Conference in Riga “Oral History – Dialogue with Society”

I’m just back from the conference “Oral History – Dialogue with Society” in Riga that took place from 29th till 30th March. The conference was hosted by the Latvian National Oral History Centre of the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology at the University of Latvia in cooperation with the Association of Oral History Researchers of Latvia Dzīvesstāsts” (Life Story) and the department of History at Stockholm University.

View from my window in the old city of Riga

I presented the ORHELIA project there and got some new and useful impressions what’s going on in oral history research at the moment. One of the big advantages of the oral history research is that it’s by nature interdisciplinary, but this is at the same time one of the main obstacles. Historians, anthropologists, museum practitioners, political activists, artists, sociologists, folklorists and social workers are working with oral history. There seems to be no common opinion what oral history is first of all. Is it a research method, a research result, a historical source, a folklore genre or social activism or all of that? Have scientist have to take an objective, neutral position towards oral history, should the stay detached or engage politically or even emotionally as much as possible? The involvement of so different disciplines and people with their own standpoints make it almost impossible to come to final answers to these questions.

Keynot speeches in the Aula of the University
Keynot speeches in the Aula of the University

History is a contested field and oral history helps to bring the perspective of people that where silenced in historical sources of official discourses back into science and then into the public. That was one of the reasons why oral history became so prominent in Latvia 20 years after soviet ideology lost its power here.

A visit in the “Museum of the Occupation of Latvia” let me realize another limit of the oral history approach. A part of the exhibition presents the history of the extermination of around 70 000 Jews in Latvia during the German occupation (90% of the Jewish population in Latvia and around 5% of the population Latvia had at that time). There occur moments in history when practically nobody is left to transmit the oral history of the people anymore! The exhibition lacks material about the participation of Latvians in the Holocaust because it tries first of all to present Latvian suffering and resistance under foreign occupation. As I learned during the conference Latvian collective memory is still deeply divided along the old front line of the Second World War and the search of the “right heroes” of the war.

The Museum of the Occupation of Latvia

I can summarise here only the themes that came up during the conference that resonate problems we face in the ORHELIA project.

Vieda Skultans, an anthropologist from the University of Bristol, emphasised in her presentation the personal involvement of the researcher in the production of the telling of oral history itself. The shared authorship and authority between the storyteller, the community he belongs to and the researcher was touched in several of the presentations. Oral history becomes understandable only if one is able to understand the life context of the story teller and the life context of the listeners to whom the story is told, including the researcher her-/himself. The term history suggests in its folk etymology that it is always his-story, the story of somebody. But also the real etymology of the word history reveals an origin that is linked to the process of knowledge transmission. Greek “historia” means learning or knowing by inquiry.  Several presentations during the conference mentioned the importance of the anthropological method of participant observation. Becoming part of a social interaction allows for a contextual understanding of oral history as a form of communication.

Riga was for a long time reluctant to establish a university. The main building is the former Polytechnikum.

What I missed during the conference nevertheless was a discussion of the “multivocality” or polyphony of the voices that speak through a story. I believe the interviewing and research process must even facilitate this multivocality because it is easily silenced by the official discourse. The concept of multivocality comes from the Russian philosopher Mikhail Mikhaĭlovich Bakhtin who wrote that Dostoyevsky’s novel “is constructed not as the whole of a single consciousness, absorbing other consciousnesses as objects into itself, but as a whole formed by the interaction of several consciousnesses, none of which entirely becomes an object for the other” (Bakhtin 1984, 18). The same could be said about the oral stories that are told often in a non-linear way containing different interwoven and sometimes even contradictory accounts of historical events.

In some of the presentations during the conference I observed certain blindness towards overarching power structures the performances of oral history are embedded in. Often it seems as if stories emerge only out of the single memory of the storyteller who communicates with the single personality of the researcher. But our experience is that stories are always linked to recognition, respect and legitimation or want to question them. They try to legitimise the claims and aspirations or the identity of the storyteller her-/himself but also of overarching collectives and institutions the storyteller is embedded in. Which symbolic capital is at stake in oral history for the story teller and her/his community? Oral history research remains somewhat naïve without knowledge and analysis of the configurations of political power oral history is embedded in at the micro-level of the local community as well as at the macro-level of society.

Visual material and objects are crucial not only for the representation of oral history but also for remembering and story telling in general.

The conference title already suggested that its focus will be on questions of public presentation and dissemination of oral history research. I listen to some very interesting presentations about new forms of museum exhibitions involving oral history like for instance Candice Lau (United Kingdom) “Accessing Estonian Memories: the ‘Memories Passed’ Exhibition”. It opens up another huge field for analysis with practical consequences for our research. It is obvious that already the recording of stories detach them from the original context of performance. Every representation of oral history includes the process of re-contextualisation of the stories.  I believe that scientists have to enter a dialogue with professionals in media and museums to work on appropriate forms for the presentation of oral history that give power to the voice of the people we record.

Bakhtin, Mikhail Mikhaĭlovich. 1984. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. Ed. Caryl Emerson. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

4 thoughts on “Conference in Riga “Oral History – Dialogue with Society”

  1. big up! Thank you Stephan for the reflexion on the Conference.
    I share your notion on critical approach towards the source which always is under the ‘gaze’ of certain discourses.
    good luck in arctic explorations!
    Ed (from Latvian stuff)

  2. Anne Heimo

    Hi Stephan,

    Thanks for your reflections!

    There are many ways to approach oral history, some more fruitful than others. To get some idea of these different approaches I suggest reading e.g. Alistair Thomson’s “classic” article on the different paradigms in oral history:

    Candice’s paper and project was very interesting, but represents more a memory studies approach than oral history research. These two fields sometime overlap each other, but even more often do not even acknowledge each other. FOHN’s next symposiums keynote speaker Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes are on the few who have discussed the relationship between these two fields, which I have noticed not even all researchers of memory recognize:

    Anne Heimo
    University of Turku

  3. fstammle

    Dear Anne,
    thank you for these links. This is important reading for us in our ORHELIA project. It seems to me that indeed a lot of people do not really talk to each other here, even within oral history. The very understanding of what oral history is seems to differ quite a bit between anthropologists, historians, folklorists, and then within these also between countries. In the Finnish tradition, for example, oral history seems to include written sources as well, and is closely associated with folklore studies – an aspect that Karina Lukin highlighted when we went to her phD defence (see the blog entry on this here
    Stay in touch, and thanks again for your input.

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