The Limits of Oral History: Ethics and Methodology Amid Highly Politicized Research Settings

cropped-I0005194.jpgMaking History/Faire l’histoire presents:

Dr. Erin Jessee
Post-Doctoral Fellow
Carleton University

October 5th, 5:30pm
University of Ottawa
477 LMX
Light Refreshments

In recent years, oral history has been celebrated by its
practitioners for its humanizing potential, and its ability to democratize
history by bringing the narratives of people and communities typically
absent in the archives into conversation with that of the political and
intellectual elites who generally write history. And when dealing with the
narratives of ordinary people living in conditions of social and political
stability, the value of oral history is unquestionable. However, in recent
years, oral historians have increasingly expanded their gaze to consider
intimate accounts of extreme human experiences, such as narratives of
survival and flight in response to mass atrocities. This shift in academic
and practical interests begs the questions: Are there limits to oral
historical methods and theory? And if so, what are these limits? This paper
begins to address these questions by drawing upon fourteen months of
fieldwork in Rwanda and Bosnia-Hercegovina, during which I conducted
multiple life history interviews with approximately one hundred survivors,
ex-combatants, and perpetrators of genocide and related mass atrocities. I
argue that there are limits to the application of oral history, particularly
when working amid highly politicized research settings.

Erin Jessee is a Fonds québécois de recherche sur la société et la culture (FQRSC) postdoctoral fellow affiliated with the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and the Institute of African Studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. She holds a PhD in the Humanities (specialization in anthropology and oral history) from Concordia University in Montreal, and a MA in Archaeology (specialization in Forensics) from Simon Fraser University. Read more about Dr. Jessee and her work at her website.