Oral History Society welcomes new chair


The Oral History Society is delighted to announce that it has appointed a new chair: John Gabriel, professor of sociology at London Metropolitan University. Gabriel (left) will replace Graham Smith who has taken up a new role as professor of oral history at Newcastle University.

Smith, a long-standing member of the society and champion of oral history, will remain as a trustee. Gabriel was appointed at the society’s annual general meeting in July, when members voted to accept his appointment.

Gabriel, a sociologist by background, was working as a lecturer at Birmingham University about 20 years ago when he began to explore social identities in relationship to life experiences as a whole.

“I was conscious of the fact there was a tendency in my thinking, writing and teaching to work with objective categories of people and I felt frustrated that didn’t give me the whole picture. I began to become more interested in life history and life experiences,” he says.

It was on a sabbatical in Nicaragua that his eyes were opened to the possibilities of life stories. Gabriel volunteered for a number of non-governmental organisations in Nicaragua, which at the time was commemorating 500 years of resistance of the arrival of the first Europeans.

Indigenous groups came together in an ‘encuentra’ (a kind of conference) on which Gabriel worked as a volunteer. Whilst in Nicaragua he came across the book I Rigoberta, the personal testimony of Rigoberta Menchu, a Guatamalean Indian whose family suffered under the country’s military regime. Menchu, a Nobel peace prize-winner, came to the conference and gave her testimony.

Gabriel says, “I became hooked on the idea of life stories and what they communicate in terms of the history of communities. Getting stories from a personal perspective, rather than from more ‘authoritative’ sources was also powerful and a real eye opener.”

On his first day back at work after his sabbatical he was asked to run a six-week course starting the next day. Gabriel was free to choose whatever he wanted so he chose testimonial writing.

It went down well with students so he introduced it in other courses both at Birmingham and subsequently at London Guildhall University [which became London Met in 2002] and where he met Jenny Harding, now professor of cultural studies and communications and a trustee of the OHS.

“As soon as I heard that Jenny was teaching oral history I contacted her and we started talking. That was how I started to work on different community projects,” he says.

Between 2004 and 2008 they worked alongside Sarah Lowry, also an OHS trustee, on the refugee oral history project, which culminated in a major exhibition at the Museum of London. Gabriel describes this as one of the highlights of his career.

“We worked with 15 refugee communities and I contributed to Jenny’s postgraduate course on life history research which she developed to support the training. This ran alongside the collection of oral histories and artefacts to go into the exhibition. It brought together my research and teaching interests as well as my commitment to working with community groups,” he says.

Gabriel wrote some articles based on the oral history interviews and found that while the project provided an alternative history of London, giving a voice to those whose histories are not normally heard, it also provided another striking insight.

“What was interesting listening to the interviews and reading the transcripts was the extent to which a number of the subjects were happier talking about themselves not as refugees but as their role at work, or what they did within the family or their role in the community. They shied away from the label refugee,” he says. That is the beauty of oral history, he adds. “It allows people to represent themselves,” he says.

The MA in life histories did not survive a round of course closures, but Gabriel, alongside Harding, has taught oral history guerrilla-style, introducing it into other courses such as research methodology, communications, work placements, applied ethics and student projects.

The application of his university teaching and research has been an important part of his work – as a sociologist he worked with local authority officers, NGOs, the police and probation services on equality and diversity issues. He says chairing the OHS is a chance to combine his interest in research with his experience of working with local organisations.

So will members see a new direction for the society? “It’s a very successful organisation and whoever comes in as chair has to acknowledge and build on what is already there. In terms of my own style or vision I’m very interested in developing the relationship between research and teaching in higher education and community and public engagement. I’m interested in working across these boundaries,” he says.

Ensuring the continued financial sustainability of the society is also a priority, he adds as well as spending available funds creatively, “which is the fun part!”

Members should expect to see him at events such as the seminars at the Institute of Historical Research, the regional network annual meeting and he hopes to drop in on the odd oral history training course. “I’m very keen to talk to members and hear about their interests and listen and respond to their concerns, and I hope this will be another way I can contribute to the organisation” he says.