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Oral Traditions

The Use Of Oral Traditions And Its Critics

There are obvious problems with the use of oral traditions. Critics easily point out that they lack absolute chronology, are extremely selective in their content, and are compromised by possible human errors. William G. Clarence-Smith argued that the value of using oral traditions has been not for their intrinsic worth but sentimental, as they offer African historians the opportunity to present an independent history, "uncontaminated by colonialism." Many of the theoretical advances in oral tradition have focused on how to lessen the impact of these weaknesses. The use of oral traditions demands a distinct professionalism that is not altogether dissimilar to that employed by historians who rely on other, "conventional" sources. Historians employing oral traditions, though, need to acquire additional qualities, including, as Phillips Stevens has commented, intuition, which is not usually required by conventional historians.

Oral traditions have had much wider influence on global historiography that its critics would concede. The emphasis on written sources as the only reliable source of historical reconstruction has mellowed with the acknowledged contributions of other sources of history including archaeology, paleography, and linguistics, as well as oral traditions. An interdisciplinary approach to historical reconstruction has gained much currency among historians. Besides, the debate over oral traditions has also shed some critical light on written documents as sources of history, with a view to strengthening their reliability. It has become realized, for instance, that many written documents are in reality processed oral traditions. The study of oral traditions has developed as a recognized discipline and various projects in the collection and processing of these traditions are being undertaken in research institutions across the world.


Afigbo, A. E. "Oral Tradition and the History of Segmentary Societies." In Perspectives and Methods of Studying African History, edited by Erim O. Erim and Okon E. Uya. Enugu, Nigeria: Fourth Dimension Publishers, 1984.

Clarence-Smith, William G., and Fernand Braudel. "A Note on the 'École Des Annales' and the Historiography of Africa." History in Africa: A Journal of Method 4 (1977): 275–281.

Curtin, Phillip D. "Oral Traditions and African History." Journal of the African Folklore Institute vi, nos. 2/3 (1969): 137–155.

Oosten, Jarich G., ed. Text and Tales: Studies in Oral Tradition. Leiden: Research School CNWS, 1994.

Stevens, Phillips, Jr. "The Uses of Oral Traditions in the Writing of African History." Tarikh 6, no 1 (1978): 21–30.

Vansina, Jan. "Oral Tradition and Its Methodology." In UNESCO General History of Africa I: Methodology and African Prehistory. Edited by Joseph Ki-Zerbo. Paris: UNESCO; London: Heinemann; and Berkeley: University of California Press, 1981.

——. Oral Tradition as History. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1985.

——. Oral Tradition: A Study in Historical Methodology. Translated by H. M. Wright. Chicago: Aldine, 1965. Originally published in 1961.

Sola Akinrinade

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