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‘Storytelling’ in oral history: an exchange, part 2

On 25 April, we shared an excerpt from the conversation between OHR 41.1 contributor Alexander Freund and OHR board member Erin Jessee regarding Freund’s article, “Confessing Animals: Towards a Longue Durée History of the Oral History Interview.” Below, Freund and Jessee continue their exchange, tackling storytelling in non-Western arenas.

Alexander Freund: I fully agree that conducting interviews with open ended questions that create lots of space for people to tell their stories is an excellent methodology. That way, we develop rapport and get rich and “true” (rather than simply publicly sanctioned) stories. The underlying assumption is grounded in hermeneutics: we will receive a rich text that is as “pure” as possible and can then be interpreted.

I think we can go also beneath these methodological and ethical questions toward fundamental epistemological questions about how the knowledge that we create in an interview is shaped by longue durée processes, and how each interview is another step in learning how to be “right” in the world.

Thus, thinking about the long history of the interview and its connection to confessional practices, the questions about interviewing I have are these: how did we get to the point where, as scientists, we believe it is epistemologically, methodologically, and ethically sound to approach a person (often a stranger) and ask her to “tell me about yourself”? And how have the people we approach come to be more comfortable with one or another kind of responding? Indeed, how, in the first place, have they come to be comfortable with being approached and then giving an account of themselves? And how have we come to a place where, whenever we ask someone, “tell me about your life,” there are basic structural similarities (e.g. narrativity, an account about the self, basic chronology, or frustration about a lack of or expectation of chronology, and personal experiences) in their accounts (at least within specific cultures)?

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Erin Jessee: Here again I can appreciate the links you’ve drawn between the practice of oral history and the confessional culture that has developed in many Western nations, especially with regards to the perceived cathartic value of the interview. While I’d like to think that the interviews I’ve conducted in different settings haven’t harmed the people I’ve interviewed, I find our tendency to approach the oral history interview as having similar benefits to narrative therapy troubling. The emotional benefits of the interview, if any, would be incredibly difficult to document, and to my knowledge (and please correct me if I’m wrong), oral historians haven’t taken the time to analyse this in any meaningful way.

And indeed, it fits into more troubling observations about the growing prevalence of storytelling methodologies in the post-conflict nations like Rwanda, Bosnia, and Uganda. While I find storytelling methods are often received as more culturally appropriate in places like Rwanda and Uganda, over the years, I’ve noticed a growing interest in disseminating the outcomes of storytelling-based fieldwork online as a means of educating the public. The recent controversy surrounding Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 mini-documentary — admittedly a poor film that smacks of the white savior industrial complex at its worst — demonstrates that once these materials are made public, there is no way to control how it will be received, replicated, and disseminated by that public going forward. So again, this leaves me wondering whether oral historians can deliver a positive cathartic experience surrounding the interview and its dissemination via digital storytelling platforms. It seems to me that oral historians, and particularly those who work on sensitive subjects, should proceed with caution. And yet simultaneously, it seems everything about current academic and funding climates is pushing us to explore the relevance of digital storytelling and online dissemination for our work.

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Alexander Freund: I am interested to hear that there is a “growing prevalence of storytelling methodologies in the post-conflict nations like Rwanda, Bosnia, and Uganda.” Where does this come from? Is that homegrown or a Western import? You say that “storytelling methods are often received as more culturally appropriate in places like Rwanda and Uganda,” but I am always wondering about such claims. Are these backed up by evidence that shows a connection between traditional and current storytelling practices? Is storytelling always just storytelling? Or was there a differentiation of how different kinds of stories got traditionally told? Whenever I hear that something is “culturally appropriate,” I am wondering to what degree this is a colonial fantasy?

Rwandan Children at Volcans National Park by Philip Kromer. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Rwandan Children at Volcans National Park by Philip Kromer. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

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Erin Jessee: I think what we’re seeing at present is an attempted blending by foreign researchers, professionals, and civil society organizations, of homegrown and Western methodologies, and by labeling them “storytelling” the expectation is that they will simultaneously appeal to international audiences, local participants, and to be blunt, funding agencies. But you’re right to question whether they are culturally appropriate.

