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Why study oral history?


(To skip this section and read more about how the project was carried out, click here)


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 engage with it


Different societies face different questions at different times and it is these experiences that often shape a nation. Understanding how people act and react to internal and external affairs is something that we aim to understand.


It is the observations and the minutiae of actually-experienced lives – that which later forms history (that seldom make it into the history books.) We may know for example, when livestock were successfully collectivized and we may also know the means through which the process 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 they cover many pages. We want to know, to understand what these few lines in a written history (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.


Even those people who have been involved in momentous events seldom see them as such, except in retrospect. Chris Kaplonski, in his work on the democratic revolution in Mongolia, for example 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 he talked to are correct (and there is no reason to think they are not), 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.


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 the nameless masses in events set in motion by a few people.


The process itself.


The Oral History project officially started in summer, 2007, and we began collecting interviews in February, 2008. Throughout the life of the project, we have worked to make it very much a collaborative experience. The Cambridge team came up with a number of themes we thought worth pursuing, and refined this list in conjunction with the original interviewers. The interviewers also helped refine the metadata we collected, critiquing the original choices and suggesting new data to collect.


For the interviews themselves, since we are interested in how people remember, we wanted the interviews to be as open-ended as possible. To this end, the Cambridge team suggested the sorts of questions they, as anthropologists, might ask in an interview, and why. These were not meant to be questions to rigorously follow, but rather suggest approaches to talking about the themes that were of interest. We left it to the interviewers themselves to determine, in conjunction with the people interviewed, the best approach to each individual theme and interview.


During the early stages of the project, the Cambridge team provided feedback to the interviewers, offering suggestions on follow-up questions they might have asked, and also pointing out where they thought to ask questions that the Cambridge team would not have. (To give one specific example: one interviewer asked not only when a person was born – in terms of the year – but if they knew their precise birthday. A surprising number of older respondents did not. This was a question which had not occurred to the Cambridge team to ask.)


Similarly, while we monitored the interviews throughout the life of the project, both in terms of quality and seeking to have a rough gender balance, suitable spread of ages, educational backgrounds and so forth, we did not attempt anything like a truly random representative sample. This simply would not have been practical. We did ask interviewers to pick more women, or people with less education when needed, but in general, trusted their knowledge of Mongolia and social networks to find people to interview.


The interviewers were thus largely left to connect with the people they would interview as they best saw fit. Social networks were deployed, interviewees suggested other people who might be interesting to talk to, people were simply approached to tell their story. In at least one memorable example, one interviewer overheard two elderly men reminiscing on the bus. She approached them, introduced herself and the project, and arranged to conduct interviews.


Where possible, we obtained photos of the people interviewed, and many were happy to let us take photos or scans of awards, old photos or other information they thought we might like.


At the outset of the project the interviewers had a training workshop in Ulaanbaatar and were provided with digital voice recorders, and the paperwork and instructions necessary for supplying relevant metadata, consent forms, audio files and other data. These were forwarded to Cambridge, where they were checked and entered into the database.


As the project progressed it became apparent that the interviewers themselves were having a very privileged access to the lives of their interviewees and it was felt that a survey of their impressions would provide a rich commentary on the process and the general understanding of the history of the century. This part of the project will be presented under the ‘Reflections’ section of the website.