Half a year ago I started a second semester postgraduate Linguistics course called Linguistic Approaches to the Study of Narrative. One of the more interesting reading discussed in the course was Portelli, A. 1991. The Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History.
I find what Portelli has to say regarding the reliability of oral history particularly interesting when considering that the Old Testament was originally oral history and has simply been transposed into its current textual form. The same can be said for Homer’s epic poems, The Iliad and The Odyssey. Here are some choice quotes and paragraphs I thought you might all enjoy.
“While the perception of an account as ‘true’ is relevant as much to legend as to personal experience and historical memory, there are no formal oral genres specifically destined to transmit historical information; historical, poetical, and legendary narratives often become inextricably mixed up… so that personal ‘truth’ may coincide with share ‘imagination.'” (p.49)
“…oral sources, especially from non-hegemonic groups, are a very useful integration of other sources as far as the fabula – the logical, causal sequence of the story – goes; but they become unique and necessary because of their plot – the way in which the story materials are arranged by narrators in order to tell the story. The organization of the narrative reveals a great deal of the speakers’ relationships to their history. Subjectivity is as much the business of history as are the more visible ‘facts'” (p.50).
“Oral sources are credible but with a different credibility. The importance of oral testimony may lie not in its adherence to fact, but rather in its departure from it, as imagination, symbolism, and desire emerge. Therefore, there are no ‘false’ oral sources. Once we have checked their factual credibility with all the established criteria of philological criticism and factual verification which are required by all types of sources anyway, the diversity of oral history consists in the fact that ‘wrong’ statements are still psychologically ‘true,’ and that this truth may be equally as important as factually reliable accounts” (p.51).
“…memory is not a passive depository of facts, but an active process of creation of meanings.Thus, the specific utility of oral sources for the historian lies, not so much in their ability to preserve the past, as in the very changes wrought by memory. These changes reveal the narrators’ effort to make sense of the past and to give a form to their lives, and set the interview and the narrative in their historical context” (p.52).
“Oral sources are not objective. This of course applies to every source, though the holiness of writing often leads us to forget it. But the inherent non-objectivity of oral sources lies in specific intrinsic characteristics, the more important being that they are artificial, variable, and partial.” (p.53).
“Oral testimony, in fact, is never the same twice. This is a characteristic of all oral communication, but is especially true of relatively unstructured forms, such as autobiographical or historical statements given in an interview. Even the same interviewer gets different versions from the same narrator at different times… Historical work using oral sources is unfinished because of the nature of the sources historical work excluding oral sources (where available) is incomplete by definition” (p.55).
Portelli focuses on the need for personal anecdotal evidence in shaping recent history such as in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of South Africa shortly after the abolishment of Apartheid, or when considering Land Claims via the legal system where no written proof is available. Although he does not say too much about the long-term reliability of oral history I think it is safe to say that after several generations orally transmitted information is no longer credible and can no longer be considered a factual recounting of historical events, though it may still hold important cultural value.