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Workshop – Contributions and challenges of oral history practice


Often viewed with skepticism by professional historians in the past, oral history is now among the preferred methodologies of those interested in issues of research ethics, memory, identity, and the experience of marginalized people. This workshop is intended as an introduction to oral history: its theoretical foundations, concerns, and practice. We will also discuss the “beautiful challenges” of this methodology: researcher/interviewee relationships, the use of new technological and digital tools, critical practices of public history, etc.

Friday 6 January 2023
13h00-15h00 Eastern Time

French-Language Workshop

Fred Burrill is a postdoctoral researcher at Cape Breton University. He has been practicing oral history for many years, including research on the history of deindustrialization in the St. Henri district of Montreal.

On Friday, January 6, Dr. Fred Burrill spoke to the CHA about the contributions and challenges of oral history practice. A Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Cape Breton and recent PhD graduate from Concordia University, Dr. Burrill brought a wealth of information and experience to this, the fifth workshop and eighth event in the CHA’s Digital Workshop and Roundtable Series.

Dr. Burrill learned about oral history practice by studying deindustrialization and gentrification in Montreal’s St-Henri neighbourhood. Beginning with its origins, he argued oral history within the academy is usually dated to 1948, when Allan Nevins established the Oral History Institute at Columbia University in New York. Nevins was a journalist, but in university he developed the idea of approaching people and talking to them about their experiences. The practiced emerged organically from there, with roots in journalism, folklore, anthropology, and other disciplines; later it matured with the other historical developments of the 1960s, like worker, feminist, queer, minority, Poststructural, and other historical practices. The idea, Burrill said, was to back to “the source of these hidden stories.”

Oral history allows historians to not only record what people said about the past, but the way they said it. Oral historians learn not just what people did, but what they wanted to do and what they felt they should have done, plugging those gaps in the historical record. Power dynamics, subjectivity, and the power of memory were all explored. Many historians distrusted oral history because it relied on the individual’s subjective memory, and felt it was only useful in “padding” the information gathered in archives. This was especially the case in France, which influenced the practice in Quebec. Today, however, Quebec is leading the rest of Canada in oral history, according to Dr. Burrill.

Oral history is unique in that it both is the source, while it creates the source. There is a shared authority between both the “expert” – the historian – and the “real expert,” the person who is telling the story. It’s a form of co-creation, and the results can be dependent on conditions as banal as what the weather was like the day of the interview, whether someone had a good day, and whether tea and cookies were provided. Historians also need to ask what their relationship is with the source; do they trust each other, and why. Memory and subjectivity can be a problem – these are personal stories, so is this person telling the truth? Are they objective? How can we analyse such personal contributions? But for many oral historians, Burrill argued, that is the strength of oral history. Not only might we learn about neglected parts of history, kept out of the written record, but we learn of the experiences of people within history. How did they feel about it at the time, and how do they feel about it now? Burrill counselled oral historians to leave space and time for a person to tell their story, and construct analyses from there.

Sometimes, Burrill noted, we arrive at the double-edged problem of empathy. We want to empathize with our sources and create the sort of rapport that makes them comfortable speaking to an historian. But what if we “like them too much”? There is a fear that with sympathetic sources, we won’t ask the necessary questions that might cause discomfort. On the other side, what happens if we are investigating people whom we don’t like, and don’t share any values – the example Burrill gave was an oral history of women in the Ku Klux Klan. Regardless of how we feel about our subjects, he said it’s important not to create a hostile environment. We often look for people we share values with, but to have a more complex vision of the past, we must speak to the state, to people we don’t like, to people who have caused pain and hurt. It’s hard, but important.

Finally, there is the question of what we do with these sources once we have completed them. Traditionally, following an interview, the historian makes a transcript and works with that, like it were a personal journal. But oral history has a different logic, and changing oral words into written ones is a form of translation. Body language, hesitations, mannerisms – all of these are hard to put into a transcript. Then there is the question of archiving. Not every source wants their words to live forever, anonymously or not. For those who consent to the world hearing what they have to say, a whole responsibility is imposed on the next historians who use these sources. The trust between the interviewer and interviewee is not present with the next researcher. Can the next historian, who didn’t sit down with the source, really understand what is really being said?

Dr. Burrill ended by examining questions of power imbalances between the interviewer and the interviewee. In his own case, he found that though he “wasn’t paid millions” to do his doctorate, he was often much better off than the very poor people he was interviewing about life in St-Henri. He urged historians to be honest about these imbalances – our lives may be precarious, but there are degrees of precarity.

You can view the workshop on the CHA YouTube channel.