On the afternoon of Oct. 13, 2016, a “dream team” of international oral historians spoke at the OHA annual conference in Long Beach CA. Chaired by Robert Perks of the British Library, the session, International Perspectives @ OHA50, addressed the global roots of oral history from storytelling as a basic human impulse to its modern development as both an interdisciplinary and a research methodology. While modern oral history finds its institutional roots in America, particularly through the work of Allen Nevins at the Oral History Research Office at Columbia University, Perks noted the speed and fluidity with which it has spread around the world as researchers intuitively adapted it to local conditions and various research agendas. Sociologist and founder of the British Oral History Society Paul Thomson, for example, radicalized the discipline by employing it in the service of social history and shifting the focus from elites to the working classes, making ordinary people the protagonists of their own history and giving them a voice of the past. Perks concluded his introduction by noting major thematic turning points in modern oral history. The first was abetting the qualitative turn in the academy, which had been under the thrall of empiricism in the social sciences, with a serious consideration of subjectivity and memory. Oral history methods of research and analysis were quickly mainstreamed and applied across a variety of fields from business to science to environmental studies to public health to politics, and even to history itself. The third major shift Perks noted was the digital revolution, which facilitated a variety of means for research, analysis and dissemination, but also raised thorny issues of privacy, control, fair use, and surveillance. With the scale and intersectionality of research growing, secondary and metadata analysis have thickened the field. Finally, Perks noted a regenerative movement within and around the discipline, investigating the social role of oral history and storytelling for community building, reconciliation, and healing in the aftermath of crisis.
Riffing on the title of an earlier panel, Alexander Freund of the University of Winnipeg asked whimsically and rhetorically, “Who was Allen Nevins’ grandfather?” As a native German working in Canada on migration studies, Freund situated his own work as an example of transnational oral history practices. He linked his own professional genealogy to that of the discipline, citing the precursors of oral history in pioneering ethnographic studies of anthropologists like Franz Boas among indigenous peoples in Siberia, the Canadian far north and the jungles of Columbia. Freund also noted an emphasis in Canadian oral history on aurality and publicity, with the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) and other federal agencies consciously using stories to foster community and national identity, compared with the American tendency towards institutional archives. His current work cautiously examines the global surge of storytelling and self-reporting as a Foucauldian technology of the self, situating what appears to be the validation of developments in oral history in a global story of democratization and neoliberalism.
As the lone American on the panel, Don Ritchie brought a characteristic humility and geniality to his reflections on the internationalization of oral history. He recalled the first OHA meeting held outside the United States in Ottawa in 1976 and his self-consciousness of the “isolationism, parochialism, and chauvinism” that had characterized much of American oral history. Ritchie traced the growing internationalization of his own thinking and the field in general by citing editorial shifts across the three editions of his own popular handbook “Doing Oral History,” which has included more and more international perspectives, case studies, and citations. The growing realization of the potential for international cooperation in the field led to the establishment of the International Committee of the OHA in the early 1980s and the founding of the International Oral History Association at Oxford in 1987 and the end of the Cold War facilitated the emergence and increased collaboration of oral history projects and centers in the former second and third worlds. While noting challenges in the further development and integration of international oral history, such as regional disparity in resources and representation, linguistic and cultural competencies, economics and logistics, Ritchie sees the future of oral history as an increasingly international, interdisciplinary and global enterprise. He cited Alessandro Portelli’s study of Appalachia, “They say in Harlan County” as an example of the viability and insight of outsider knowledge and perspective and unexpected sympathies and alliances. Richie noted from Portelli, “An Italian is fine. Had he been from Chicago or New York that might have been a problem.”
As past president of the International Oral History Association and co-founder and current president of the Oral History Association of India, Indira Chowdhury brought a wealth of experience and institutional knowledge to the panel. Dr. Chowdhury focused her remarks on how indigenous oral traditions shape the understanding and practice of oral history in different cultural contexts. She noted the long range and history of oral practice and tradition in India and contrasted its more formalistic, ritualistic approach – which she termed “non-narrative orality” – with the confessional style of western subjectivity. Songs, performances, and storytelling in non-western contexts are often ways of understanding and social positioning that do not necessarily constitute a source of historical understanding in terms of metanarrative, but are rather, “an encounter with the vulnerable nature of life itself.” Chowdhury expressed her gratitude to the OHA for inspiration and support in founding the OHAI, and noted that oral history at the boundary of two worlds has great potential for cross cultural understanding, but should be approached with humility, respect, and care.
Alistair Thomson of Monash University spoke of the development of oral history in the context of the oldest continuous human culture in Australia. While it was initially influenced by anthropologists and folklorists from white settler culture, indigenous traditions also had an important influence. Thomson credits Wendy Lowenstein, whom he described as the “Australian Studs Terkel,” as instrumental in wedding the practice of oral history to a progressive agenda in documenting labor history and the conditions and experiences of ordinary Australians. A unique aspect of the Australian development of oral history in Australia has been the central role of federal public institutions like the National Library rather than universities in developing the funding, infrastructure and outreach of the discipline and practice. Another characteristic feature of Australian oral history has been its function in projects of historical truth and reconciliation, for example documenting the experience of the “stolen generation” of aboriginal children and of other “forgotten” Australians. A promising and innovative recent initiative has been the development of an Australasian indigenous oral history network among Australian aborigines and New Zealand Maori, which promises fresh perspectives on the application of native oral culture to the discipline.
Finally, Miroslav Vaněk of Prague’s Center for Contemporary History closed the session with some remarks on the experience and lessons of establishing oral history as a legitimate discipline and practice in post-Communist Czechoslovakia/Czech Republic. Like Chowdhury, he expressed gratitude to the OHA for guidance and support, but he also cautioned the importance of sensitivity to local political and cultural conditions in adapting its protocols and methods. Vaněk described oral history as a fundamentally democratic practice, but said its institutionalization in a newly democratic society has been ironically rocky. There was initial resistance from traditional conservative (“Hapsburg”) historians skeptical of its methods and interdisciplinarity and ongoing competition with the various historical agendas of formerly exiled academics, politicized research institutes, entrenched patriarchal systems, a vulgar and demagogic media landscape, and a cynical populace. Happily, the historical disciplinary tides have turned, the work of the Center for Oral History is now well respected and regarded by both the Czech academy and the public, and Oral History programs have been established at major universities, training a new generation of scholars and practitioners. But history is still a contested terrain in Central Europe, discredited by the ideological pre-determinism of the Communist ancient regime and rent by contemporary political agendas. While a vital corrective and complement to the historical distortions and silences of ideology pre and post 1989, oral history still faces challenges in responsibly filling the gaps of Central Europe’s “interrupted history.”
Vaněk concluded his remarks with a principled call for professionalism and consideration, “non-ideologically and without prejudice” of those whose voices are “not guaranteed by the historical record.” Like the man himself, the Czech perspective on oral history is modest and skeptical, encouraging us particularly to be mindful of ideologies and counter-ideologies that shape our metanarratives. While grateful for the inspirational example and institutional support of the American oral history establishment, Vaněk, like the other international perspectives on this panel, reminds us that we have much to learn from each other.
The vitality, seriousness, and collegiality of this panel of international experts in oral history bodes well for the future development of the field.