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On the Respectability of Oral History

On February 20th, 2009 at 6:08 am Alexander Freund (University of Winnipeg, Co-Chair of the Canadian Oral History Association, co-editor of Oral History Forum d'histoire orale) posted the following response to Sean Field's post "From stepchild to elder: Has oral history become ‘respectable’?" on the Debate site of the International Oral History Association: http://www.iohanet.org/debate/?p=23:

I want to thank Sean for a stimulating discussion paper that raises many important points we need to tackle in the near future. I will briefly describe the situation in Canada and then respond to some of Sean’s points.

1. Oral History in Canada
Oral History in Canada is a paradoxical phenomenon. Although the use of oral history inside and outside of academia has increased steadily over the last century, it continues to be a marginalized in academia. Many academic historians remain skeptical of the validity of oral history on a very superficial basis that does not go beyond the debates of the 1970s. If historians use (or even create) oral histories as sources, they quite often do this without being informed by international oral historiography. This has to do with the more recent history of oral history in Canada. It successfully developed as a movement with an association and a journal in the 1970s. It was based on a broad coalition of academics from many disciplines, journalists, teachers, activists, artists, and archivists. Archivists carried the movement. When government funding of oral history at state archives was slashed in the 1980s and 1990s, these archivists had to withdraw from oral history. The movement’s institutions nearly collapsed. Yet, at the same time, so much oral history is done in Canada. But most academics doing or using oral history do not see themselves as oral historians or as part of an oral history movement. And a large field of oral history — the collection of oral history and oral tradition of Aboriginal peoples for land claims cases — is completely separated from academia. So far, there are no connections. There is a bit of a silver lining on the horizon: Since the early 2000s, there has been a revival of old and an emergence of new institutions. My colleague Nolan Reilly and I assumed responsibility for the Canadian Oral History Association (www.canoha.ca) and its journal (http://journal.canoha.ca). We are also in the process of building an Oral History Centre (http://ohc.freeculture.ca) at the University of Winnipeg. And our colleague Steven High has built a state-of-the-art Oral History Centre at Concordia University in Montreal (http://storytelling.concordia.ca). These are new, fragile beginnings.

2. Who dominates oral history discourse and practice?
To respond to some of Sean’s points: If we talk about oral history as a method, I think we can agree that it is a neutral tool that can be used for both, subversive tales and master narratives. One danger I see both in North America and in Germany is that oral historians increasingly lose their leadership in society’s debates and practices of oral history. One field in which oral history has made major inroads — albeit with little influence by oral historians — is the increasing use of the “eye-witness” in “histotainment” à la History Channel in North America and Guido Knopp’s history shows in Germany. Here, elderly people are put in front of the camera, with the ever-same background and lighting, often brought to tears by their memories, whether they were prisoners in concentration camps, Allied bomber pilots, or German Wehrmacht soldiers. These emotions suggest authenticity and reinforce the popular assumption that it must be true because “they were there.” In North America, we see another phenomenon also working with emotions: digital storytelling à la StoryCorps. Here is their self-description: “Since 2003, over 35,000 everyday people have shared life stories with family and friends in our StoryBooths. Each conversation is recorded on a free CD to share, and is preserved at the Library of Congress. Millions listen to our broadcasts on public radio and the web. StoryCorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind” (http://www.storycorps.net, accessed 20 February 2009). Next to other non-profit organizations (e.g. http://www.storycenter.org/), there are also several commercial storytelling companies, e.g. OurStory.com and Storylineshistories.com. We know too little about this phenomenon to assess in which ways it is a forum for the voices of the marginalized or a diversion from the underlying social inequality and injustice that give rise to so many of these stories. It is a phenomenon oral historians must and are best qualified to study.

In both cases, I believe, storytelling or witnessing tend to reinforce national master narratives. In Canada and elsewhere I would therefore love to see more institutionalization of oral history at universities, because universities are sites where oral history can be taught from a critical perspective. This should include media education, i.e. the use of oral history in the media. We need to train our students not only in oral history as a critical approach to history and to society more generally, but also as the future makers of ‘oral history’ outside of oral history. Rather than hoping that History Channel and StoryCorps will go away, and rather than expounding that what they do is not oral history, we need to gain a footing in these new strongholds of ‘oral history’ by educating students who will move in there with a more critical eye towards memory, experience, storytelling, testimony, and authenticity.

