The Role of Oral History in Business History

The use of oral history in firms and business companies can be perceived as a rather boring and perhaps not so useful one – that was my opinion anyway before I started working on my presentation. However, after starting doing some research and reading a couple of articles on the topic it became obvious that oral history played an important role in the industry. Our society is practically ruled by big business owners and ambitious entrepreneurs who fuel and expand our economy yet until the mid twentieth century very little was told about their role and the impact those businesses had on society as a whole, including those considered as the ‘marginalized’.

What can be learned then? Well, a majority of things. On the one hand oral history enlightens us on the role of entrepreneurs of course, not just their success but also the difficulties which shaped their careers; whilst on the other, we get to hear the voices of those affected either positively or negatively by the growing and constantly changing impact of businesses.

I will divide this essay quite simply, first look at the changes gradually brought by the creation of oral histories in the field, and then analyse the various opportunities and challenges involved in the process. We are all aware that oral history as a whole is a combination of both; the identification of sources, the selection of the interviewee, the relationship built between both interviewer and interviewee, and so on, are elements which will determine the success of failure of an interview present in all historical fields. Yet there is no doubt that oral history uncovers the multiplicity of experience, and is a challenge in itself to the claim that there can be a single true universal story.

In the field of accounting, written works such as Plant-closing Decisions and the Market Value of the Firm, by David W. Blackwell, M. Wayne Marr, and Michael F. Spivey have looked at the closing of plants in the light of their impact on stock market figures, and much less on their impact on displaced workers. The bringing in of oral history has allowed us to understand the effect this had on individual workers negatively affected by unemployment for example. It can also enlighten us on what mistakes there are to learn and what can thus be avoided in the future, interviewed employees can also useful when recruiting other employees and so on. With regards to the entrepreneurs themselves, as Ronald K. Mitchell points out, oral history ‘demystifies’ the common norms which constitute their expertise, we are able to explore a different side of their careers, how did their really become successful entrepreneurs? What constituted their choices? How long did it take them?

Yet we should remain aware that this can also imply that in certain cases entrepreneurs may not be keen on revealing certain mistakes, or negative figures of their businesses. Some interview data may also be regarded as strictly supplementary to core business documents and subjected to little evident analysis. As well as opportunities, challenges are equally important to identify in order to make the best use of oral histories, especially in the field of business which is an extensively competitive and difficult arena to become part of, not just as an employee but also as an interviewer.

One Comment on “The Role of Oral History in Business History”

  1. Graham Smith says:

    Sounds as if you’ve some great ideas for the essay that moves beyond the crying that business oral history is a neglected areas.
    BTW: It is always good to add tags and categories to posts and I’ve added a few to your post.

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