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Opportunistic chats are the kinds of conversations we strike up with individuals or groups of
participants we come across in the field. They can be spontaneous or pre-planned. Spontaneous
is when we accidentally run into our participants and use the opportunity to ask questions that
occur to us at that moment. In a pre-planned situation, we might turn up at a particular site
hoping to run into participants who may be present at the event, and then strike up conversations
These chats by not long or in-depth may give us leads or directions to follow. Usually, these are
useful at the beginning of our research activity. They could also be precursors to more in-depth
interviews with some of the participants.
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These are the kinds of conversations that we have with our participants when we are observing
them. They have clarified questions that arise from our observations.
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Let us watch this example of one such interview.
Video: Playing in regional language (1:12 to 3:44)
The objective here is usually to hear our participant's views on the activity we are observing to
learn more about it. These conversations will be complemented with longer, slightly more formal
in-depth conversations in the future.
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In-depth conversations, as we have discussed, can also take place exclusive of participation. We
will have a more detailed discussion about this later.
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Sometimes in our research, we find it important to learn the life history of our participants to
understand the trajectory of their lives. This helps us situate the events and phenomena we are
studying. Similarly, we may find ourselves seeking narratives that elaborate upon the history of a
particular incident or event as experienced by individual participants.
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In doing this, we borrow from the discipline of Oral history. Oral historians believe that we must
understand an event through the narratives of different people who experienced it. And among
these, our particular focus needs to be on narratives that are less likely to be heard or recorded.
So Oral historians give primacy to oral narratives. This is so that participants who cannot read or
write can also have their narratives recorded. Many oral historians actively focus on the
narratives of people from marginalised groups. They recognise that it is often these narratives
that are not included in the grand narrative of history.
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A common thread runs through these different forms of interviews. That is, they are linked to
observation. In fact, as you will see later in our discussion, in an interview, we learn as much
from observing, as from speaking and listening. Let us pause here for a moment and reflect on
the following situation.
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A team of researchers want to explore the challenges that teachers might face in using smart
boards in their classrooms. Besides observations, they want to use interviews for this research.
What kind of interviews would be more suitable for this?
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Some of you may have suggested Oral history interviews. This would not be a suitable method
because in this case, the researchers have a very well defined and narrow focus. Their research
focuses on the situation in the classroom and the teaching styles of their participants.
Observation will form an important part of their fieldwork.
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Some of you may have suggested Opportunistic chats. These go well with observing; however,
in this particular scenario, having chats with participants as they teach will not be very
productive. The researchers will be interrupting the teaching.
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So the best option is to have conversations with the teachers before or after the class to eliminate
the observations. Then they may also do In-depth interviews to understand the teacher's reaction
to using smartboards.
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And now, for those of you who may be interested in learning more about Oral history, we have a
presentation by Oral historian Indira Chowdhury. Professor Chowdhury is the director of the
Centre for Public History at the Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design and Technology in
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Watch this presentation by Professor Chowdhury, and then there is a quiz for you to take.Hi, this is Indira Chowdhury, and I teach up the Centre for Public History in Srishti in
Bangalore, and one of the things we do a lot of is recording oral history, and I think that is
what I want to talk about here. So, I will begin with the question all of us really worry about
how do we define oral history and especially in you know a place like India where there are
so much of oral traditions there is so much of folklore that is oral. We tend to often use the
two terms interchangeably.
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But as an oral historian when I talk about oral history, I do not mean oral traditions. I mean
the long interview which is recorded, and that is what I want to talk about now
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So, what is oral history and this is what we often break our heads over that is it the recording,
is it what you record, is it what you transcribe or are we referring to the method of gathering
evidence in this manner as a research method that is oral history and what most of us have
discovered is that oral history is all three. It is recording, it is the transcription, but it is also
the method by which you do the research.
So, often we use this term almost interchangeably with the life story interview of the life
review interview or the personal narrative, and I think what I am going to emphasize that in
oral history there are two people involved. There is somebody who is asking the questions the
questions are being framed by an oral historian.
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And the function of the oral history is really to jog the memory of the person who is being
interviewed, and I think when we look at how social sciences look at oral history often, I
think in the beginning there was a lot of distrust of this method because social scientists are
taught not to manufacture evidence, and this was seen as you know the prompt of the oral
historian was seen as something that was trying to create evidence.
But actually, when oral historians started thinking about it, they came up with a different
explanation because they said what is happening is this is the creation of evidence, this is not
really manufactured evidence and then it further by saying this is not just creation of
evidence, there is co-creation of evidence and that is where I think oral history differs from
other modes where the interviewee and the interviewer together create something.
