Home About Themes Gallery Library Timeline Links Further Reading Copyright

Introducing oral history

At the heart of oral history is the idea that "you don't have to be famous for your life to be history."1 It involves collecting past experiences and events told by ordinary people, who are usually not famous. Oral historians gather these stories through life history interviews to find out more about their days gone by.In this way, historians find out how ordinary people have understood and experienced different events.

Educator Xavier Selatela from Unity Secondary School in Daveyton explained oral history to his learners as a process which "includes identifying and personally interviewing someone witnessed or was part of a significant historical event...getting information from someone who was directly involved brings life to the history and arouses the interest amongst those it is intended for."3 By bringing new 'life' to the past, such interviews make history more interesting.

‘History from below'

'History from below' is a term which refers to historical research focusing on ordinary people, and not just that of royalty, heads of state, military leaders and heroes. English historian E.P. Thompson was one of the first to popularise this form of social research in his study of the English working class.4 This understanding of history has influenced many South African historians to focus on the lives and experiences of ordinary people who have been victims of apartheid.5

Many historians argue that "most people throughout history have learned about the past through the spoken word."6 Northern Cape learner Richmond Sajini has described oral history as providing "historical actors with an opportunity to tell their own stories in their own words."7 According to Free State educator, Patrick M. Thambisa, oral history has enabled learners "to dig deeper into the realization of apartheid as one form of exploitation as they heard it from the actual victims of apartheid."8

The term 'oral history' has been in use for over a century.9 One of the first people to apply the term to a major social study was an American writer named Joe Gould. He felt that oral history, which gave ‘voice' to the ordinary people in society, spoke more truth than the formal history in books and classrooms.10 Learner Richmond Sajini demonstrated this in his portfolio when he focused on providing the voices of the community.11

If you would like to learn more, visit our next theme on the value of oral history.



1 Sigmon, Nell. You don't have to be famous for your life to be history, Southern Oral History Program, Center for the Study of the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

2 Yow, Valerie Raleigh. Recording Oral History: A Practical Guide for Social Scientists, Sage Publications, Thousand Oaks, California, 1994, p. 3

3 Selatela, Xavier. Educator portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, Unity Secondary School, Daveyton, Benoni, 2007

4 Thompson, E.P. The Making of the English Working Class, Vintage Books, United Kingdom, 1963

5 la Hausse, P. 'Oral history and South African historians', Radical History Review, 46, 7, 1990, p. 346

6 Schopes, Linda. What is Oral History? from Making Sense of Oral History, History Matters, February, 2002(also Davis, C., Back., K., MacLean, K. Oral History: From Tape to Type, American Library Association, Chicago, 1977, p. 1)

7 Sajini, Richmond. The value of oral research in helping us understand our past, Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, Alexander Bay High School, Northern Cape, 2008

Thambisa, Patrick M. Introduction to oral history, Educator portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, Rebatlathuto Secondary School, Free State, 2007

9 Morrissey, Charles T. Why call it 'oral history?' Searching for Early Usage of a Generic Term, Oral History Review, v. 8, 1980

10 Mitchell, Joseph. Joe Gould's Secret, Vintage Press, 1965; see, for example, Recollections of World War II: Directory of oral history collections relating to WWII, 2008 and Refugee stories: untold stories from around the world: Refugee Community History Project, Museum of London Archives

11 Sajini, Richmond. Richtersveld in the words of its people, Learner portfolio, Nkosi Albert Luthuli Young Historians' Competition, Alexander Bay High School, Northern Cape, 2008

© SAHA 2023 Disclaimer Privacy Policy