Methods – Oral History, Biography and Narrative Histories

Each of these topics struck me as a method.  They provide a focus or way of telling the story; Oral History through community voices, Biography through interesting individuals and Narrative via what Carrard calls our “primary cognitive instrument”.[i]

In a previous unit, Approaches to History, I conducted an Oral History interview with a group of elderly men to illuminate the birth of a shack settlement north of Perth.  The period they spoke of was the late 1950s through to the early 1970s in an environment and situation that left few written documents to be used as primary sources.  It is an important History to be told as it is part of the greater History of the development of Western Australia in the twentieth century; a History that is yet to be written.  What better way for this to be told than through the stories remembered by the contemporaries involved.  If not recorded through this method it will surely be lost.  Oral Histories give the Historian the unique experience of recording primary sources and being able to clarify understandings and concepts that are usually gleaned from lifeless pieces of paper.

This particular style of History is inappropriate for my current thesis as Oral History must be recorded whilst still in living memory and, as the period I am studying is more than 250 years ago, that is not possible.

The idea of Biography as history had an immediate impact upon the way I thought about my thesis; until that point it I was still unclear how to focus all of the research I have done.  Choosing an individual or several individuals to base my interpretation around seemed a logical way and validates my thoughts on why I chose history – the stories, which are all about people.  The Vauxhall Gardens existed for nearly two hundred years so there is no shortage of people for me to write about.

In most aspects I agree with Carlyle’s view on biography and history.  He states that it is Great Men as heroes and leaders that have the charisma and talent to harness the energies and ideas of the people, as they intersect with the “Chaos of Being”, to implement action and affect change.  He also accused Historians of that time that they were too concerned with the “Chaos of Being” and should describe History through the Great Men.  I think this is true, but I object to the “Great Men” label.  Interesting people, whether they are great or male, are the logical way to illustrate History, as without people there is no History.  Everyone’s lives are the product of their time so who better to understand those circumstances through than someone who lived it.[ii]

Having said that, I am cognisant of the doubts concerning Biography as an Historical method.  For example, is it capable of an analytical interpretation of the past? Is a Biography about the person or is it about the interaction of the person and society?   To both questions I would say “Yes”, with the proviso of using Runyan’s Evaluation Criteria as a guide to good Biography, which in essence is a guide to good Historical scholarship.[iii]  In reality, Runyan’s Criteria should be applied to all forms of Historical interpretation.

It was in the Narrative History session that I was asked why I chose History as a subject for the second time.  My answer was the same as the first – I like the stories – but this time I understood why.  Prost says that Histories are not necessarily bound by narrative for example, overview and commentary; I would argue that they are not Histories but overviews and commentaries.  After researching the Gardens I found it extremely difficult trying to write up my essay; I had just completed several months of research on primary sources yet could not set out an orderly essay despite all of the knowledge, understanding and thoughts I had.  Of course I eventually wrote it, but it is now (with hindsight of this unit) that I can see what the problem was and how I broke the impasse.  The problem was there was no story to my research; I had found threads for future study but no particular story.  I realise now that I overlayed it with the narrative of my experiences in doing the research in London.  It made more sense once I placed it within a story.

As Carlyle states; “History is the essence of innumerable Biographies” meaning it’s about people and their stories. History is bound to narrative.  The disassociation of History to narrative is what Carlyle feared when he talked about ideology dehumanising History; to say that History is not bound by narrative sounds like a Post-Modernist idea.[iv]  As for my thesis, a good narrative will be the criteria for the people I choose to use as subjects that define or express the issues at hand.

[i]Carrard, P., Narrative and Historiography: Writing the France of the Occupation. Style 34.(2000). Chapt(s): 243-259. P. 243

[ii] Stern Stern, F., History as Biography. The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present.(1970) London, Macmillan. Chapt(s): 90-107. I have attached my interpretation of Carlyle’s theory as a diagram.

[iii]Runyan, W. M. Life Histories and Psychobiography: Explanations in Theory and Method.(1984) New York, OUP. Chapt(s) 2 & 3. I have attached the criteria as a diagram.

[iv] Stern Stern, F., History as Biography. The Varieties of History: From Voltaire to the Present.(1970) London, Macmillan. Chapt(s): 90-107.

Author: Soosie

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