essay written by the sociologist Carlos Sandoval. After dealing with the problem of xenophobia in a Costa Rican context, Sandoval addresses the possibilities of oral history as an incisive tool in the issue of immigration within public policy. According to Sandoval, oral history can be characterized as an ethics of responsibility and awareness. Equally, oral history can give voice to immigrant communities and confront stereotypes by way of articulating their collective memory.

In conclusion, this book is an excellent manual, one of great help for people interested in beginning oral history work. It is a fine example of the good results obtained due to interdisciplinary perspectives on oral sources.

David Beorlegui

Translator. Aarthi Ajit


Bodies of evidence: The Practice of Queer Oral History

Oxford University Press, New York, 2012.

BOYD, Nan Alamilla and ROQUE RAMÍREZ, Horacio, N. (eds.)


Bodies of Evidence is a work that reflects different practices and methodologies towards the study of queer issues and the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) movements. It breaks free from the traditional way in which queer1 history has been treated, that is to say, as a kind of detective novel series or a history of the persecutors and the persecuted. On the contrary, in this work the use of oral history gives queer studies a liberating dimension. Bodies of Evidence argues for an oral history which exercises methods of empowerment as a way to enrich and deepen a particular historical period, and concretize queer history.

Nan Alamilla Boyd and Horacio Roque Ramírez, editors and also authors of a chapter each, are specialists in the history of gender, history of feminism, queer history and oral history. In relation to the themes we explore in this review, we would recommend reading Nan Alamilla Boyd’s Wide Open Town: a History of Queer San Francisco to 1965, University of California Press, Berkeley, 2003 and Horacio Roque Ramírez’ Memories of Queer Latino San Francisco: an oral History 1960-1990s, Palgrave/McMillan, New York, 2012. Overall, Bodies of Evidence is a collective work in which different queer history specialists reflect about their research through oral history. The work consists of fourteen chapters, each written by a different author, which are divided into four thematic sections: silence, sex, friendship and politics. Through these themes, various aspects of queer history are examined, from within the United States as well as Cuba and Australia. The narrators are many and varied: a lesbian mother born in the twenties; a dancer who is a feminist, activist and lesbian; a gay professor who is the founder of The Gay Teachers Group; a Marine who served in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In this review, we will try to highlight the most prominent methodological aspects and to draw conclusions from them for the practice of oral history. For this purpose, we use the thematic sections that make up the work to make our conclusions, beginning with “silence”. Silence is treated in the first four chapters with two different objectives: the study of the silencing of sexual relations that do not converge with normative sexuality and as a valuable analytical tool for the oral historian (p 29). Apart from words, oral history interviews are ‘performative acts’ embodied2 with multiple channels of reception and transmission where two people interact, exchange gestures and interpret them. In this aspect, there are many similarities between the oral history interview and an artistic act: both are enveloped in a lot of repetitive actions, like gestures or movements that are sent and received, by which bodily or emotional intentions are expressed. The interview resembles a choreography that goes back and forth, revealing on each occasion previously unknown aspects (pp.82-89).

In the section dedicated to silence, there is also special mention made of the study of subjectivity in order to understand the experience of the interviewee. Only by incorporating the subjectivity of the narrator can we come to a more objective analysis of our subject (p.33). Life stories are the ideal scenario within which subjectivities and identities can be best appreciated; they show us the way in which memory constantly adapts to traditions received in present circumstances. Life stories help the historian to conceptualize as narrators tell some stories and leave others unspoken, and to negotiate present circumstances with past experiences (pp.47-48). In this sense, it isn’t difficult to understand that oral history has been instrumental in LGBT activism, in aiding the self-awareness of LGBT activists, and in helping the politics of visibility (p.65).

The section on sex invites us to abandon our clichés and assumptions about homosexual identities. It shows how the interview as a performative act requires us to rearrange the initial assumptions and categories we had set out with while designing the project. It is the narrators who invite us to abandon these categories, which they neither have to ascribe to nor identify with (p.104). The authors of this section do not study sexual identification as a linear process. Rather, it is full of reaffirmations and negations (p.106). As interviewers, life history makes us more aware of the many ways in which sex and sexuality act as vectors of political economy. Sex always appears to be mediated by power relations that are situated in time and space (p.110). Equally, sex can become an illuminating element of other acts that relate to eroticism, as well as with race, sexuality or national identity (p.121). Hence, we should stop considering stories related to sex as too vulgar or too personal. Instead, history should study how these narratives construct the memory of individuals who share their experience and create queer history (p.121). However, in order to address issues such as sexuality and sexual relationships, we must take into account that an atmosphere of comfort has to be created in the interview. One method proposed by the authors in order to achieve this atmosphere of trust is that the historian shares something personal with the interviewee. This “confidence” could bring a certain vulnerability to the historian but will generate empathy with the interviewee. For example: emphasizing those aspects which we ourselves seem to respond to in an interview can make the interviewee understand that he/she can safely share their story with us (p. 141).

This confidence can lead to friendship between the interviewer and the interviewee. This friendship is precisely the theme of the third section of the book. These days, the current capitalist environment has tended to reduce interpersonal relationships, for example, in universities and offices. In this sense, the oral history interview – although conducted in an academic environment – could be a useful tool for maintaining or increasing interpersonal relationships between individuals (pp.164-165). For this purpose, we must strive to bring a relationship of equality to the interview. The historian must be able to share his/her authority and assume that both parties have a shared goal, reachable through a symbiotic relationship: by historicizing concepts, customs and desires (pp.192-193). By sharing authority, the interview becomes a truly enriching experience, and a key way to approach topics that have been studied for years but till now have been silenced, therefore remaining unknown to us (p.199).

The last section is devoted to politics and its relationship with LGBT movements. The authors of this book argue that oral history is a valuable method which travels through categories which have previously been studied as static areas, such as sexual discrimination or the resistance to homophobic practices. Here, the historian could reach a greater understanding of their subject matter by interspersing issues such as sexuality and politics in the interview (p.227). Thanks to oral history, we can begin to understand, amongst others, the experiences of gay U.S. Marines that had to follow the “Don’t ask, don’t tell” (DADT) ruling from 1993-2011, which prevented them from making their sexuality public. It is through these examples that we see how numerous institutional silences can be broken down (pp.242-245).

Finally, I would like to conclude by highlighting three interrelated aspects that I have taken from this book with which the authors have built this great mosaic of queer history and the practice of oral history. In every chapter, an aspect that at times we tend to ignore is discussed: the figure of the interviewer. The interviewer, far from being a passive agent of the interview, is actively involved in provoking various responses and reactions on the part of the interviewee. This work analyzes that which the interviewer can evoke within the narrator in order to achieve a greater understanding of the narrator’s history, and to know what counts and the way in which it counts. The authors also reject polarizations between “subjective” and “empirical” as they are complementary aspects: only by studying subjectivity can we arrive at a better objectiveness (p.17). The authors understand the oral history interview as an experience through which the interviewer and interviewee can reflect on aspects that have not been ‘repaired’. The interviewer can thus change the assumptions and categories from which the interview began, and the narrator can “awaken the beast of his conscience”, questioning the reasons why these assumptions were made on his/her life (p.258). In short, the interview is a performative act in which two bodies collaborate through voice and gesture to create a document full of meaning (p.89), an act which is able to critique the heroic narratives of history (p. 270). It is a document capable of breaking silences and pulling down barricades.

Eider De Dios

Translated. Aarthi Ajit.