A Narrator-centered Approach to History


A Narrator-centered Approach to History: Oral Sources in Amdo (Qinghai, PRC)

This essay discusses some of the challenges that, despite being inherently characteristic of the process of collecting, organizing and using oral sources, are usually silenced in any “respected piece” of academic writing. I believe that being less reticent about revealing the personal bias, emotional reactions and conflicting communication dynamics in the fieldwork experience has a great potential to open up a forum for young researchers to engage in free discussion on research methodologies and to further elaborate on possible strategies for coping with the ups and downs of being in the field.

In my Ph.D. project I explored written and oral narratives of Amye Drakar (Tibetan: A myes Brag dkar), a Tibetan local deity whose residence is the homonymous mountain range located in southeast Amdo (Qinghai Province, People’s Republic of China), where I conducted fieldwork between 2010 and 2014. From the very beginning, my main purpose was to integrate the few available written sources with the recording of orally transmitted belief narratives, in the context of my ethnographic fieldwork on the ritual and social aspects of the deity’s cult. Although oral history was not originally meant to be a major topic in the dissertation, it increasingly became an essential part of it. As it did, it brought along important questions regarding the treatment of oral material, the validation of its content, the authority of narrators and forms of delivery.

Concerns about the use and value of oral material emerge from both etic (outsider) and emic (insider) perspectives. Foreign researchers and Tibetan interviewees express doubts and formulate critiques in different ways and from different standpoints, but they substantially agree in downplaying the importance of oral material, and in particular oral history, by contrasting it with the assumed primacy of written history. This bias is based on the well-established higher value ascribed to written means of transmission, being it considered the exclusive and legitimate channel of History and therefore regarded as more worthy of study. Historians working with written historical documents make major criticisms of the collection and use of oral history mainly by questioning memory reliability, the representativeness of the sample, the limitations imposed by local social and cultural norms, and individual subjective perspectives (Grele, R. “Movement without Aim: Methodological and Theoretical Problems.” In Perks, R. and Thomson, A. (eds.) [1998] 2003. The Oral History Reader. Routledge: 38-52).

However, such judgements of either the methodologies or theories characterizing oral history need to take into full consideration the intentions of the researcher, whether or not the researcher has implemented appropriate evaluation criteria, and the specific expectations the researcher has attached to the oral material. First, working with oral sources entails an orientation toward the meanings, the speculations and the interpretations given by the narrators rather than toward pursuing a precise account or an objective description of events. In this respect, as argued by Alessandro Portelli, memory is to be conceived as a meaning-creating tool and not a passive repository (Portelli, A. “What Makes Oral History Different.” Perks, R. and Thomson, A. (eds.) [1998] 2003. The Oral History Reader. Routledge: 63-74). Therefore, lacunae, interpolations and expansions among different oral narrations of the same historical event cannot be univocally imputed to fading memory but are better explained as the outcome of precise choices and revisions made by the narrator. This subjective dimension of the narration is inherent in oral history and it is valuable in its own right; it offers us unique insights not only into the understanding of a past historical event but also into the contemporary setting of the recording, wherein the narrator chooses how to mould its presentation and confer it a specific set of meanings.

During my fieldwork in Amdo, I came across a number of recurrent narrative plots that, though being recognisable in their essential lines, were creatively twisted, expanded and contracted by the individual narrators. Biographical reminiscences, historical references, and even detailed excursus were freely inserted in the main fictional narration. For example, stories recounting the atrocities perpetrated by the brigand-son of the deity Amye Drakar were contextualized in the pre-1950s cultural milieu of Tibetan nomadic society in the Amdo grasslands and enriched with a variable amount of details, parallel anecdotes and historical information. In the case of this narrative plot, contrasting versions and evaluations reflected the specific clan affiliation of the narrator and, therefore, his sympathizing or condemning attitude towards the account of the brigand’s deeds, alternately glorified as bravery or despised as an outrage.

In oral transmission, the distinction among genres is not clear-cut and different content and stylistic characteristics easily merge into single pieces of narration. This seemingly puzzling mixture of elements and genres does not happen without reason: in the politically sensitive context of present-day Amdo, now incorporated into the PRC, oral transmission embodies a freer space of expression for those pieces of history and autobiographic experiences pushed to the margins and forced into the category of private memories. Yet, these bits of the personal past were not spoken out and shared without difficulties due to the array of intertwined local circumstances and narrators’ dispositions that I will introduce below.

In the past ten years, local histories, largely based on private oral interviews, found their way into the channels of the official and unofficial book market. After condensing the original variety of oral sources into a single narrative and editing it into a book, this material started to spread in Amdo in a written format previously unknown in the area. In my experience of seeking out oral autobiographic narrations related to the local history of a village or the formation of a tribe, I often faced initial reluctance and even explicit resistance from the potential narrator, who insisted in redirecting my attention to “the book” as the ultimate authority containing all the information I might have needed. Ironically, despite the fact that some of my interviewees had taken part directly in the realization of these book projects as informants, they perceived the turning of oral material into a written form as the act of bringing a written consistent narrative into existence and, therefore, of establishing it as the unquestionable and fixed form of the narrative, inhibiting even themselves from the possibility of telling alternative histories.