The questions we ask about History Channel, StoryCorps et al. are questions we also need to address to ourselves. As Sean argue, we should “explore ways in which we as oral historians can also be agents of social change through our oral history projects and related activities.” Al Thompson gave an interesting example of this kind of social change in an interview he gave to Miroslav Vanêk and myself at the IOHA meeting in Mexico. Explaining the value of oral history as a form of advocacy, Al described how in the mid-1980s working-class women would tell him that they had nothing to say, he should talk to their husbands, even though he told them he was doing a project on working-class women. “There was a sense that a working-class woman’s life story was not of historical significance. That’s not true anymore, because there has been so much oral history work just done in Brighton in England where I lived that working-class women know that their stories are history. So they won’t say: ‘Go and interview [my husband] Joe.’ They’ll say, ‘Yes, I have got a story that is important. They have been affirmed. That’s one of the great successes of oral history that there are lots of groups of people now who see themselves as historical subjects.” Thus, as Sean suggests, we need to begin to study oral history’s impact on society. We should ask difficult questions and not assume that the impact is always positive only because it is well-intended. But I also want to emphasize that a study of the other phenomena (History Channel etc.) is more urgent, because it seems more powerful and because critical self-reflection has always been part of oral history.

3. Archiving, Memory, Generation
Another point Sean makes is that about archiving: “In short, if we record oral histories only for the purposes of conservation is there not a danger of ‘fixing’ particular views or conceptions of the past?” Government records will always receive priority in government funding for archives. The last kind of record state archives will stop archiving is that of government records. They are already fixing a particular view of the past (and have systematically done so for the last 200 years). How underrepresented oral history is in state archives is quite obvious from a Canadian perspective, where government cutbacks to archiving oral histories have been severe and enduring. Thus, as a counterweight to government records, oral histories are necessary.

But I agree with Sean if we consider more narrowly the field of oral history: within oral history, we tend to interview old people. We tend to interview people who witnessed or participated in the events we research. We hardly ever interview, however, our interviewees’ children or grandchildren to find out how memories are negotiated and transferred within families (and, by extension, in society). We can learn a lot here from oral historians’ work with children and grandchildren of Holocaust survivors and of Nazi perpetrators or bystanders. When we interview someone in 2009 about a strike in 1959, we also record the values and views of 2009. When my students in 2059 want to find out about life in Canada in 2009, they will find in oral history archives only the recorded memories of 60- and 80-year olds. They won’t find many young people’s stories from 2009 (they can of course interview these young people in 2059, but they will get 80-year-olds’ views). Thus, we need to expand our archival vision of oral history to include all living generations. This will not only ensure a greater diversity of views. It will also enable a systematic study of long-term processes, because interviewing young people allows ourselves and researchers after us to re-interview them when they are older (similar to the British Up series). The next time we plan a project, we should budget some money for interviews with members of other generations.

4. Visual memory and Neurosciences
Regarding visual memory, one important field of research we need to pay close attention to is that of the neurosciences. Their research on memory and the brain moves our discussion of collective memory from vague metaphoric terminology that speaks of collective memory but actually means social discourses to an understanding of individual memory as a socially, communicatively formed process. To give just one notorious example: “In the 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan repeatedly told a heartbreaking story of a World War II bomber pilot who ordered his crew to bail out after his plane had been seriously damaged by an enemy hit. His young belly gunner was wounded so seriously that he was unable to evacuate the bomber. Reagan could barely hold back his tears as he uttered the pilot’s heroic response: ‘Never mind. We’ll ride it down together.’ …this story was an almost exact duplicate of a scene in the 1944 film ‘A Wing and a Prayer.’ Reagan had apparently retained the facts but forgotten their source.” Neuroscience research explains this common phenomenon as “source amnesia”: we have a vivid (visual) memory of an experience, but we got the source wrong: it is not our own experience, but rather a movie, or the photos our parents showed us as children. To be clear: This is not a return to 1970s debates about the reliability of memory. Rather, neuroscience helps us better understand how memory is formed. It helps us understand memory not as a closed container of authentic, autonomous, individual memories of one’s own experiences. Rather, memory is a complex social process that is in flux even and especially during the interviews we conduct. This opens up a range of new questions and new avenues of analysis.

5. The Aim of Oral History As a Movement
Finally, in terms of a new aim for oral history: I am a proponent of Ron Grele’s suggestion to use oral history to demystify globalization. It would be worthwhile opening another debate on this topic.

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