Saturday, 4 December 2010

Talking about Oor Mad History - whether at a big formal talk like at the Scottish Mental Health Research Network on the 23rd November or in a one-to-one conversation is - that you have to go away and think about things a bit more.

One thing which I want to talk about is why we chose oral history as a way of interviewing people rather than seeing it as a straightforward semi-structured interview.

cover of The Oral History Reader
This quote from The Oral History Reader sort of answers this for me. In the introduction, the editors say that oral history
include[s]within the historical record the experiences and perspectives of groups of people who might otherwise have been ‘hidden from history’, perhaps written about by social observers or in official documents, but only rarely preserved in personal papers or scraps of autobiographical writing.
Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson, The Oral History Reader
Many people with mental health problems have written their own accounts of their experiences of distress, the responses of other people, of services, and about their recovery.

[Gail Hornstein has compiled a list of first-hand accounts of madness which you can download directly at [PDF] Gail is an American psychotherapist and academic who argues that the best way of understanding madness and mental distress is to listen to those of us who are mad and distressed.]
cover of The Christian Watts Papers
However, autobiography can be dismissed by others, by more "objective" writers. For example, Christian Watts wrote a memoir of her life which has been published as The Christian Watt Papers. She was born near Fraserburgh in a fishing community. She spent much of her life in an Aberdeen asylum.

Two historians looked at the official accounts of Christian's time in the asylum and compared the notes to her memoir. Because much of her memoir is not corroborated by the records, they struggle to reconcile the discrepancies and seem to prefer to believe the records, despite acknowledging thatperhaps the doctors had to exaggerate her condition to justify her detention. [You can see the abstract of their academic paper here: but you can't read the paper itself.]

Oral history, such as Oor Mad History, is a group history. It can bring together a range of perspectives on one subject at a particular time.

That's not to say that oral history has not also been accused of being subjective. It has, but that's a subject for another day.

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