Oral History/Tradition versus Written Records

Oral history is not a new field but a new method for bringing new sources into play alongside written sources.

Many historians believe the history written on oral sources is unreliable, whereas others consider it to be a useful means of preserving and transmitting history.

Usually, Oral reminiscences are categorised into two, first is ‘Oral history is the tape recording of reminisces about which the narrator can speak from first-hand knowledge, as defined by Willa U Brum.

Pio Zirimu a Ugandan Scholar, coined the word orature, which means ‘anything that is handed down via spoken word since it is founded on the spoken language that can exist in a living community, so it needs people to communicate it’.

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People of pre-literate generations are interviewed, and their memories become the foundation of history, where they lack written literature but have rich and diverse oral tradition forms like folklore, proverbs, folk songs, folk epics, that were gathered and published by academics termed as ‘folklorist and paremiographers’ that is referred as ‘oral literature’.

Oral tradition is described as “narratives and description of people and events in the past which have been handed down by word of mouth over several generations”. This oral tradition may continue in families (as a form of bedtime stories) or informal social structures.

This article discerns the theme of oral history, oral tradition and written records in history writing based on generally available sources.

Oral history

In simple terms, Oral history is related to the systematic gathering of living people’s testimony about their personal experience that does not include gossips, folklore, hearsay or even rumours.

The work of an oral historian is to verify the oral sources, analyze, imply and formulate historically objective history. They also preserve these oral testimonies for future historians that include audio and video recording of a first-person narrative, and transcriptions of planned interviews produced by the interviewer and interviewee.  

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These interviews are done with individuals who took part or observed the past events and whose memories and impressions of those events are to be preserved as auditory records for future generations.

Oral historiography is not relatively new, but it is argued that oral historiography is as hold as history itself, where the interview method was invented and practised in ancient times, e.g. Herodotus conducted interviews by gather information in ancient times.

Oral Tradition

Oral tradition is defined as a “body of knowledge which has been transmitted orally over several generations and is the collective property of the members of a given society”. Oral tradition was the main method of transmitting knowledge, skills and information from one generation to the next before the emergence of written language in a particular culture.

Before the invention of the written language, everything was preserved and followed in the form of oral tradition and collective memory. Sources like songs, poetry, group testimony, and open public debates became important. 

The most frequent transmission mode is via storytelling and the recital of epic poetry, with the tales and poems together referred to as a people’s oral tradition. The combination of this oral tradition with morals and rituals passed down by word of mouth is known as a society’s folklore. An excellent memory is a highly important asset for preserving the oral tradition.

Oral tradition helps to finds the history which imperial historians have ignored and ‘history from below’ or the unheard lower section’s history is reconstructed in opposition from ‘history from above’ or official state records/history of higher classes.

The positive side of oral tradition is it to help to teach beliefs and values of the culture; it also helps to legitimize the existing social and political arrangements. Oral tradition provide a valuable source of information and many of them are not available as written records, and it counterbalances the evidence of official written documents with popular oral traditions.

The weakness of oral tradition is in the literacy society, the chances of oral tradition reduce and oral traditions also carry the drawback of distorting as the historian is recording the testimony. Transmissions of information through several generations led to the inclusion of subjectivity by each generation and led to a modification of the main content.

The major drawback of oral tradition is that it lacks linear chronology or dates as the tales evolve; these traditions can be misused by others for their own advantage. There is a danger of biasness with oral tradition, as the knowledge that threatens those in authority may be repressed and forgotten.

An additional downside of oral tradition may perish if their keepers refuse to learn the knowledge for future generations. It is considered a secondary source as it is amended many times for the first version. Oral tradition has become extinct in highly industrialised nations as literacy rates have increased.

Written Sources versus the Oral Sources

Leopold Von Ranke in the mid-19th century favoured the written documents, archives over oral sources, the rise of Rankean historiography advocated historians to rely on written and archival sources and consider oral evidence as unreliable sources.

Following the emergence of written sources beginning in the Renaissance, chroniclers and historians seldom rely on oral testimony, and oral sources are now exclusively used for document research.

The use of oral sources was completely abandoned with the development of modern academic history in the nineteenth century. Professional historians now focused their research on written and official documents, on which they claimed technical competence and their working life were mainly restricted to libraries and archives.

Revival of Oral Sources

There was a revival of oral historiography during the twentieth century due to the limitation of the Rankean historiography (elitism, or ‘history from above’). In the decolonized world, the independent nations wanted to write non-Eurocentric histories.

Many civil rights movements wanted to explore ‘history from below, especially related to excluded and marginalized people. This also became the part of decolonization movement. Another factor influencing the development of oral history is the introduction of technological advancements like microphones and tape recorders, which enable better recording of respondent interviews.

Oral history as a democratic alternative challenge the academic elite domination and give space to ordinary people history or illiterate community also helps to find tribal history, working-class and subaltern history.


Oral sources have helped to write oral history, especially in Asia, Africa and Pacific history writers. However, oral history is not a new field but a new method for bringing new sources into play alongside written sources.

Historians may rely on evidence, but the idea of direct contact with the past is an illusion, so historian’s function is to understand the reality of the past with a broader range of evidence and the discipline of historical thinking to grasp the deep structures.

Author: Dr Sakul Kundra, A.HOD Department of Social Science, College of Humanities and Education, Fiji National University.

Dr Sakul Kundra; Picture Source: Supplied
Dr Sakul Kundra; Picture Source: Supplied

Disclaimer: The views expressed are his own and not of The Australia Today or his employer. For comments or suggestions, email. dr.sakulkundra@gmail.com