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Oral History and Life Stories (25 November-16 December)


In November 2021, the Research School Political History will offer a course on Oral History and Life Stories.

The course

Historians and others who interview about the past often talk about memory and how they are informed by memory, while they know memory is a difficult and problematic source for historical knowledge. During this course we shall concentrate on the various uses of memory in historical research and look at the kind of knowledge we get when we interview. We will investigate various efforts to create a more systematic and theoretically grounded approach than ‘just talking about days long gone’ or ‘having a chat about the past’. How can we create a research pattern that overcomes the incidental and replace it by an integration of the changing character of spoken narratives about the past? When can we trust a story, why? And if we cannot, why can it still be important to listen. In addition, how do we listen?

General starting-point for discussion is the study of life stories in oral history as a tradition in the humanities and in the social sciences. During the course, additional attention will be given to alternative modes of in-depth interviews. Issues to be investigated in particular concern the questions of intersubjectivity; (self) reflection; identification with the Other and her/his past; and the interviewer’s role in the process of meaning/knowledge production. What are our responsibilities towards people we interview and do we have particular responsibilities in our research communities? What does it mean to be close to an interviewee, what happens if there is distance or when we do not like what we hear? Do we have to agree with our interviewees?

Part of the teaching will be done by looking at oral histories made by oral historians who published their interviews on websites.

We shall also compare spoken memories with other ego-documents, bearing in mind the many other existing and valid ways of interviewing about personal experience; we shall analyze when, and how we produce alternative and unfamiliar viewpoints. Because historical interviews ask a lot of research time, participants in this course will consider questions like: Do I really need interviews, what do I want to know, are there other ways to get this kind of knowledge?

During the course, several theoretical approaches are discussed. Apart from lectures by Selma Leydesdorff on theoretical approaches and past work, guest lecturers are invited as well to explain how they overcome difficulties during their research. Since the use of websites for the dissemination of narrated accounts and the making of interviews with the help of a camera has become more and more important, we discuss digitization.  Also the various stages of larger projects will be followed. We will follow up some ethical and practical issues.

Registration: Before October 15, ( Students and PhD candidates willing to participate have to write a motivation letter before 1 November.

More information can be found here.