And that is what has been interpreted whatever they are creating, and that is often new
knowledge, new information, but more and more there has been an emphasis on how do
people make meaning, what is this process of meaning-making that happens when we start
doing these oral history interviews and here I think there are some concepts that we have to
pay attention to.
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And that is the historian Michael Frisch who did both oral history and public history gave us
this concept of the shared authority.
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And shared authority is a term that he talks about where there is shared responsibility, where
the listener and the person who is taking, who is speaking actually have an equal
responsibility in creating and interpreting what you want new knowledge they are moving
towards, and I think this becomes very valuable.
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Then the other objection like often social scientists have to oral history was that you know
this is not objective research, how do you deal with that.
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And oral historians like Alessandro Portelli has alerted us to the fact that why cannot we look
at it as to why do not we take subjectivity and turn it on his head and say this is research that
is subjective. So let us try and understand what is happening there is no objective position
and he says that because he says that as a listener, as an interviewer you are expected to also
modify your position, the way you think of yourself, your own awareness of yourself in the
course of the interview.
And therefore subjectivity, but also inter-subjectivity, the subjectivity of you yourself as the
interviewer and the interviewee both become very, very important and I think sometimes and
what is very, very important to oral historians is that we work with memory and that is why
often they are acquisitions oh is it not memory unreliable? Is it not there is something that
you are not going to quite get right.
But actually what oral historians have found is that even in the written document it, they may
be inaccuracy, inaccuracy of a certain kind. So, what they have gone on to argue is that there
are two levels of engagement. You try to find out why the person says what he or she does
say, and you also want to find out how this memory works in this context.
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And I will give a little example one is from Portelli's famous work which is called the death
of Luigi Trastulli and other stories the main essay in that book is called the death of Luigi
Trastulli. Now Luigi Trastulli is a union worker in a steel factory internee, and he died in
The entire town, when Portelli starts doing his work say that no, no he died in 1953 and of
course this would be enough ground to say look memory is not reliable, so do not try to
believe them, but he says no this is not a matter of belief. Let us try to find the reasons why
they say 53 and therefore Portelli has very powerfully argued that it is important to look at all
this what is called misinformation or misremembering.
And when he starts doing the research, he says that there are many versions, people have
many ways in which they want to talk about this one death. And then he finds out that in 49 it
is really protested that was about NATO, it was about peace, it was not about the factory and
at the same time he also finds out that when he was shot dead, the entire union had said we
would not let people rest. We will really do something about this terrible injustice that had
happened and the course of this research he finds out actually they did nothing.
And in 1953 when the union actually rises up in arms and does a protest that is noteworthy,
that is when memory channels everything to that moment and he has a very powerful
argument about how memory is used, and I think you know it tells you about how people
remember, how people choose not to remember and therefore batters as historical as if you
gave the argument that this was a memory that was misremembering then you do not have
much, but you know since he pursues it you get a very rich history.
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From my own experience while doing the oral history archives of Tata Institute of
Fundamental Research which was set up by Homi Bhabha.
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I found that there was a moment when all scientists were telling me about his sudden death.
As you know, he died in an air crash quite unexpectedly, and the whole institute was
mourning. Now when I asked them okay how did you get the news, what did you do that day
almost all of them told me that you know we had a condolence meeting and then we went
back to work because that is what Doctor Bhabha would have liked.
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Now a few months later when I start setting up the archives, I found these photographs which
were of a Parsi death ritual happening right below the library staircase in TIFR and at that
point, I go back to the scientists to some of them to ask that what is this you know there is
obviously something happening here which is not quite as you have told me that this is not a
So he said oh yes, of course, we did this, this was done for his mother because you know his
mother had wanted this and this seemed the appropriate place to have it. He told me that there
were several ways in which people remember, official memory becomes very strong
sometimes in the universe in the institutional context, but the other thing was it was a very
personal connection that this institute had with the family is something as the institute grow
up it was not always remembered.
And so you will have the different ways in which memory functions and it gives you
interesting insights about the institutions or how people remember. Now coming now to other
forms of interviews that I think you are course is looking at particularly because you are
looking at ethnography.
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I think one of the things that happen in ethnography is ethnography works with time and
space. It asks people at a particular time, in a particular space about whatever the
ethnographer wants to find out and the ethnographic interview often the interviewer has to
revise questions as he or she learns more about the place. Now in the case of oral history
interviews, we actually work more with memory and more with meaning-making than with
your time and space.
Of course, we are looking at the time because we are looking at telling me what happened on
that first day of independence in 1947, but we do not really look at something that is in the
present because we believe as oral historians that we think of the past in the present. When
we are doing an oral history interview, it is the document that is created in the present, but it
is about the past.
