[Workshop Reflection] Echoes: Intersubjectivity and Self-examination in Oral History

by Will Chapman 

Oral history, like all academic disciplines, exists in a constant state of evolution and self-examination. The field as it stands today, a trans-disciplinary mélange of ideas from gender studies, anthropology, history, psychology, sociology, and many more, is drastically different than prior decades. In past oral history practice, such as the early work done here at Columbia University by Allan Nevins and his colleagues, individuals were interviewed with the belief that the interviewer had no effect on the conversation created. Oral historians believed that they were acting simply as vessels for the histories of their subjects, who in turn were repositories of knowledge that could be collected on tape. This simplistic ideology of collection and extraction was challenged however, and through a process of reform and redefinition new ideas were incorporated from many other fields by a new generation of oral historians. One member of this generation of reformist thinkers spoke to us on April 1, in our workshop: Luisa Passerini.


Luisa Passerini is Professor of History and Director of the project Bodies Across Borders: Oral and Visual Memory in Europe and Beyond, located at the European University Institute in Florence, Italy. Luisa has been actively conducting oral histories for decades, as well as authoring the ground-breaking works Autobiography of a Generation: Italy 1968 and Fascism in Popular Memory: The Experiences of the Turin Working Class. Passerini is also currently engaged as a visiting professor at OHMA for the Spring Semester of 2014, where she teaches the course Memory in Transdisciplinary Perspectives, a seminar that illustrates the evolutionary progress of oral history and the ideas that grew from this change. One idea in particular stands out to me as being singularly important from Luisa’s teachings in our coursework and at the public presentation: narrator subjectivity. Luisa defined this idea succinctly at our workshop, as follows:

Understanding a narrator’s subjectivity is a watermark of cutting edge oral history, and its distance ideologically from past oral history practices is important. As Luisa explains, subjectivity in the interview emphasizes that individuals exist in multilayered, complex relationships that extend above and beyond their own conscious self-comprehension and past. What this means is that no narrator can be treated simply as a witness for a single perspective or history without taking into account their agency, and the active connections to others and their ideas that naturally form through conversation of any kind. The dynamic exchange made through these connections is especially present in the interviewer-interviewee relationship, where the effect of oral history interviewing on the narrator must be kept in mind in order to maintain the ethical obligation to do no harm while interviewing. Subjectivity (and its companion idea, intersubjectivity, which speaks specifically to the dynamic mentioned above) also gives us the requisite awareness to avoid the erroneous view of the oral historian as an enfranchising agent, or someone that gives voice to their subjects. Intersubjectivity has richly complicated our understanding of the interview, allowing our narrators to be studied as complete individuals, possessing not only memory, but also emotions, impulses and ideas that exist outside of a simple, linear past. As a complement to this, subjective study of the interviewer has also developed within oral history, requiring that the interviewer self-examine their own human agency. Luisa believes that this process came from Freudian psychoanalysis, which she describes as being at the theoretical root of interviewer self-awareness.

While I have some personal hesitations about applying a Freudian structure to my own awareness as an interviewer, I believe in the core principles of reflection that Luisa advocates. This reflection has undeniably assisted me in my recent development as an interviewer, and has made me contemplate my past work as an oral historian before this reflective element was added to my methodology. In my past experiences, I encountered intersubjectivity in every interview I ever conducted, even if I did not possess the technical language to sufficiently express this fact at the time. Having interviewed a diverse range of narrators, I am concerned now about how I handled this complex exchange in the past, and several examples of both successes and failures come to mind. On one hand I believe I conducted some intersubjectively aware interviews, notably one with a younger gentleman who had returned from military service in Iraq around 2007. It was the first interview I had performed with someone near my own age, so the “attentive grandchild” persona I commonly projected in my interviews with much older veterans would not work in this circumstance. Prior to meeting, I had given thought to how his age, our differences in education, and still-fresh military training would influence our conversation. I viewed him as a peer more so than I had any of my previous narrators, an individual who shared many common experiences with me but still had an entirely unique and distinct perspective; one which I could not fully understand, but could relate to. This newfound identification in turn created an interview dynamic that I believe created a form of intersubjectivity, albeit a crude one. This example balances against an interview I conducted with an advocate for local property rights in New York. While I attempted to understand her perspective, I was so different from her in so many ways (age, gender, ethnicity, education, religion) that upon reviewing the interview, I found myself compartmentalizing her into the various differences that I observed between us. This was a decisively un-subjective relationship, as I denied her agency by reducing her perspective and personality to the sum of the obvious differences between us, a mistake I have actively prevented from happening again.

 I use these stories as personal examples of my own struggle with intersubjectivity in my work, as I believe they exemplify in a small way the tumultuous nature of the larger change in the field that I have described, and that Luisa Passerini directly experienced and defined. Intersubjectivity is something that every oral historian, aspiring oral historian, or consumer of oral history must be aware of, for without subjective understanding, we run the danger of once more reducing our narrators simply to sources of information; unconnected, misunderstood, and incomplete.