Sciences : histoire orale
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These Documents Which are Not the Same

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Oral archives formulate specific problems, which made them specific documents. It is thus of primary importance to carefully question them in order not to overestimate their meanings and impact.

On the one hand, an oral archive is a literal and not a literary production, which does not mean it forms a set of pure factual information. Since the personal experience and the recollection of the same event differs from one person to the other, and since the words of the interviewee are always oriented by the discourse of the interviewer, and vice versa, an oral archive cannot be read or interpreted in the same way as a written text. Its content is incomplete and the memory it contains is here diffracted, sometimes distorted. The problem is not that such a document contains factual mistakes because these can be cross-checked and removed but rather that they carry the trace of an implacably situated memory.

On the other hand, oral sources highlight local points of view and thus “microhistoria”. Then, they give access to norms which structured a “singular collective” within the framework of institutions, of situated knowledge and know-how and their modes of transmission. Even so it does not exempt them from the long-lasting “synthetic” work of historical elaboration [1 ; 2].

The oral archive also represents an ambiguous source because the causality of its genesis is the opposite of typical causalities : it is the historian who appeals to the actor, who asks him or her to remember and to explain. Thus, the historian and the actor, the interviewer and the interviewee “build up the source” together. According to their respective roles, each of them has some latitude to act but none of them can fully have control on the “final product.”

In spite of these multiple ambiguities, oral archives constitute an irreplaceable material to comprehend sciences in their local and complex dimensions. What an oral archive restores is a vivid, fallible and localized memory, which is inscribed in a narrative or a piece of narratives, on the occasion of a discussion at given time and place, and which is shaped by the expectations of each of the protagonists. These more or less conscious and explicit expectations can spring up or remain hidden, become shifted or transferred to given “roles”, be disappointed, fulfilled, forgotten and so on.

An oral archive is thus an intersubjective and interdisciplinary document, the memory of a given exchange and by no means the infallible recording of an impartial witness.


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