Giving a Voice to the Oppressed: the International Oral History Association, between political movements and academic networks

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Agnés Arp, Annette Leo, Franka Maubach (eds)

Berlin/Boston: Walter de Gruyter, 2019, 356pp, £68.00, hardback.


This book is not actually a history of the International Oral History Association (IOHA). It is a study of the origins of the IOHA through the evolution of an international oral history network in the two decades leading up to IOHA’s formal constitution in 1996. 

It is also a book which has been a long time in the gestation, partly due to the challenges of finding funding to translate it into English from German. The original research which underpins its ten chapters was gathered between 2006 and 2008 by a research group initiated by pioneering German oral historian Lutz Niethammer at Jena University and financed by the Volkswagen Foundation. 

Niethammer was a member of the inner circle of oral history pioneers who first came together in Bologna in December 1976 to share ideas and he is amongst thirty-three ‘founding fathers and mothers of the IOHA’ who were interviewed for the project. Around half were women, and four were from the UK (Paul Thompson, Anna Davin, Alun Howkins and Ronald Fraser).

The interview cohort included many of the well-known figures of the ‘first generation’ of oral historians across Europe and the US such as Sandro Portelli, Ron Grele, Philippe Joutard, Selma Leydesdorff, Luisa Passerini, Alexander von Plato and Mercedes Vilanova. Anyone with even a passing grasp of the oral history canon will recognise these names and deduce correctly that this book is about the 1960s generation of oral historians born in the 1930s and ‘40s who did so much to shape our movement.

None of the ‘younger’ generation (many themselves now retired) were interviewed (one exception being Mary Marshall Clark from Columbia University, born in 1957), though they occasionally appear as correspondents, as the interviews themselves were supplemented with personal papers from many of the key figures. I felt their absence in the various author’s reflections on the impact of the pioneering generation on those of us who carried the mantle. Infuriatingly, as a guide to locating the key players the index is deficient as its page numbers do not correspond with the text. But given the scale of the brief and the number of languages involved this is an impressive endeavour and a powerful archive has emerged.

The book is occasionally dense but at its best provides some revealing insights into those that made our movement what it is today. The main chapters are also supplemented by short biographies of each interviewee which usefully drew my attention to some individuals I had not previously encountered.

The twenty-year journey from that first conference in Bologna (when thirty-four people made presentations) to the formal establishment of the IOHA at the ninth (or was it tenth? The number is contested…) international oral history conference at Gothenburg in Sweden in 1996 attended by over 200, was a rocky one. What emerges from the themed chapters here is the sense of a close group of (mainly male) friends and fellow travellers sharing their enthusiasm for the value of oral history in documenting the histories of work and family and marginalisation, and forging a new movement, carving out a pathway between history, sociology and anthropology.

Along the way the phrase ‘oral history’ is debated – is it a method or a discipline (’oral sources’ was the preferred term by those countries favouring interdisciplinarity – explored by Silvia Musso’s chapter here); the role of subjectivity versus generalisation is explored (p 7); joint projects are launched (pp 74-76); working languages for conferences come and go (pp 238-244); and the inner circle disagree about whether or not to formalise their collaboration through an organisation (is it a ‘movement’ or a ‘network’?, p 61). 

A ‘European Standing Committee’ was set up in 1980 but attempts to get approval from conference attendees for a constitution for an International Oral History Association foundered in 1987 at the Oxford conference. Julie Boekhoff’s chapter on power structures (one of the most enlightening in the volume) suggests that ‘it is not a surprise to outsiders that the majority was not ready to agree to permanently giving oligarchic rights to the founder’s group’ (p 113). And something else was also awry as Joanna Bornat wrote in a letter to Paul Thompson expressing regret that the British Oral History Society had not been included in the conference.

It was this disconnect between what Christian König calls the ‘core group’ within the network (p 81: characterised as academics Bertaux, Grele, Niethammer, Passerini, Portelli, Thompson and Vilanova) and the rest of an emerging worldwide oral history movement which ultimately led to the infamous ‘uprising’ of 1996. 

