Oral History: Purpose, Praxis and Possibility

The phrase “oral history” is a conventional abbreviation for what we might describe as the use of oral sources in history or the social sciences. Part of being a strong oral historian is learning to manage an important and challenging project with informants who may be close and/or distant from the researcher’s own primary social identities. Oral History is a tool or method that can be used by qualitative researchers to gain an in-depth understanding of the history of salient experiences of a given sociohistorical context from the people who live(d) it. When applied to individuals/groups/organizations who have been silenced, vulnerable, and marginalized, oral history can help researchers in the twenty-first century learn about the cultural past, in the present, for a future of less marginalization.

“The art of oral history is to inspire those who have been silenced to speak out and to hear their own stories. The praxis of oral history is building the community from which those stories, told and retold, will transform history”
(Clark, M. M. (2002). Oral History Art and Praxis. In Don Adams and Arlene Goldbard (Eds.) Community, Culture and Globalization, 87-106. The Rockefeller Foundation.)

This course offers an in-depth look at the purpose, praxis, and possibility of oral history, while also providing participants multiple opportunities to practice her/his new oral history skills. As detailed below, this two-day course is organized to teach participants how to provide a platform for hearing the voices of multiple and diverse communities of feeling and action. This course can benefit researchers from a range of disciplines (including health, education, public health, and the social sciences) because it offers a way to move beyond superficial narratives and to collect richer data with deeper contextual meaning.

“Another thing we should keep in mind is that by ‘community’ we may not necessarily mean a geographic community, but also a community of feeling and action”
(Portelli, A. (2013). A Dialogical Relationship: An Approach to Oral History. Published on Shikshantar: The People’s Institute for Rethinking Development and Education (pp. 1-8), http://www.swaraj.org/shikshantar/expressions_portelli.pdf )

Day 1


  • Finding Your Purpose in 15-minutes
    • Activity by UNC-Ph.D. Alumnus, Dr. Derrick Drakeford, CEO of Drakeford & Associates


  • Research Design
  • Consideration of Entry
  • Role and Reciprocity
  • Development of Interview Questions
  • Pre- and Post-Interview Narrative Analysis Tasks with Tools, like Tozer et al.’s Analytic Framework and Related Activities

Day 2
Application: Practicing Skills and Strategies from Day 1

  • Mock Interviewing
  • Taking Handwritten Notes in a Manner that Decreases the Hawthorne Effect and Leading the Witness


  • Linking Autoethnography to Oral History
  • Linking Critical Family History to Oral History
  • Linking Digital Storytelling to Oral History and Related Activities