Oral Tradition

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Overview

Oral traditions are historical sources of a special nature. Their special nature derives from the fact that they are "unwritten" sources couched in a form suitable for oral transmission, and that their preservation depends on the powers of memory of successive generations of human beings. In many parts of the world inhabited by peoples without writing, oral tradition forms the main available source for a reconstruction of the past.

Do the special characteristics of oral traditions— "unwritten" information dependent on the memory of successive generations— invalidate them as sources of historical data? If not, are there means for testing their reliability? Professor Vansina shows in Oral Tradition that with knowledge of the language and of the society, the anthropologist and historian can extract or deduce the historical content of oral testimonies. Based on the author's many years of fieldwork in Africa, this definitive work explores the possibility of reconstructing the history of non-literate peoples from their oral traditions, surveys existing literature, offers a typology of oral traditions, and evaluates methods of collection and interpretation.

On first publication, Daniel McCall in the American Anthropologist called Oral Tradition " a tour de force. Indeed this may well be the most significant work written on the relation of oral tradition to history in thirty years—for any field worker who intends to collect oral traditions, this work is indispensable." Jan Vansina is professor emeritus of history and anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He was named the "Distinguished Africanist" of 1986 and awarded the Herskovits Prize for Kingdoms of the Savanna in 1967, garnering the two top honors given by the African Studies Association. Vansina is the author of more than twenty books, including Living with Africa and Paths in the Rainforests. Selma Leydesdorff is professor of oral history at the University of Amsterdam. She is co-editor of the Memory and Narrative Series published by Transaction. Elizabeth Tonkin is professor emerita of social anthropology at the Queen's University of Belfast. Her interests include the social construction and uses of historical recall, and she is the author of Narrating Our Pasts.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“[I]n its special subject, that of the application of historical methodology to oral traditions, Vansina’s study will… become a seminal and highly valued basic work to be rediscovered by each new generation of students.” —Katherine Luomala, Ethnohistory
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780202308197
  • Publisher: Transaction Publishers
  • Publication date: 2/1/2006
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 248
  • Sales rank: 1,024,412
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.56 (d)

Meet the Author

Selma Leydesdorff is professor of oral history and culture at the University of Amsterdam and is co-editor (with Nanci Adler) of the Memory and Narrative series for Transaction Publishers.

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