The Introduction page offers some brief technical background to and academic aims of The Oral History of Twentieth Century Mongolia. But what it doesn’t do – at least to my satisfaction – is explain what oral history actually is and why we think it is important. In other words, if you're not an academic with concerns about oral history, context, narrative and so forth, why should this project interest you?
Let me actually start by explaining why I think the project is important and interesting. I will come back and address the ‘what’ question of oral history separately. The Introduction explains about situatedness and context. But it doesn’t go into much depth about the relation between history as lived experience, memory and history as found in textbooks. The academics on the Cambridge side of the project are all anthropologists. As such, we have professional (and personal) interests in topics such as meanings and understandings of things – how do people make sense of the world around them, and why do they do so in the ways they do? Why do people think some things or events are important and others not? We aren’t interested in what is still too often encountered in textbook history – who did what when. We seek to go deeper than this.
History is more than a list of names and dates of battles and famous men. It includes people living what most would consider “ordinary” lives and their attempts to make sense of the world and get by in it. Even those people who have taken part in momentous events seldom see them as such, except in retrospect. In my own (Chris Kaplonski) work on the democratic revolution in Mongolia, for example, I was struck by how some people viewed the protests and demonstrations as “just something to do.” This is the sort of observation that very rarely, if ever, makes it into the history books. Yet such a comment fundamentally changes the way we understand things. If the people I talked to are correct, and many people went to the demonstrations because it was something to do, not because they had a deep-rooted belief in democracy or foresaw what would happen, this fundamentally changes how we understand what happened. It doesn't change what the organizers thought they were doing, or how the government reacted, but it sheds new light on how other people saw the events.
Such observations and the minutiae of actually-experienced lives – that which later forms history – seldom make it into the history books. We may know, to take another Mongolian example, when livestock was successfully collectivized. We may also know the means through which it was accomplished. But at best, there will be a sentence or two in the history books that say something like: “Some people welcomed collectivization and others resisted it.” The Oral History of Twentieth Century Mongolia seeks at this level to fill in those blank spots, to expand the sentence or two until it fills many pages. We want to know, to understand what these few lines in a history book (if anyone has bothered to record them at all) actually meant to the people involved. In doing so, we not only document an understanding of how people experienced particular events, but we also help build a larger understanding of how people act and interact with the world around them: how they create meaning, deal with the demands of governments, influence and are influenced by events and then remember and talk about them. To point out the obvious (but the obvious gets too often ignored) this can only be done by actually talking to people.
This is, briefly, why we think oral history is important. It lets us understand things about people and their lives that are too often overlooked or ignored. We want to understand people and their world (their culture, society, religion, work, etc.) as real people, not just nameless ranks marching through events set in motion by a few people.
I’ll come back (I hope soon) and post a short essay on what exactly oral history is in terms of methods, etc.