Limits and Possibilities

Oral history is multidimensional in the ways it can support or effectuate social change. Different circumstances will call for different applications and adaptations. And there are real limitations to oral history’s use as a tool for social change, some of which are inherent to the form itself, and others more related to the specific sociopolitical and cultural environment of this historical moment. Groundswell participants identified several of these limitations or challenges:1

  • Oral history takes time. The quick turnarounds and timely demands of certain types of organizing can conflict with oral history’s more measured pace and longer-term vision.
  • Oral history is a relatively private encounter. It is not always obvious how to scale up the one-on-one experience of an oral history interview for a broader, collective impact.
  • Oral history is a generative process. It is good at raising questions, creating and recording powerful narrative accounts, and fostering relationships – but translating story into action requires something more than oral history alone.
  • Oral history produces specific knowledge. The “data” of oral history isn’t easily generalizable or quantifiable.2
  • Oral history is not very “fundable.” Operating at the intersections and margins of art, action, and research, oral history isn’t an obvious match with many funders’ guidelines. And it’s hard to show the tangible outcomes or demonstrable impact that many funders require.

Such limitations notwithstanding, certain characteristics of oral history make it uniquely suited to movement building. Understanding these characteristics can help organizers, archivists, historians and artists draw on the full richness and potential of oral history in their movement work. Below is a brief exploration of four attributes that contribute to oral history’s effectiveness as a method or tool in the process of social change.3 None of these is wholly unique to oral history (other forms of storytelling, interviewing, and documentation share some of these same characteristics), but they combine in a single form with distinctive possibilities for the work of creating a more just world.


  1. Many of these challenges are similar to those identified by the authors published in the Oral History Review’s Winter/Spring 2003 issue on “Sharing Authority” (30 n.1) and summarized by Linda Shopes in her accompanying commentary.
  2. That doesn’t mean that activists and researchers aren’t trying to do this. For example, Groundswell participant Amita Swadhin described a project underway at the DataCenter to code and analyze data recorded in the narratives from a fairly large body of oral histories collected as part of Creative InterventionsSTOP project.
  3. Mary Marshall Clark explores some of these same attributes (and others) of oral history in relationship to the field of community cultural development, describing oral history as a practice that “restores the subject to history,” as a “dialogical encounter”, as an “artistic practice” and as a “liberatory practice” and offers a set of “principles and guidelines which can allow for the dynamic exchange among individuals and cultures that can contribute to transformation.” See: Clark, “Oral History Art and Praxis.”