Research

Between 2011 and 2016 I was project leader for the Australian Research Council-funded Australian Generations Oral History Project, a collaboration between historians at Monash University and La Trobe University and colleagues at the National Library of Australia and ABC Radio National. In 2917, Monash University Publishing will publish Australian Lives: An Intimate History, by Anisa Puri and Alistair Thomson. This book will showcase our life history interviews with Australians born between 1920 and 1989. Interview extracts will illuminate the lived experience of Australian history across the 20th century, arranged in chapters on Ancestry, Childhood, Faith, Youth, Migrations, Midlife, Activism, Later Life and Reflections. The book will be published as a paperback and e-book, and e-book users will be able to listen to each interview extract as they read – an ‘aural history’ first!. See my article about making the book and the digital innovations, ‘Digital Aural History: an Australian Case Study’, Oral History Review, 43, 2, 2016, pp. 292-314.

You can also listen to ten Australian Generations radio programs produced by ABC Radio National, or access the interviews via the Australian Generations websiteThe theme issue of Australian Historical Studies (47, 1, 2016), edited by Katie Holmes and Alistair Thomson, features seven articles by members of the Australian Generations team in which we use the project’s oral history interviews to illuminate a range of topics in Australian social history, and to discuss methodological innovations and issues in oral history. The open access online editorial on ‘Oral History and Australian Generations’ by Katie and Al introduces the project and the articles. Katie and Al also discuss the articles in this video clip on the AHS Facebook site.

My current research focuses is on the changing experience of fathers and family men in twentieth century Australia. Family men have a shadowy presence in Australian history. Though genealogists have traced family trees and feminist historians have rediscovered women’s family lives, Australian men as fathers and husbands have been neglected by historians. During my 2011 Harold White Fellowship at the National Library of Australia I researched interviews recorded in the 1980s for the Australia 1938 Oral History Project to rediscover the experience of fathers and fathering, husbands and marriage, in the decade before WW2. Through the Australian Generations interviews I will take that story up to the end of the twentieth century, asking questions such as: What roles did men play in families, and what were the expectations of domestic masculinity? How did men manage their competing and changing roles as bread-winners and family men, husbands and fathers? In what ways did men’s family roles vary across class, region, religion, ethnicity and life stage? I am developing an ARC Discovery application with Monash colleageus Kate Murphy and Johnny Bell, and Mike Roper from Essex University, for a joint project on the History of Australian Fatherhood, 1919-2014,

In 2016 Rob Perks and I published the third edition of The Oral History Reader, a comprehensive, international anthology combining major, ‘classic’ articles with cutting-edge pieces on the theory, method and use of oral history. Twenty-seven new chapters introduce the most significant developments in oral history in the last decade to bring this invaluable text up to date, with new pieces on emotions and the senses, on crisis oral history, current thinking around traumatic memory, the impact of digital mobile technologies, and how oral history is being used in public contexts, with more international examples to draw in work from North and South America, Britain and Europe, Australasia, Asia and Africa.

The past never alters but history and memory change all the time. Thirty years after I conducted interviews with Australian WWI veterans, and 20 years after Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend was first published, in 2013 I published a new edition with three new chapters. You can read online this review of Anzac Memories by historian Joan Beaumont, or listen to the ABC Hindsight documentary about the new edition. In the new edition I return to a family war history that I could not write about twenty years ago because of the stigma of war and mental illness, and I use newly-released Repatriation files to question my earlier account of veterans’ post-war lives and memories and to think afresh about war and memory. My Age newspaper article ‘Healing Histories’ is based on that family history, as is the radio documentary I scripted, ‘Anzac Memories Revisited: Searching for Hector Thomson’. In the new edition I also explore how the Anzac legend has transformed over the past quarter century, how a ‘post-memory’ of the Great War creates new challenges and opportunities for making sense of the national past, and how veterans’ war memories can still challenge and complicate national mythologies. See also my recent article ‘Anzac Memories Revisited: Trauma, Memory and Oral History’, Oral History Review 42, 1, 2015, pp 1-29 (winner, History Article Award, Victorian Community History Awards, 2015). 

My 2011 book Moving Stories: an intimate history of four women across two countries ), (awarded the United States Oral History Association Book Award, International category, 2012 ) explores the lives of four British women who emigrated to Australia in the 1950s and 1960s, drawing upon a rich archive of letters, journals, autobiographical writing, oral history interviews and photographs. These life story documents offer detailed and intimate evidence about events and experiences, and changing relationships, attitudes and feelings, as these four women negotiated their wartime and postwar lives through migration and in the context of dramatically shifting roles and expectations for women in each country. Though migration is the connecting thread in all four lives, this project was not only about migration. Precisely because these women were migrants they recorded their lives in the letters and photographs they sent home, and because they wanted to describe, compare and explain their new life in Australia, they photographed and wrote about aspects of everyday life and women’s experience that are often lost to history. In he second part of Moving Stories I explore how people narrate their lives and identities through letters, photos and memory. My article “A moving history: how personal stories illuminate the past” is on The Conversation. You can hear me talk about Moving Stories in a National Museum of Australia lecture and on ABC Radio National Life Matters.

In 2011 I also edited the book Oral History and Photography (Palgrave, NewYork, 2011), with Professor Alexander Freund from the University of Winnipeg in Canada.