Significance and Innovation

Generations and Australian History

This is the first major national project to investigate intergenerational dynamics and the impact of dramatic social, technological and environmental changes on the experiences and attitudes of succeeding Australian Generations. Although the Bicentennial History Project of the 1980s, and the People’s History written in reaction to it, considered aspects of the history of ordinary people’s everyday life, neither focused on generational change or identity (Daniels 1988; Burgmann and Lee 1988).

The national scope of our project will advance understanding of the diversity of Australian historical experience within groups and over time. We propose an original and significant historical interrogation of assumptions about Australian Generations.

We will question and complicate the commonly accepted Australian generational ascriptions of Builders (born c. 1925-46), Baby Boomers (c. 1947-64), Generation X (c. 1965-79) and Generation Y (c. 1980-94) (McCrindle 2009), and explore questions neglected in survey research about the interactions and overlaps between generations, and the ways in which class, gender, ethnicity, race and region inflect with and cut across age and generation.

Life Histories and Generational Experience

Our life history methodology is an important innovation in generation research. Studies of generational memory tend to focus on individual and collective historical consciousness of significant past events, or on the creation of generationally distinctive social and political attitudes (Schuman and Scott 1989; Wertsch 2002; Hamilton 2003). Many of these studies rely on telephone interviews or questionnaire surveys and few use the rich data of autobiographical memory to examine how shared life experiences may, or may not, have produced generational identities.

One exception is Brett and Moran’s Ordinary People’s Politics (2006), which showed how individual life experiences shape political attitudes, often with a generational accent. Just as Brett and Moran’s approach revitalized Australian political analysis, our life history methodology opens new windows into the history and identity of Australian Generations. The depth of a five hour interview spread across two sessions and structured around life stages will enable us to draw imaginative and important connections between intimate features of individual lives that are often disaggregated, for example, adolescence, faith and family.

Interviewees will be encouraged to talk in detail about themes which resonant in their own life histories. The depth and breadth of our sample – 50 interviews per birth decade over 60 years – enables several innovative strategies for generating new understandings of generational history. Through individual life stories and sets of interviews, we will track the experience of any one birth cohort across time, and examine the extent to which shared experiences have forged generational behaviour, attitudes and identities.

Holding together concern with structure and agency, experience and subjectivity (Plummer 2001), Australian Generations will explore how individuals within distinctive generational and age cohorts, while clearly shaped by the cultural and economic forces and historical events through which they lived, nonetheless made their lives, articulated their identities and changed their world.

Autobiographical and Generational Memory

Thematic and event-based oral histories have studied memory, both individual and collective (Portelli 2003; Thomson 1994), but Australian Generations will be the first major national oral history project to foreground memory itself as both a subject to be analysed as well as an important historical source (Frisch 1990; Thomson 2007). By exploring how the memories of Australians of different ages and backgrounds draw upon the collective meanings of shared narrative scripts, our project will advance international theoretical debates about the relationship between individual and collective memory (Cubitt 2007), and national debates on how Australians know about the past and relate to public memory (Hamilton and Ashton 2003).

How do individual memories coalesce around collective narratives and yet also offer complicating and even transgressive accounts?

How do people negotiate and transmit collective memories within families and other social networks? Hamilton and Shopes (2008: vii-viii) argue that ‘recent scholarship on historical memory in the fields of history, anthropology, sociology, and cultural studies has rarely engaged with oral history’. Australian Generations takes up their challenge to bring ‘the metaphorically “buried” practice of oral history into the public domain by connecting it with ideas about how memory works as a social or cultural phenomenon’. Interpretation of rich autobiographical data will advance central questions about memory and identity.

How and why are the experiences of youth so central to the creation of formative memories and generational identities (Conway 1997), and does this pattern vary for different historical periods?

How do subsequent life experiences spur a rethinking of memory and renegotiation of identity? In what ways does life reviewed in older age contrast with the stories we tell about our life in youth or middle age?

Generational identity, we will argue, is forged through the interconnections between individual memory and collective memory, which is ‘an essentially individual phenomenon expressed in collective statements … a narrative drawing on common references, a complex conceptualization of identity, a sense of belonging and shared experiences’ (Whitling 2009: 240). By examining how people living through significant, shared experiences might generate, sustain, share and transmit a generational memory with common features, our study significantly extends generational memory research that focuses more narrowly on historical consciousness of public events (Schuman and Scott, 1989; Wertsch, 2002).

Archival and Technological Innovation

To date there has been limited online access to Australian oral history sound recordings. The NLA recently escalated digitisation of its oral history collection, but this will be the first national oral history conceived and executed as a fully digital and online project. Advances in technology allow Australian Generations to pioneer large scale audio on-line archiving, drawing upon recent international experience in oral history projects such as Timescapes the Shoah Visual History Archive and the Concordia Oral History Research Laboratory. On-line audio sound files for each interview will be linked by time codes to a fully searchable text-based index.

This digital revolution in oral history will enable the research team — and any subsequent researcher — to make empirical and conceptual connections within and across the Australian Generations archive.

This archive will have major advantages over the plethora of digital life stories available online: it is a structured data set that facilitates comparative analysis, will be permanently and ethically maintained by a national archive, and will be readily available to the public. ABC Radio National will develop an innovative, interactive website, linked to the audio archive and radio programs, which will collect user-generated content and promote a public conversation about project themes.

The project will make innovative use of the distinctive but under-utilised aural qualities of oral history (Portelli 1991: 46). We will use audio rather than video interviews because audio interviews are often less self-conscious and more expansive than video interviews, and are better suited to the needs of radio and an audio archive.As Frisch (2006) argues, online audio technology requires researchers to listen to interviews and hear how the sound and texture of speech carries much of the meaning.

The aural qualities of oral history have been most frequently used by radio (Hardy 2006), and this project’s online audio sound files and searchable index will facilitate innovation in one of Australia’s most comprehensive and ambitious radio history productions. ABC radio producers will have immediate access to audio extracts on any one topic, and enhanced opportunities for conceptually-sophisticated theme-based history programming. Future researchers and teachers will have unprecedented access to a national life history collection of interviews and radio programs that literally speaks to a multitude of topics.

Public History Collaboration and Knowledge Transfer

The multi-institutional national collaboration of the National Library, national radio and academic historians will significantly advance Australian public history theory and practice (Hamilton and Shopes 2008). The project team has extensive experience of collaborative research, and Al Thomson and Seamus O’Hanlon lead the Monash Institute for Public History.

The NLA’s innovations in online audio archiving will facilitate collaborative use of oral histories. Collaboration with radio producers will contribute to heightened awareness among academics about the aural meanings of oral testimony, while the academic team will enrich the interpretative quality of the radio documentaries.

Historians from two institutions, and with complementary methodological and subject expertise, will work with Industry Partners to make connections across themes and develop new ways of interpreting and presenting oral histories. Advisers representing each State branch of the OHAA will enhance interview methodology and disseminate good practice.

Collaboration with international advisers will ensure the project draws from and impacts upon international developments in the field. The collaborative and innovative nature of this project will contribute not only to training research students but also to enhancing the oral history capacity of all participating organisations.

The project maximizes knowledge transfer not only between academics and public history professionals, but more widely into the community, supporting for example, the objectives of a new national school curriculum and encouraging critical historical reflection.