At the Gothenburg conference after a bruising four-hour meeting, the like of which I would not like to participate in again, IOHA was formally constituted and the ‘core group’ were effectively ousted. Regarded by some as a cosy inward-looking academic ‘boys’ club’ (pp 87, 103), they had badly misread the mood of the meeting which was in favour of a more democratic, inclusive and truly global representative organisation. Personal rivalries and slights bubbled up (p 123) and a large (new) Latin American contingent flexed their muscles, voting down Thompson as inaugural President (pp 131-132).

It was an emotional and highly-charged moment in the history of the international movement which also split the core group. Despite Portelli’s best efforts, Thompson and Leydesdorff decamped and sought to establish an alternative powerbase through a European Network within the European Social Science and History conference.

Portelli, von Plato and Vilanova remained, the latter as the IOHA’s first (woman) President, who ‘like perhaps no one else, embodied all the changes and innovations as well as the old traditions and structures’ (p 137). Her founding council was drawn from Brazil, Germany, Italy, the UK, the US, Austria, Sweden, Mexico, Turkey, Argentina and Zimbabwe. This list reflects how far the international movement had grown from its European-US roots to a global community (as Agnés Arp’s chapter details).

From that point onwards I was meeting colleagues from literally all over the world whom, thanks to the advent of email, enabled Al Thomson and myself to make The Oral History Reader representative of many different methods and practices, well beyond Europe.

Gothenburg also reflected another shift which was the acknowledgment that oral history was alive and well beyond the academy in a host of community, heritage-based and caring applications. Few exponents in these fields had attended the early international conferences but by the time I began attending in 1993 (Siena-Lucca) many more archivists, museums workers, community activists were presenting papers and bringing different theoretical concerns to those of the ‘founders’.

One of the book’s weaknesses is its decision to focus squarely on the network, unhitched from developments in each of the pioneering countries, all of which were evolving with different emphases at different speeds, often (as we saw from Bornat’s assertion above) with little or no correspondence to the international network. So it is not clear from the interviews whether the pioneers themselves perceived any disconnect or considered themselves speaking for ‘their countries’.

The politics was also changing in the 1990s: Manja Finnberg’s chapter describes the international oral history group as ‘an academic movement shaped by the political spirit of the late 1960s. The left-wing and left-liberal positions of the key players shaped the international network’ (p 54). Interestingly the interviews reveal that although working-class and ‘people’s history’ were the pre-occupations of the pioneering oral historians, they themselves came from economically safe, privileged middle-class families, though many depicted themselves as ‘outsiders’ on the edge of the academic world (pp 52-53).

These commonalities welded them as ‘companions’ (to use Grele’s word) and also helped explain why the ‘inner circle’ was so impenetrable, and I have to say unwelcoming, to younger oral historians of a different generation (p 87). To those of us who had not grown up in the Second World War, lived through post-war Fascism/Communism, or been on the streets in 1968, the older revolutionary politics of the Left felt distanced from our more immediate pragmatic concerns of how we could use oral history to better engage people with their past and empower them to share their stories in a way which stretched across the political divide.

As oral history entered the mainstream in so many disciplines and areas of study, oral historians emerged who were not explicitly of the Left, though most were inspired by social justice and advocacy, and over the past decade a new third generation are forefronting oral history as a tool in the struggle against food poverty and employment precarity, and in campaigns around climate change, gender and Black rights. 

The chapters here remind us that each generation, as it ages, shifts through stages of antagonism, achieves ‘respectability’ and eventually becomes ‘the establishment’, to be ultimately replaced by the next as the cycle continues. In 2009 Sean Field (one of those figures key to the development of the IOHA not interviewed for this project) reflected that ‘respectability’ is fine ‘provided we do not lose sight of the radical or democratic intentions that motivated so many of us to do oral history projects in the first place…But most of all we need to remain open to learning from story-tellers’ (p 139).

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