Truth and Falsehood in Oral History

Dr. Ali Asghar Saeedi
Translated by: Fazel Shirzad



Truth and Falsehood in Oral History


Dr. Ali Asghar Saeedi

Translated by: Fazel Shirzad

The production of different narrations in our country has been expanding in recent years due to various reasons, including revolution and war, and they cause the position of oral history to be more and more important in our society. Although many efforts have been made to collect oral history, one of the most important debates in oral history is the validity of the narration that oral history produces. The issue that basic propositions, which are constantly produced through the methods of oral history and as audio, narrative, and oral texts announce an undeniable fact, is discussed, accepted, or refuted? Oral historians around the world have long been producing the basic propositions that are narrative. Therefore, a question is raised here that, in terms of epistemologically, whether these basic propositions will be accepted or not. How can it be argued that just as some narration is considered to be unmistakable, justified, grounded, and self-evident facts for today's oral history that inform of real events in the outside world, others also confirm their certainty?

The epistemological response to this problem in the first place is that even if no mistake has been made in collecting oral history and everything that has been done to collect narrations and the conversion of texts carefully, there is no guarantee that researchers and other scholars will do the same and know them as eternal truths. The importance of this issue is that these basic propositions in oral history, which are people's narrations of their events and experiences, should not only lead to the creation of theory but also help to refute and confirm theories. Therefore, the permanence of basic propositions in oral history is an important epistemological matter. But there is still a lot of work to be done in the epistemological debate of judging the truth and falsity of narrations. The epistemological question about the status of judging on collected narrations can be discussed in different ways. Some oral history scholars equate the position of collecting oral history data or producing basic propositions with the position of judging and consider oral history narrations as true propositions because they report out of the world and reality. While some consider them to be only basic propositions that inform about real events in the outside world according to the opinion of the narrator, but the position of judging and finding the criterion of truth and falsehood is a different position.

Based on this approach, the permanence of basic propositions in oral history is an important epistemological matter. The importance of addressing this issue is that we have taken a rapid approach to the collection of narrations in recent years, while the epistemological foundations of narration's truthfulness have been less debated. Discussing this issue can also help to strengthen the methodology of collecting narrations. Basic propositions are statements of reality from the outside. In oral history, although something may has been reported by the narrator and considered to be the basis of truth and inform of the real world, accepting basic propositions in science is not for they are rooted in truth, and we do not pay attention to them because of their absolute reality. Because if there was such confidence, there would be no more debates. Rather, these are the basic propositions of individual experience or individual thought that must be placed in the process of the togetherness of minds or being inter-notional, so the individual mental experience is not inter- notional, that is, it has not yet become universal. In science, everyone should be able to participate in testing and making basic or scientific propositions. There is, then, a distinction between the basic propositions of mental experience, single-notional and the basic proposition of inter-notional. Of course, there are basic propositions that always remain the basic proposition and no one contributes to its accuracy. There are many such propositions in history.

According to the author, the narrations of war and revolution can also be parts of the proposition. For example, warriors tell their stories of military operations, or a worker tells how he works in a workshop. But such reports are not conclusive ones. In other words, these propositions are transformable and may change at any time in the future. According to German sociologist, Jürgen Habermas, about the interpretation of human belongings, the basic propositions in oral history are not considered eternal propositions, and it cannot be accepted that whatever one narrates has reached an unchangeable reality. However, the narrator himself informs about a fact that fully confirms its accuracy.

The modifiability of these narrations raises the question of what should we base on. On the one hand, we need propositions. These propositions form theories as well as confirm or refute a theory. We cannot avoid interfering with our values, both in collecting narrations and judging them. This is an accepted issue in the philosophy of social sciences. However, we must follow all the necessary processes and recommendations to achieve liberation from personal values and judgments. Therefore, unlike the natural sciences, which consider objectivity as the essence of science, and the researcher and the subject of research is a mind-object (subject-object) encounter, in most of the approaches in the humanities and social sciences, the researcher and the subject of research is a mind-mind (subject-subject) encounter.

