Oral history is much more than just another means of uncovering facts about the past. It is a creative, interactive methodology that forces us to get to grips with many layers of meaning and interpretation contained within people’s memories. It is the combination of oral history as an interactive process (the doing), and the engagement of the historian with the meanings that people ascribe to the past (the interpretation), that marks it out as a peculiar historical practice. Oral history is not like written sources. As the anthropologist Renato Rosaldo says, it is mistaken to treat spoken testimonies like written documents, because ‘as soon as we do we inevitably begin to conceive of oral tradition as “undistorted narrative transmitted through a conduit”’.1 Oral history is unlike any other historical document or primary source consulted by a historian, and therefore it requires analytical techniques that are peculiarly suited to interpreting its many layers. In 1979, Alessandro Portelli set out the case for oral history as a distinctive

genre or category of historical practice.2 In an influential article and subsequently in a collection of analytical pieces which applied his methodological insights, Portelli challenged oral history’s critics and, more importantly, provided oral historians with a theoretical and methodological foundation for their work. To quote Portelli, oral history is the ‘genre of discourse which orality and writing have developed jointly in order to speak to each other about the past’.3 In this definition then, it is what the historian does, the dialogue with the narrator, the active shaping of the discourse between them and then the translation and presentation of that material, that constitutes oral history as a genre, that is a distinct category or type of practice and source. It is the practice of oral history – the doing of it – rather than the content derived from it that marks out this method of historical research as different. Oral history involves communicating with living, breathing human beings.

No other history method does this. This may seem so obvious that it is not worth saying, but we should always remember that at the heart of our practice are real people: the researcher who is asking the questions and the

respondent doing his or her best to answer them. And it is this that is the key to oral history’s uniqueness. All the features that distinguish oral history stem from this one element. It is precisely the very complexities that arise from using people as our sources that give rise to some specific issues of analysis and interpretation. So what is peculiar? First, a human respondent cannot be analysed in the same way as a written document, a material artefact or a visual image. While we may ask similar questions about subject position (who produced the source?), the circumstances around its production (why was it produced?) and the intended audience (who was it intended for?), thereafter the historian who chooses to utilise oral history sources finds herself on different terrain to her counterpart reliant on written or printed documents, be they government records, charters, photographs or artefacts. And this is essentially because oral history is a dialogic process; it is a conversation in real time between the interviewer and the narrator, and then between the narrator and what we might call external discourses or culture. As a result of these conversations – both the one that is verbalised and the one that is conducted in the narrator’s consciousness (essentially the process by which the narrator silently engages with the researcher’s questions and decides how to answer) the historian encounters a series of elements which require atten-