What might have been described as “storytelling” in the past in Rwanda, for example, is actually a complex array of practices that included everything from official histories and stories that were carefully preserved and disseminated by ritual specialists to select members of the royal court, to unofficial histories and stories that could be performed for and by the public. From what I’ve observed, these acts of storytelling are vastly different from the storytelling methodologies (including life history and thematic interviews, focus groups, etc.) commonly used by academics and related practitioners working in Rwanda today. But it’s also important to note that one of the many outcomes of colonialism and later, the 1994 Genocide, is that Rwandans have become quite well-versed in narrative therapy, interviews, and so on, even if they aren’t always comfortable participating in them. Just because current storytelling methodologies aren’t “traditional” for Rwanda, strictly speaking, doesn’t mean they can’t be adapted to make them more culturally appropriate by developing methodological framework in collaboration with Rwandan experts and one’s participants.

But it’s still important to consider expectations — both the researcher’s and the participants’ — when engaging interview and storytelling-based methodologies. Adding to the challenge, many conflicted and post-conflict nations are steeped in transitional justice discourses that, like the interview, are embedded in Western political philosophy and human rights. Bronwyn Leebaw has written an interesting article, “The Irreconcilable Goals of Transitional Justice,” in which she suggests that many of the stated benefits of applying transitional justice mechanisms (such as memorials, trials, and truth and reconciliation commissions) in post-conflict settings are “articles of faith” that claim to facilitate social repair, reconciliation, and so forth, but have never been proven — and indeed often turn out to be false due to the irreconcilable nature of transitional justice’s stated goals. I suspect we’re dealing with a similar phenomenon with regards to the oral history interview, and indeed storytelling more generally. That people should experience catharsis and healing as a result of sharing their experiences during an interview seems to be taken for granted in many parts of the world, and as I’ve mentioned previously, I’m not sure that oral historians have enough solid evidence to support the claim that in the context of an oral history interview, this is indeed the case.

But to return to your paper, it seems the time is ripe for an oral history project that interrogates the foundations of oral history as a (sub-)discipline and its development over time, perhaps by turning the oral history interview on founding scholars and practitioners, as well as analyzing relevant archival materials. And certainly it would be relevant to expand the project to consider the use of interviews in other fields and in cross-cultural settings.

So before we conclude our email exchange, is there anything else you’d like to add?

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Alexander Freund: No, I will just say thanks again for your thoughtful response. I agree with all of your points and I am looking forward to a continued online discussion that will hopefully include others interested in this topic.

Alexander Freund is a professor of history and holds the Chair in German-Canadian Studies at the University of Winnipeg, where he is also co-director of the Oral History Centre. He is co-president of the Canadian Oral History Association and co-editor of Oral History Forum d’histoire orale. With Alistair Thomson, he edited Oral History and Photography (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011). He is the author of “Confessing Animals”: Toward a Longue Durée History of the Oral History Interview” (available to read for free for a limited time) in the latest issue of the Oral History Review.

Erin Jessee, in addition to serving on the OHR Editorial Board, is an assistant professor affiliated with the Scottish Oral History Centre (Department of History) at the University of Strathclyde. Her research interests include mass atrocities, nationalized commemoration, spiritual violence, transitional justice, mass grave exhumations, and the ethical and methodological challenges surrounding qualitative fieldwork amid highly politicized research settings. Erin is in the final stages of writing a book manuscript (under consideration with Palgrave MacMillan’s Studies in Oral History series) tentatively titled Negotiating Genocide: The Politics of History in Post-Genocide Rwanda.

The Oral History Review, published by the Oral History Association, is the U.S. journal of record for the theory and practice of oral history. Its primary mission is to explore the nature and significance of oral history and advance understanding of the field among scholars, educators, practitioners, and the general public. Follow them on Twitter at @oralhistreview, like them on Facebook, add them to your circles on Google Plus, follow them on Tumblr, listen to them on Soundcloud, or follow their latest OUPblog posts via email or RSS to preview, learn, connect, discover, and study oral history.

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