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The Challenge of Oral History to Environmental History

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Oral history has much to offer environmental history, yet the possibilities and promises of oral history remain underutilised in environmental history and environmental studies more broadly. Through a reflection on work in environmental history and associated disciplines, this paper presents a case for the strength and versatility of oral history as a key source for environmental history, while reflecting on questions of its reliability and scope. We identify three major insights provided by environmental oral history: into environmental knowledge, practices and power. We argue that, rather than being a weakness, the (inter)subjective and experiential dimensions of oral accounts provide a rich source for situating and interrogating environmental practices, meanings, and power relations. Oral history, moreover, provides a counterweight to a reliance on colonial archives and top-down environmental accounts, and can facilitate a renewal - and deepening - of the radical roots of environmental history. Furthermore, as a research practice, oral history is a promising means of expanding the participatory and grassroots engagement of environmental history. By decentring environmental expertise and eroding the boundaries (both fictive and real) of environmental knowledge production, oral environmental histories can provide key interventions in pursuit of a more just, sustainable world.
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Keywords: Oral history; climate change; conservation; disasters; environmental change; environmental degradation; environmental knowledge; environmental reconstruction; traditional ecological knowledge

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: May 1, 2020

This article was made available online on September 21, 2018 as a Fast Track article with title: "The Challenge of Oral History to Environmental History".

More about this publication?
  • Environment and History is an interdisciplinary journal which aims to bring scholars in the humanities and biological sciences closer together, with the deliberate intention of constructing long and well-founded perspectives on present day environmental problems.

    Environment and History has a Journal Impact Factor (2018) of 0.800. 5 Year Impact Factor: 0.918.
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