Oral traditions and oral history are the expression of personal and collective constructions of identity. Instead of merely recalling the past, such narrations are rather interpretative compositions that display past events in the light of present views and judgements (narrative smoothing, plot building).

Ethnographic research on oral traditions has a long history at the Phonogrammarchiv, dating back to its founding period, when the South Arabian Expedition of the Imperial Academy of Sciences took place (1898/99). In analyzing historical audio recordings as well as in their present perspective, the projects in this line of research have in common a shared understanding of situational ethnicity: ethnic boundaries and affiliations are based on self-ascription and ascription by others; they may vary according to the respective situation and express a relationship between different groups.

On the basis of socio-anthropological partial studies, this area of research is concerned with the special role of oral traditions in maintaining as well as redefining ethnic relationships. In addition, it deals with methodological and methodical issues with regard to collecting ethnographic data in this context, and explores these issues in synergy with other areas of research in the Phonogrammarchiv.