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The Value of Story Telling - Anthropology. Written Vs. Oral Histories

Updated on June 11, 2019
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The importance of cultural histories and stories

All cultures pass on a social history through stories. Some cultures do this orally through verbal story telling while others adopted the written word early on. These histories and stories are embedded in their cultures to the extent that the culture and the stories cannot be separated; they are a reflection of one another. Within the stories the social beliefs and morality of the society are contained and social lessons are taught. All societies have such tales:

Scotland has a tale that most natives will know of Robert the Bruce seeing a spider making a web and failing repeatedly but always trying again spawning the motivating phrase ‘try, try, try again’ which ‘motived’ Robert the Bruce to continue his battle.

Christianity has adopted a tale of Santa Clause (and various other names) in which a man watches childrens behaviour throughout the year and judges whether they are worthy of gifts at Christmas.

Many of these tales are wrapped up in a history that is more reflective of a real history. The line between history and mythology are rather muddied over time. Characters such as Robin Hood are ambiguous in their mythological vs. historical status. Society chooses the stories that it retells over time. The adaptability of these stories to changing times though can be a consequence of whether it is an oral history or a written history – oral history is far easier to alter to modern standards and expectations than written yet written can be considered more ‘accurate’ depending on the validity and necessity to be accurate. Anthropology looks at these histories and their value when studying cultures as these histories are so intrinsically valuable to societies and act to create and enforce the beliefs of the culture. Below are some anthropological takes on Oral and Written histories.

Cruikshank

Cruikshank describes how, while history is everywhere, only certain stories gain purchase. Cruikshank claims that only certain stories from history gain purchase and that this is due to their representation and re-enforcement of culturally appropriate behaviour. He also argues that extensive written accounts from administrative authorities are able to outweigh local oral narrative. This is despite the fact that these written accounts do not, as is often perceived, contain a fuller or any more objectively reliable account. Both written and oral narrative act to convey conventional social ideals of perfect behaviour; only the context of interpretation alters in these narratives as each invokes their own social system. These stories which gain purchase are those which are best able to display those ideals of the society in which they are told.

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Ridington

Ridington’s investigation of written account of Native American spiritual traditions comes to a similar conclusion as Cruikshank. Ridington finds that spiritual traditions are indigenous to the land and the peoples; creating a cosmic order within which the world realises its meaning. This would be near impossible to convey in written form as understanding requires a complete understanding of the world and culture which seems to be only possible to gain through experience. Western styles of story telling use a monologue; Judeo-Christian creation stories for example present a single given story repeated almost identically over time. Native Americans however use a greater dialogue style; traditions flowing from discourse and altering slightly over time rather than the Judeo-Christian single minded tradition of right and wrong advocating conversion to this dogma. Ethnographic studies inevitably convey the writers bias and is always framed in Western ideas of religion, science and spirituality. These ethnographies are also invariably written as monologues which fails to convey the communication necessary between the cultures for understanding.

DeLoria

DeLoria further claims that the Western ideas of correct scientific method actually fails to consider many useful aspects and possible information of the world around. The Western belief that humans societies seek knowledge devoid of superstition seems overruled by modern tribal societies. These societies don’t seem to wish to remove themselves and their knowledge from nature, instead they seem aware of rhythms that scientific people cannot understand. DeLoria argues that tribal ways represent a complete logical alternative to Western science, not a lesser more primitive means. Tribal methods can even be considered superior in that no data is wasted; while Western science discards failed study, tribal knowledge continues to grow and learn from all of these experiences. Tribal societies also manage to mix facts which western science would divide into distinct categories.

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Summary

Generally, it seems to be that tribal understandings and portrayals of the world need to be better respected and understood by Western cultures. The Western ideals are not unequivocally the correct and most useful means of recording and gathering knowledge and information and this needs to be understood. As is often the case Western societies take a very ethnocentric view in which there is a belief that the Westen world is more 'advanced' and has made the more logical and reasonable choices. This notion is flawed greatly and resides in the belief that there is an ultimate advancement that humans are trudging towards over time and it is the advancements that the Western world has decided to aim for. In reality there is no ultimate goal and all peoples and societies in the world have advanced over time to adapt to their reality and to suit there cultural needs and wants. The Western choices are not superior or more accurate. Often human nature is shunned, overlooked or undervalued by Western academics. The social nature of people and the persistence of oral story telling reinforces that is a natural feature of humanity. The written word is not intrinsically superior and in fact has flaws in that it does not allow for adapting morality. This can be reflected in religious texts throughout the world where it becomes the full time job of heads of religion to marry the written text to modern reality and morality. Ultimately, written history is regarded are superior by Western societies and academic research but oral histories should not be wholly overlooked as within even western societies these oral stories have a place and to disregard their validity is to overlook an intrinsic feature of human nature and social interactions.

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