As a form of communication and mode of discourse, oral history is fundamentally a narrative act. Oral histories are made up of stories—stories shared and interpreted by their narrators in a sometimes creative, other times didactic fashion. Humans have always used story as a primary mode of persuasion and communication. But over the past decade, social movement theorists and organizers alike have taken a more conscious approach to the study and use of narrative in social movements, recognizing the power of story to shape opinions, to impart lessons, and to mobilize.1
The narratives of oral history interviews are often complex, rich in the contradictions and ambiguities that characterize human beings and our interactions and decisions. Oral history narratives differ from other forms of autobiography and storytelling, in part, because of the active role an interviewer plays in shaping the narrative. An interviewer’s precise or probing question can stimulate a new idea or a creative, deeper reformulation of a familiar account. This dialogical quality of oral history, together with its longer format, can make for more sophisticated and nuanced accounts of a person or community’s experience.
Francesca Polletta’s seminal research on storytelling in social movements suggests that it is precisely this complexity and moral ambiguity that characterizes the narratives most likely to persuade their listeners and thus serve as a political resource to disadvantaged groups.2 So, while impossible to predict or control (one cannot know in advance what a narrator will say!), oral history interviews can be a primary source for the complex and powerful stories that movements can employ to communicate their struggles, convey their moral legitimacy, and persuade/mobilize potential supporters.
- From the academic world, anthologies such as Telling Stories to Change the World: Global Voices on the Power of Narrative to Build Community and Make Social Justice Claims (ed. Solinger, Fox, and Irani) and Stories of Change: Narrative and Social Movements (ed. Davis) and the research of academics such as Francesca Polletta (It Was Like a Fever: Storytelling in Protest and Politics) are furthering the scholarly conversation around the role of story in social movements. From an organizing perspective, the advent of digital storytelling as a tool to raise awareness about critical justice issues has led to an explosion of documentation projects. SmartMeme, a training and strategy development organization, harnesses “the power of narrative to advance a holistic vision of grassroots social change that connects struggles for democracy, peace, justice, and ecological sanity.” Thousand Kites is experimenting with a tech-savvy, story-rich “Narrative Campaigns for Justice” organizing framework. And scores of new community organizers are trained each year in Marshall Ganz’s story-based model. ↩
- Polletta, It Was Like a Fever.