So you have a very rich sort of layered history that comes to you, of course, the long
interview is also something that sociologist do as the qualitative interview, and the qualitative
interview again is different because the qualitative interview often has a subject. It is trying to
understand from a group of people about something.
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Whereas in oral history we focus on individual memories, and we try to locate those
memories and contextualise them and see how is this remembering happening at this time and
so that is, those are the differences. And I think when we look at the oral history interview,
and what we are left within the end, I think oral history demands from us a certain kind of
shift in the way we look at that material because you can look at the transcription.
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But it is not enough because if you listen to it if you listen to the interview, you would find
the way in which people speak, the volume, the repetitive speech all of these are also there is
of meaning. It is not as if you know only the content gives you that process of meaning-
making. So, I think this is what we do which is different from other forms of interviewing
and of course we are focused on the past.
We are trying to understand the past, but the present is always there. So, basically, I think the
oral history method goes into a lot of details of a person's life, and I think in an ethnographic
interview might gain from some of its methods because you might get a deeper context to
what you are doing.
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For example, I have done interviews with scroll painters of Bengal the Pata Chitrakars, and
you know that they sing a lot of songs which are about disasters, which are about the tsunami
or about the floods.
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And I remember, and there is even one which is about 9/11, and you know it is so far
removed from their lives. So I think it was because I was doing an oral history interview I
asked them I said you know why do you sing about 9/11? You have seen it on television it is
not something that you have experienced so what is this song really about. Is it because you
felt these (()) (16:31) these scrolls will sell?
They said you know we could not write our song without really believing that we are, we are
their part of the story. I said so how are you part of the story? He said look I think we have
suffered so much we know, we have the experience of floods almost every other year. We
know what it means to lose a family member to snake bite. We know about loss and because
we know about the loss we could empathise with people who lost their own during this
And you know if it was at that ethnographic interview you would not have got the stay tune,
he was relating this event to his life and telling me why at that point he felt that he could
actually understand what these people whom he had never met in America or the people who
suffered the tsunami went through and I think somewhere this empathy, of course, all
interviews demand empathy.
But I think the oral history interview empathise with the people's lives and it also engages
with their lives and that is why you end up asking questions which are about their life, which
you can then bring as a different layer on to your ethnographic interview. So I feel it would
gain if you asked a few questions that will more detail in depth and about that person's life.
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Now what the ethnographic interviewer can learn from the oral history interviewer is that we
go into details of people's lives and try to understand why today they are the way they are?
What is it in their experience that has shaped them? Well, I think one of the things that oral
historians do they actually engage with memory and I think sometimes they have been
questions that you know can historians engaged with memory in this way.
And that is a very deep question because sometimes we pointed out that why to talk about
memory as being unreliable because memory is helping you reconstruct, co-construct, a range
of things and even if not (()) (19:19) today are talking about construction rather than just
culturally representing something. So I think oral historians tend to bring in history and
memory and talk about how the memory of something can help us reconstruct the past.
And you might do it with the help of photographs, documents and other things, but you
would not dismiss memory at all because memory is part of an individual's experience. But
oral history mainly engages with memory and with meaning-making. How does my
experience of the past enable me to make a meaning about what history is, what does my
experience tell me about what I am reading or what if I have my family talk about the
partition, then what is it that they are doing in order for it to become meaningful for me.
So all the partition stories which I grew up listening to which were basically about the village
they are left behind were really about making sense of their lives now, but it is very different
from the hearing them now that the ethnographer is trying to capture and so that remains a
difference, and you also ask about orality.
And of course one of the things about oral history is that we are looking at the spoken word,
we are looking at people speaking about their experience. It is not a dairy where someone has
written about the past, but it is people talking about their past and orality is about the hearing
now, it happens in time, it happens in the present, but this orality is about many things.
It is about how we speak about the past, what is the language in which that past becomes
most meaningful to me. For example, my grandmother would only speak in her dialect of
East Bengal when she recollected those times, but if she spoke about how she struggled to
become a teacher in Calcutta and how aware she was that she could never go back to that
place after 1947.
She would use a very different language which is not that dialect of a village, and I think oral
historians are also very aware of these kinds of differences that you see and even going back
to my example of the Pata Chitrakars or the scroll painters, there they are used to singing or
telling their stories in a particular way, and if they were to look at the oral history interviews
and compare it to the way in which their other oral narratives are shaped, you would find
similarities and differences. And I think that is why for oral historian language is so important
the oral is so important because it communicates so much more than just content of all this