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The Death of Luigi Trastulli And Other Stories

by on September 28, 2011

Alessandro Portelli’s book The Death of Luigi Trastulli And Other Stories is a compilation of several stories meant to demonstrate the differences between oral history and classic forms of historical research.  Portelli states that his book is a response to questions raised by stories he heard during his fieldwork.  Portelli conducted his research with an inductive approach, meaning he compiled several observations (in this case oral histories) and built a general idea based on those observations.  His focus is how to properly conduct research of oral histories.  He believes that there is more to be learned by opening himself up to the unexpected than repeating our own conceptualizations.  It is important to realize that were are talking to people, not studying “sources.”  By having this approach while conducting oral history research, the subject will have a more of a sense that the researcher is learning from them rather than studying them, making the subject feel more comfortable.  Portelli describes the “history of oral history” as a convergence of several disciplines in the field of human history.  Studying someone through an exclusive filter does not give the researcher a proper history of the individual.  By that, Portelli means that looking at someone solely from a linguistic, historiographical, literary, etc. point of view skews the “truths” of the research.  Oral historians, on the other hand, tend to have a more interdisciplinary point of view because it is the subject of research that determines the focus of their own narrative, not the researcher.  Portelli suggests that the emergence of oral history is from the idea that there is more to history than names and dates, although some people have not accepted oral histories because it “disarranges many accepted truths.”  For example, the history of slavery was altered greatly after former American slaves were interviewed and their testimonies were taken seriously.  My question is can we ever have an accurate truth about something through oral histories? Can we draw unbiased conclusions from testimonies that are inevitably biased in one way or the other?

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7 Comments
  1. I thought this article presented the study of oral history in a very interesting and unique way. Oral history is not something we usually think about, and I appreciated how the author described and highlighted the complexity that is present in this field. I also liked how he emphasized on the construction and operation of studying and interviewing resources, and how it is more “learning” then “studying”. He explains this, “Oral history does not begin with one abstract person observing another, reified one, but with two persons meeting on a ground of equality to bring together their different types of knowledge and achieve a new synthesis from which both will be changed”. Finally, I also enjoyed his take on comparative studies with similarities in cross-disciplinary research, “I do not believe in stressing similarities too much, unless one is ready to make a punctual study of differences as well”.

  2. Benjamin N. permalink

    It’s always going to be more difficult to get an accurate picture of someone through purely oral histories. Everybody has their own biases, and those tend to come across more when gathering information through interview as opposed to print. We can certainly get universals about a person (he’s 23, she has brown hair, etc.), but it’s difficult to get a completely accurate and objective view of someone or something.
    This does, however, allow you to get a more interesting picture. I think a solid base for research is written, objective history. I also think one should supplement that with interviews from multiple sources. The fact that you get multiple viewpoints allows you, in your analysis and conclusions, to paint a more well-rounded picture of an individual or event. Rather than getting one perspective, you can show that your subject matter is multi-faceted, and people care enough to have solid biases toward it.

  3. This article is similar to last Friday’s article “Qualitative Interviewing…” by Rubin and Rubin. Both articles take the more rounded approach when finding truth in the story of their subjects. Portelli also reiterates what we have been discussing in class, that “no one undertakes field work without some conceptual framework” (Portelli x). In his case, his approach is through memory, narratives, and experience in the field that allow for multiple interpretations to be revealed and thought out (vii). What I found most interesting from this was how Portelli emphasizes that memories help form a culture’s history and there is also meaning to the stories being told. This shows that one should not neglect a person’s stories because they might not like what they hear, but should instead think of why that person is telling it and find the meaning behind it.

  4. To have “an accurate truth oral histories” is a question in itself. what is an “accurate truth” and who is allowed to define what is and is not true? Memories can be so definite in one persons mind, but the oral story told from those memories might not match up with someone else’s perception of the same event; however, both people are equally right in their own way. Who is to discredit a part of oral history just because it doesn’t seem “factual” or correct?

  5. 242colleencarey permalink

    When it comes to oral histories, there is a thin line between accuracy and inaccuracy regarding the truth. I completely agree with Portelli’s idea of oral history being an important aspect of research because it does reveal information that one might not be able to perceive otherwise. But I also think that oral history isn’t the only way to find the “truth.” Portelli says that, “looking at someone solely from a linguistic, historiographical, literary, etc. point of view skews the “truths” of the research.” Therefore, one also can’t just look at oral history because that’s also just one point of view. One must take all of these aspects and look at all of them to attain an accurate “truth.”

  6. Kelsey Snyder permalink

    I think it depends on the kind of truth you want. For instance, the date of Luigi’s death was an unreliable piece of information that was gathered from an oral narrative. However, the importance of that event to the interviewee is something that can be understood and analyzed. So basically, it depends on the questions one is asking and what the researcher is really looking for. Hard facts will probably have to be garnered elsewhere.

  7. to answer your question i think that there is absolute validity in accurate truth through oral history. before we had the ability to write this was how history was presented for thousands of years. i think that there are many credible documents that were written based on oral interpretation. i due that that different perspectives and emotions could perhaps skew the actual reality of a historical happening, but overall i think that oral history as a whole is something that should be looked at with legitimate credentials.

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