The practice and theory of oral history and life history have long been key areas of interest and expertise in the Centre. They are modes of research which share a common ethos and overlapping methodologies.
We understand oral history, which has its academic origins in the desire of radical historians to retrieve subordinate and marginalised histories by means of oral storytelling, usually in the context of an interview, as a means of recovering the voices of those who have little or no access to the public stage on which history has largely been formed. However, we also understand the practice of oral history to be a complex process. Alongside this practice of recovery and retrieval we emphasise the complexity of the narratives which are produced here, and stress the need to take into account features which structure these histories, such as the dominant popular memory of a period or experience, the relationship between interviewee and interviewer, and the processes by which personal accounts are constructed and composed. Researchers associated with the Centre who work in this field pay careful attention to issues of subjectivity and reflexivity, both as they appear in oral history accounts, and as they are shaped in the interviewee–interviewer relationship.
‘Life history’ is a wider-reaching term which indicates the importance of historical consciousness and understanding in everyday life, especially of those social groups marginalised or silenced by traditional historical research; and the development of methods of study – and sources – to investigate such lives, their social conditions, and the meanings and identities fashioned in relation to them. The practice of life history can take many different forms, including oral testimony, autobiographical writing, reminiscence work, the creation of images, construction of songs and performance of actions, amongst others, but is characterised by its ability to empower those recounting their life stories. We understand life history as offering a means of reconceptualising the relationship between the individual and society and as containing the potential to offer a potent critique of, and challenge to, dominant histories.
Researchers at Brighton have engaged with life history work in relation to its role in education, as a means of investigating subjective understandings of gendered and national identities, as a method for investigating experiences of ill-health, as a powerful means of empowering marginalised groups, as a source with its own particular methodologies, and as a resource for researchers examining the relationship between the public and the private, and between the past and the present.
The Centre for Memory, Narrative and Histories is a member of The Oral History in Higher Education Network who work together to provide support and connect oral history researchers across the UK.