But, after being inter-notional and participation of others in their basic individual proposition, how can we determine accuracy? According to the ideas of Habermas (1971) in the book "Knowledge and Human Interests", one of the belongings of man is belonging to understanding, which can produce interpretive-historical sciences. Here we are only trying to understand the audio text. Therefore, our method is interpretive (hermeneutics). So we cannot use the control belonging that we use in the experimental sciences and use of text. We can only use external issues or objects, not from the audio text. Otherwise, we will not understand it. But what about the truth and falsity of the audio text here? If the researcher does not deal with the truth and falsity of the basic propositions, how can it be found that he has understood the texts correctly?

Habermas argues that the consensus of scholars is the criterion for a correct understanding of audio texts. However, this consensus may also conflict with the narrator's motive and purpose in producing the original proposition. In this case, the criterion, motivation, and goal is not the producer of the proposition, but the criterion is still the consensus of scholars. Therefore, the value of basic propositions and determining their truth and falsity depends on the consensus of scholars. According to Habermas (1978)[1] in the book "Knowledge and Human Interests," one can expect the emergence of oral history science to emerge practical cognitive interest that aims to clarify the meaning of audio texts (Sidman, 2013 p. 167; Habermas, 1978). This interest and belonging in history are associated with understanding, and its difference with analytical and experimental sciences is that the researcher has no interest in controlling and predicting the subject under study. In other words, the researcher seeks nothing more than to understand the texts. This determines the researcher's method or methodology, which is the interpretive or hermeneutic method. In this case, the type of encounter of the researcher is as subject to the subject because the audio text and researcher go together. In this case, because the researcher's goal is to understand, the truth and falsehood of audio texts or basic propositions of oral history do not make sense. The consensus of scholars means a correct and honest understanding of basic propositions. This claim does not distort these factual propositions. These propositions are true from the narrators' point of view and are reports from the real world. Basic propositions are what inform the outside world or our feelings. If it is the history of war, it must be based on the narrations of the fighters who report from the world of the fronts. That is all. But it is in the position of judging the consensus of the scholars that they vote for their truth and falsehood. In other words, this process of producing the science of oral history cannot be narrated by an individual or individuals. However, it can be argued that such a consensus on basic propositions depends on the social values of society. Nevertheless, although the scholars' consensus on a correct understanding of the propositions may differ from the narrator's inference of the correctness of his narration, what is raised here is the inter-notional aspect of the narration.

The consensus of scholars is the same as the inter-notional debate. That is what is agreed upon. Therefore, the narrations of individuals in any subject must be approved by all to become scientific propositions. That means everyone participates in the test and does it. Thus, collecting narrations and narrating those paves the way for the transition from mental experience to inter-notional one. The conclusion is that in oral history we have to consider at least two stages: the first is the process of compiling texts in such a way that its orality is preserved, and the second stage is to clarify the truth and falsehood of these texts. The only way to test the truth or falsehood of audio texts is the consensus of scholars because the hermeneutic method is to understand the texts, not to determine the truth and falsehood. Researchers' consensus determines what understanding of basic propositions is correct. Thus, the modifiability of the basic propositions or the narrators' narrations of them can change through consensus of the scholars. The issue of the value burden in the consensus of scholars can also be reduced by a consensus-based on reason and wisdom. However, deprivation of values is still a controversial issue among scholars.[2]



  • Steven Sidman (2013). Conflict of opinions in sociology. Translated by Hadi Jalili. Tehran: Ney Publication.
  • Habermas, Jürgen(1978) "Knowledge and human interests" 


[1] One of the reasons for paying attention to the critical theory may be that this theory has in common with oral history in terms of attention to psychoanalysis. The attention and closeness of oral history are also due to its emergence. "Self-expression" is in some ways involved with a kind of psychoanalysis, and the critical theory, whose interest and belonging is neither in understanding nor in controlling and predicting but in liberation, is close to psychoanalysis that one must criticize oneself to liberate oneself. What psychoanalysis does with its expression is in the simplest form of an intermediate between the mind and the subject or problem to connect the outside world to the inside, that is, the mind with the object.

[2] Dr. Ali Asghar Saeedi (2017) Two-quarterly Journal of Oral History, Third Year, No. 6, Document Research Institute of the Documents and Library of the Islamic Republic of Iran, Fall and Winter, pp. 10-7.

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