OHC’s November 2021 Director’s Guest Column: “Power, Empathy, and Respect in Oral History” by Paul Burnett
“So oral history is interviewing.” I get this a lot from people who are trying to understand what I do for a living. Yes, the interview is the primary way in which we gather our historical data, our stories. When people think of interviews in general, however, they might think of the police interrogation, the oral examination in schools, the journalist’s scoop, even an anthropologist’s study of a community, amongst other examples. Near the end of his life, philosopher Michel Foucault was hoping to do a large research project on the interview and the examination as sites of power relations. He could not have been more astute. In each of the examples above, control rests almost completely with the interviewer. The interviewers extract information from the narrator for their own purposes, often without consideration of the interests of the narrator, and sometimes directly against their interests. Sometimes narrators are allowed to see the resulting work; often they are not consulted.
By contrast, oral history as a disciplinary academic practice and as a social movement begins and ends with the problem of power. It’s not that we can get rid of power; power is interwoven through our relationships. Oral history methods acknowledge power relations as a problem to be managed, helping to ensure that the narrators tell the stories they want to tell. We begin with a process of informed consent, so that narrators know what to expect from beginning to end, and that they have the power to withdraw from the work at any moment, even after the project is finished. We then engage in a period of planning and research. Although a spontaneous, cold interview might seem more authentic, what happens in those cases is that the narrator is often at sea in their memories, their real-time decision-making about how to present themselves, and their anxiety about which stories to tell, in how much detail, and with what words. And then we are right back to the problem of the interviewer controlling the scene. By collaboratively planning in advance, the narrator and interviewer build a bond of trust and a plan around the nature of the storytelling.
And when the interview happens, we can both relax, and that’s where it becomes spontaneous. I call it “planned spontaneity,” with a heavy debt to Miles Davis’ approach to “controlled freedom” in jazz performance. Telling a story is like singing; it is singing. It can be an emotional performance of your deepest truths. I’d be tempted to say that the interviewer is the impresario in this metaphor, arranging things so that the narrator’s story shines. But my ideal role would be to serve as both the room and the audience, to let the narrator hear their own voice reflected from the back of the hall, and to see and sense the audience’s engagement with the performance. Ask any singer, and that’s what they need for a good performance; they need feedback from the audience and to hear their own voices.
That’s why, during the interview, I “read back” what I’m hearing periodically to give real-time feedback. But we also transcribe the interview so that the narrator can review what they have said and decide if that is the final form of the story, making changes as needed. Then we ask them to sign off on the finished product, with some guarantee of access to the narrator and their communities. All of these practices together form a set of protections that maximize the narrator’s power in forming, telling, and preserving stories for the future.
The problem of power might be mitigated by this set of practices, but power is always unfinished business. There is the history of the interview itself, whose reputation for extraction, exploitation, and manipulation is not lost on many communities. There is the university, a site of state, political, and economic power, and the authority to include or exclude that hangs over the interview. Anthropologist Michel Rolph-Trouillot wrote about the ways in which the decision about what gets included in archives is the first and perhaps most important violence done to history. Narrators and interviewers come to the interview within multiple, overlapping sets of power relations, exclusions, and hierarchies that threaten to distort and even block trustful communication.
For the interviewer’s part, there are two basic orientations that help with – but do not solve – these problems. The first is empathy. I have interviewed a lot of powerful people, people who might seem from a distance invulnerable, privileged, at ease. I hate to sound obvious, but everyone has experienced exclusion, denigration, and trauma of some kind in their lives, often of many kinds. Sometimes exclusion is a source of pride; but it is most often a source of pain. I have a lot of power and privilege, but I can tap into experiences of the exercise of arbitrary authority, exclusions, bullying, violence and trauma in order to attempt to connect to those who have experienced far greater violence, who have lived lifetimes inside social structures of exclusion and trauma. But if we amplify voices of the excluded, we have to understand that connecting and collecting can too easily end up as claiming and taking.
Empathy is only one part of it. That assumption of some kind of access to another’s experience is another problem of power and privilege. Interviewers also have to begin with the assumption that vast oceans of human experience elude them. Research can help, but a fundamental orientation of humility and respect is required to establish a bond of trust with a narrator. Is there some core of human experience that we all share? Of course. But history shunts us all into patterns of human experience that are both radically different and arranged in a long list of intersectional hierarchies of arbitrary value – race, class, gender identity and orientation, citizenship, disability, body politics, and surely more structures which we as a society have yet to recognize, never mind address. All of that comes into play in the interview encounter, and it may determine whether the interview happens at all. A humility before this pageant of exclusion is the necessary companion to empathy.
What I’m presenting here isn’t new. The oral history community has been wrestling with these questions for a long time, especially with its frequently expressed commitment to using oral history to explore those hierarchies of value, to shine a light on and validate the experiences of the excluded and the othered. Although I’m an oral historian, I’m also a historian of science. One of the things I’m interested in is how disciplines define themselves. One of the patterns about knowers in a discipline is that they are sometimes poor interpreters of their own origins and practices. Researchers often have the hardest time seeing the very spot from which they observe. It may be precisely because of their commitment to reflexivity that oral historians may not be able to see, or perhaps hear, these challenges. We check our audio equipment, but sometimes we don’t check how we are listening, or whether we’re able to hear something at all. Our most important listening equipment is between our ears, or maybe inside our chests, and limited by our lived experience and frames of reference. What we need to continually re-examine and affirm is our commitment to empathy, humility, and trust in our work.