o·ral his·to·ry (noun) the collection and study of historical information using sound recordings of interviews with people having personal knowledge of past events.
What is memory? Science is gradually revealing that, contrary to popular opinion, our memory doesn't function like a camera that records film of our experiences which may later be played back at leisure. Instead, it may be more accurate to view remembering as a creative process which reflects our shifting perspective as we move through life, bringing us a slightly different story with each new recall. While psychologists and cognitive scientists might have us believe that our unreliable memories undermine our identity and make us manipulable, from an anthropological perspective, human memory is both real and valuable. How we recall past events and draw upon our experiences to make sense of the present moment, can be just as important as the events themselves.
Our memories, scientifically fallible as they may be, make us who we are, they link us to the past and to others who come and go from our lives, they ground us in the present, and allow us to imagine possible futures. In short, our memories imbue our lives with meaning. For this reason, as we countdown towards the State Grange of Minnesota's Grange's sesquicentennial in 2019, it is only fitting that we take a moment to examine the various ways in which long-time Grange members recall their pasts with the organization and with one another. In this way, we might locate continuity and solidify a meaningful identity for the future based upon the collective memory of those who have deeper connections to the past.
To gain insight into the unique culture of the Grange in the 21st century, I have set out to conduct a long-term research project focusing on memories from our esteemed long-term members. As a budding cultural anthropologist, I have been taught to appreciate the type of truth that is inherent within human experience. This kind of truth can be revealed, not in spite of memory's fallibility, but because of it. It is the very subjectivity of memory that makes us all unique. We all remember the same event slightly differently, emphasizing those details that retrospectively allow us to see a more cohesive story of our own lives, where one event leads sensibly to the next. It is this infinitely unique quality of the individual's perspective that allows our experiences to become valuable, to become examples that contain broader lessons for us to learn from and pass along.
Take "Jack the Farmer" for example. For Jack the Farmer to represent an example of a typical American, he must necessarily be unique. In other words, if we were to hypothetically make a computer generated amalgamation of all the faces in America, it would actually cease to be an example. Instead, such an image would merely be a generalization or an abstraction, scientifically accurate, yet devoid of uniqueness and incapable of representing an example of a typical American. While most scientists are comforted by the type of empirical logic implicit in the abstraction, the anthropologist prefers the example the for its ability to capture that which is unique and to reveal those truths embedded in the highly subjective and emotionally charged process of recalling human experience.
Oral history is powerful precisely because it deals directly with this subjective process. To successfully collect this type of knowledge, the idea is to participate in the culture you are researching, and observe as well as conduct interviews with members holding various social positions. We have all had the experience of entering into a new and unfamiliar environment - whether it be starting at a new school, getting a new job, or moving to a new town - and then gradually adjusting until this new environment becomes like home, like a part of who we are. Well, it is through participant-observation and interviewing that the anthropologist attempts to maximize the productivity of such a transition, thoughtfully transforming that which was strange into that which is familiar. Oral history is what happens during the interview stage, at the point of contact, as one individual performs the act of recalling a memory and assembling a narrative for the sake of another person. It's a necessarily social and subjective process, but one that nevertheless has an uncanny ability to reveal the world through the eyes of the narrator.
In its 150 years as an American institution, the Grange has witnessed unimaginable changes (two world wars, civil rights, urbanization, the Farm Crisis, green revolution...). It may not be possible to collect oral histories from the Founders of the Order, but even in the last half-century the face of agriculture in America has changed dramatically, impacting the lives of many current Grange members, and influencing the trajectory of the Grange as a whole. If we hope to face the challenges of the next 150 years with confidence in our identity, we must consider something: our memories make us who we are. Oral history presents an opportunity for us to find depth and meaning in our lives and remind ourselves of why we Grange.
Adam is a senior undergraduate student at the University of Minnesota majoring in sociocultural anthropology, minoring in Mandarin Cheese, and holding a Leadership and Legislative Internship with the State Grange of Minnesota as a Kelley Fellow.
If you are interested in taking part in this once in a lifetime experience to help the State Grange of Minnesota collect, maintain and share our unique and vibrant history, please contact Adam via email.