Personal Nature

While the individual character of oral history can be a limitation, it is also an asset for social change work. Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard reflect on this paradox in the field of community cultural development (of which oral history is considered a subset). The work is mostly “conducted in microcosm, at the level of the individual in community… The localism and particularity of this work is both its strength and its vulnerability. On the one hand, there is no way to mass-produce transformation of consciousness.” There are no “shortcuts,” they explain. “The work’s power and its enduring effects stem from its intensely personal nature.”1

Frequently intimate and affective, the personal nature of oral history can foster the collective identity and emotional reactions that facilitate and sustain collective action.2 Groundswell participant Virginia Raymond describes this transformative power of oral history in terms of its ability to “build a larger ‘we’”:


s-Rs1Si].3 Another participant put it this way: oral history allows us to see the world “through someone else’s eyes.” Through rich sensory descriptions, first-person narration (usually including both “I” and “we”), and omission,4 oral history narrators can invite their listeners (especially, but not only, the original interviewers) to join an imaginative space, and to be active participants in and interpreters of the story – a process that builds identification. Moreover, the affective content of an oral history interview can evoke in a listener the outrage, compassion and empathy that compel one to action.5 Joseph Davis summarizes what organizers, activists and cultural workers intuitively know:

“…with their personal immediacy and symbolically evocative renderings of experience, stories can stimulate strong emotional responses in hearers—such as sympathy, which can heighten common identity, and anger, which can spur or increase the motivation to work for change. Through stories, participants are called to take an evaluative stance toward unjust social conditions, affirm the virtue of the oppressed (Couto 1993), confirm the rightness and efficacy of movement involvement and imagine together an alternative social order.”6

In many instances, this process of “building a bigger we” is ultimately one of humanization – of challenging stereotypes, and facilitating identification with individuals who were once perceived as “other” but can now be recognized in their full humanity. Groundswell participant Gabriel Solis witnessed this at work in his involvement with the Texas After Violence oral history project:


The complexity of an oral history interview, in which an individual is offered the narrative space to convey a more holistic portrayal of their self and their story, can aid in this process of humanization. In contrast to the simplified storylines of individuals reduced to a single identity or experience (e.g. “the undocumented immigrant”; “the victim of intimate partner violence”), the flexible and expansive form of the oral history interview allows a narrator, in their own words and construct,7 to contextualize their experiences within a broader socio-political and historical milieu and more fully represent the many dimensions of their identity, thereby offering greater opportunity for a listener to find both points of common concern and of difference. In other words, we learn not only that an Arab American was unjustly detained and tortured, but also that he is a poet who writes words of resistance from his cell, can’t stand lima beans and answering machines, and takes indescribable pleasure in the easy laugh of his only daughter.


  1. Adams and Goldbard, Community, Culture and Globalization, 22–23.
  2. For more on the role of collective identity in movement building, see Polletta and Jasper, “Collective Identity and Social Movements.” and chapter 4 in donna Porta and Diani, Social Movements. Yang, “Emotions and Social Movements.” is a survey of (mostly sociological) research on the connections between emotion, collective action, and social movements.
  3. In Stories of Change, Joseph Davis makes a similar point about narrative’s role in the construction of collective identity: “Through identification and “cocreation” of a story, the storyteller and reader/listener create a “we” involving some degree of affective bond and a sense of solidarity: told and retold, “my story” becomes “our story (19).”
  4. By omitting certain details of a story, narrators make their listeners to do some of the work of filling in, creating their own images and drawing their own conclusions. This activation of the audience’s “narrativity” facilitates the establishment of a relationship between the narrator and the listener. See: Davis, Stories of Change: Narrative and Social Movements, 16.
  5. Oral history is uniquely evocative in this regard, for the aurality of a recorded interview amplifies a narrative’s emotional impact. Emotion (and meaning) are often conveyed most directly and immediately through tone, volume and velocity—not through words themselves. The visual information of a video oral history adds yet another layer of affective content (although some oral historians contend that the effect of a video. For more on the significance of aural and visual information in oral history, see: Good, “Voice, Ear and Text: Words, meaning and transcription”; Borland, “‘That’s Not What I Said’: Interpretative Conflict in Oral Narrative Research”; Portelli, “‘The Time of My Life’: Functions of Time in Oral History,” 63–64; Portelli, “What Makes Oral History Different,” 46–48; Portelli, “Oral History as Genre,” 13–15.
  6. Davis, Stories of Change: Narrative and Social Movements, 24.
  7. As early as 1979, Italian oral historian Luisa Passerini cautioned against an uncritical approach to this notion of oral history as capturing narrators’ experience “in their own words.” In a sophisticated analysis of interviews with members of the Italian working class, Passerini revealed the potential influence of hegemonic historical narratives on the memory and discourse of subaltern and oppressed classes. See: Passerini, “Work Ideology and Consensus under Italian Fascism.” The point is a critical one, and for practitioners seeking to employ oral history as a method for radical social change, it underscores the need for a multi-layered approach to our practice, in which the development of critical consciousness becomes a central aim.