Besides the intimidating authority of “the book,” there is another relevant obstacle, which in my experience occasionally prevented a smooth interaction with narrators: the narrators often misunderstood my research project and felt a heightened sense of responsibility upon being asked to speak for their local history. Their reaction to the burden of the interview was often marked by modesty and insecurity, expressed through the narrators’ declarations of the narrow limits of their knowledge, the questioning of their suitability to contribute to the research, their concern with the correctness of the information they related, and the referring to someone else in the community: “better if you contact this expert, he knows better.”

When I found myself in this situation during one of my first interviews, I realized that the most effective way to reassure the narrator was by making my intentions about the recording as clear as possible: I explained that I was not expecting a correct account but was instead interested in listening to their version and their knowledge of it. Following the initial scepticism of this interviewee’s family about my questions, my interview of the narrator, a grandfather, unexpectedly triggered a spontaneous inter-generational communication that developed into a small family-managed recording project.

Still, being sensible about the narrator’s status in the community helps to better plan the setting and avoids putting them in the embarrassing situation of speaking in front of someone who they consider to be more knowledgeable. For this reason, although group interviews can be extremely interesting because they allow the participants to engage in the discussion starting from a question and then to develop it into a more spontaneous debate, there is a constant risk that some of the participants will be overshadowed by those considered more knowledgeable, who intervene to correct them and even ask to delete the recorded “incorrect” information.

What stories are selected to be told for whom? How do narrators negotiate the form and content of their narration? Our own identities and personal backgrounds are also part of the interview-narration, which is an empathic process that affects both the narrator and the researcher and activates multi-layer levels of communication, both verbal and emotional (Strandén, S. 2009. “Trust in the Empathic Interview.” In Kurkowska-Budzan, M. and Zamorski, K. Oral History. The Challenges of Dialogue. John Benjamins Publishing House). The type of information, the ways it is presented and delivered, and the inclusion or exclusion of certain material are all interconnected activities that the narrators freely arrange, make decisions about and establish priorities among. What we are told in the process of recording oral history results from the relationship we created with the narrator in the communication event, which is not objective and not even the same in different recording sessions with the same narrator. If we are to appreciate the contribution of oral history we need to set a sustainable standard of evaluation for it, which is not the criterion of adherence to objectivity but the recognition that oral narration is a moment of dialogue and exchange, encompassing the confrontation between the narrator’s past lived experience and the present retelling of it as well as the dynamic confrontation with our own past and present.

Furthermore, our presence in the interview process is always charged with contrasting perceptions of our authority. In my case, the role of a highly educated foreign researcher often clashed with my status of being a young woman, which irremediably didn’t align with the local notion of authority, based on gender and age. In my experience, the mediation of entrusted figures in the community, i.e. elders, monks, and school teachers, often has been fundamental to clarifying and making more culturally pertinent my questions, to overcoming my interviewees’ uncertainties about the sincerity of their answers and, last but not least, to taking me more seriously.

This gradual approach to the emic perspective requires patience and is not without challenges. A main issue in the interview process with Tibetans is their explicit call for sympathy with their narrations. This configures a complex scenario where there is a constantly shifting balance between the need to honestly express my opinion, when asked to, and being careful about not making too strong a comment that might lead the narrator to unwanted and unplanned twists in the forthcoming content in order to intentionally conform to or oppose my point of view.

Individuals are inscribed into the tradition. Although they live their individual lives, they also bear common values and perspectives inherited from the past. Then, by adding their own stories, they creatively interpret and reinvent tradition and make it alive. Individual narrators are at the core of oral history, which does not exist independently from them. (Cashman, R. Mould, T. and Shukla, P. 2011. “Introduction: The Individual and Tradition.” In Cashman, R. Mould, T. and Shukla, P. The Individual and Tradition. Folkloristic Perspectives. Indiana University Press: 1-26.) When looking for a neat, logically and chronologically ordered narration, often what we get is quite different, but not less. Moving away from pre-formulated questions in the direction of flexible cultural adjustments and developing sensitivity to narrators’ reactions means placing the interviewee back at the centre of our research, following her presentation of the facts, and letting her lead us through her narrative strategies instead of imposing the direction and forcing the content of the interview.

Even when narrators drop our questions into silence, they are telling us a lot about cultural appropriateness and their own individual perception of uncomfortable or sensitive topics. We can save unanswered questions for a better time. In the end, any oral history project entails an endless productive process of mutual learning.

Valentina Punzi
L’Orientale University of Naples


Cashman, R. Mould, T. and Shukla, P. 2011. “Introduction: The Individual and Tradition.” In Cashman, R. Mould, T. and Shukla, P. The Individual and Tradition. Folkloristic Perspectives. Indiana University Press: 1-26.

Grele, R. J. 2003 [1998]. “Movement without Aim: Methodological and Theoretical Problems in Oral History.” In Perks, R. and Thomson, A. (eds.). The Oral History Reader. Routledge: 38-52

Portelli, A. 2003 [1998]. “What Makes Oral History Different.” Perks, R. and Thomson, A. (eds.). The Oral History Reader. Routledge: 63-74

Strandén, S. 2009. “Trust in the Empathic Interview.” In Kurkowska-Budzan, M. and Zamorski, K. Oral History. The Challenges of Dialogue. John Benjamins Publishing House.

Image: Aku Thub bsang sitting on the grass in front of his house in Zeku and commenting on a local ritual text (summer 2011).

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