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Revolutionizing history through oral traditions

By Serena Atkinson and Manasa Sriraj Apr. 28, 2021

Jessica Lin Art


With just a few clicks of the keyboard, information like the box office statistics of hit movies and comprehensive accounts of each battle of the American Revolution are readily at internet users’ fingertips, thanks to the free online encyclopedia Wikipedia. However, the histories and cultures of members of certain regional ethnic groups have not necessarily received as extensive coverage.

Dabba kali is a traditional game from the Indian state of Kerala that is played by almost 40 million people. Its English Wikipedia article is less than two hundred words long, despite the game’s strong presence in Indian culture, simply because so little knowledge of it has been formally transcribed. On the other hand, the Malayalam version (the local language of Kerala) of the article is much more detailed, which according to the Economic Times is most likely because the local version of Wikipedia accepts oral history as citations, while the English edition does not. Oral history is a field of study where researchers gather information by interviewing people who have experienced an event firsthand. Though transferring information in this manner has been done since before written language was developed, nowadays numerous databases exist that help researchers better catalog and find oral sources. Despite some drawbacks that come with less formal sources such as oral history, it provides vital information about both past and present events.

As stated by Columbia University, online content about the histories and culture of ethnic groups living in rural or underdeveloped regions is especially limited, since these groups generally have less internet access than people in urban areas.

As stated by Columbia University, online content about the histories and culture of ethnic groups living in rural or underdeveloped regions is especially limited, since these groups generally have less internet access than people in urban areas. According to Wikipedia, the majority of Wikipedia’s editors (known as Wikipedians) are young, higher-class Caucasian males. As a result, Wikipedia’s content becomes systematically biased towards topics revolving around this demographic’s culture and life.

“Oral history can help erase harmful stereotypes about certain peoples, like the notion that Native Americans are primitive and barbaric although they have rich traditions, innovations and unique lifestyles. Many Native American tribes do not have written languages, so past historians did not have much evidence to disprove this belief. However, with oral history, accurate descriptions of Native American heritage can be released to the public,” Freshman Sandhya Ram said.

Wikipedia is making some efforts to combat its bias, with one initiative being WikiAfrica, a movement that encourages users to create and add to online content about Africa. According to Wikipedia, the project aims to spread cultural information that is lesser-known outside of Africa, as well as train future Wikipedia editors to be more culturally sensitive. Many of the people trained are African youth and students so that they can not only continue the project’s goals but also gain a greater appreciation for their culture. Allowing oral histories on its articles would greatly advance Wikipedia and WikiAfrica due to the rich oral traditions that many African communities have.

“Because education about native African culture is limited, people outside of Africa do not have enough context to form accurate ideas about this topic, leading to the creation of stigmatic generalizations. Oral history projects would allow WikiAfrica’s contributors to uncover the truth about the history and experiences of lesser-known African communities, helping debunk these judgmental myths,” Junior Anokhi Shah said.

Ultimately, oral history adds a unique viewpoint to enhance already established accounts, and though they may have bias, they still have value.

While oral history is a solid starting point for historical research, it cannot be relied on as the sole information source. However, opinion does not need to interfere with accuracy. Although primary sources are usually interspersed with the speaker or writer’s viewpoint, the core experience remains factual—partiality could be eliminated by removing skewed details and fact-checking with other testimonies. Even as this evidence is analyzed to form secondary sources, historians’ own prejudices and interpretations may impede objectivity and spread distorted information. With oral history initiatives, however, the risk of spreading misinformation can be reduced, as there is less room for misinterpretation.

Ultimately, oral history adds a unique viewpoint to enhance already established accounts, and though they may have bias, they still have value. From an interviewee’s perspective, researchers can understand how an event affected both history and ordinary people, and better analyze the roles of people directly involved in an event. Baylor University gives an example of this with war: asking someone what they specifically did in a war can help reveal how people directly involved in sending the troops affected ordinary people’s lives.

With careful consideration of the facts from oral history accounts, many concerns over accuracy can be avoided. Such downsides to WikiAfrica and similar projects are outweighed by their promise to shed light on the unique identities of underrepresented communities and stimulate more respect and appreciation for cultural diversity.

 

About the Contributors

Serena Atkinson

Staff Writer


Serena is a senior and this is her third year as a staff writer. She likes the Clash, kitchen-sink drama films, and looking at birds that are in her backyard.









Manasa Sriraj

Staff Writer


Manasa Sriraj is a freshman at Leland High School and a staff writer. She is a STEM, puzzle, and geography freak and loves torturing her friends by spamming and "Rickrolling" on group chats. Her hobbies include listening to music, playing basketball and the guitar, experimenting with snack recipes (which usually result in messes), and building Rube Goldberg machines and gadgets out of Legos and other regular household objects.

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