Current concern of oral history: Gap in theorization

Interviewed and compiled by Atiyyeh Mohammadi
Translated by M. B. Khoshnevisan


In the conversation ahead, Dr. Ali Tatari, the professor of history and a member of the Board of Directors of the Iranian Oral History Association with years of experience as the Head of the Document Center of Iranian Majlis (parliament) Library discusses the pathology of theorization in area of oral history and the status of this field in universities.

*What is your definition of oral history?

*Oral history in simple language is considered as a method of producing documents.

* That is, do you look at it as a method or a science? What is the rank of oral history among other historical documents in terms of validity?

*From my viewpoint, oral history is a method in reviewing historical events. in fact, it is the view of an individual from the status of a researcher, historian, student or anyone who is seeking to discover the truth about a subject or a historical ambiguity.

If the period that is going to be studied is so distant from our time that no one from that period is still alive for an interview, then oral history should be practically discarded; but if the subject under study can be interviewed and recorded in a historical context, oral history can be used as one of the research documents. Of course, the position of other sources and research papers related to that subject is also important.

It means that, for example, in reviewing the subject of the coup d'etat of August 19, 1953, a large amount of domestic and foreign documents, publications, as well as memoirs and many research books are available. Therefore, at first glance, it seems that the sources and documents of this issue have reached to an acceptable level, so oral history can be used as a method in parallel with other sources and to fully cover the research and possibly fill some information gaps on this issue.

Thus, oral history is defined as the second degree document here, namely the documents, reports, memories and the first-hand sources such as the publications released on the same day are available and narrate the event is placed in the first degree and then after that, oral history is used to complete the discussion.

But, in studying a historical subject about which there are less well-documented sources, oral history interviews are considered as the documents of the subject and are among the first-hand sources. In other words, oral history is the only well-documented source of research. With this interpretation, the significance of oral history is examined and evaluated based on historical events or facts and currents and the amount of documents and the available sources.

* What is the record of this science, or method in your words in the discussion of theorization inside or outside the country? What progress has been made so far?

*In response to your question, if we accept that oral history is a modern and new method in producing documents and is considered as a branch of the field of history, this questions comes to mind whether we have a proper status in presenting theory and theorization in the field of history? The answer is no! In other words, the field of history as one of the first fields taught in credible universities and scientific centers in Iran is weak in terms of theorization; Even in the field of history, we have not been able to present an acceptable and convincing theorization. The research methods currently taught at our universities have been largely copied from the American and western European departments. Consequently, oral history has basically come from there and has been grown and promoted mainly after the Islamic Revolution.

Therefore, the lack of theorization is one of the serious problems facing oral history. My friends and I in the "Iranian Oral History Association" on several occasions focused on theorization topics in order to plan for carrying out holding annual oral history conferences including, in the seventh conference on oral history, which was held in the library of the parliament under the title of "Compilation in oral history". In fact, this gap has been considered and noticed since many years ago and the years when the Iranian Oral History Association was established.

We believe that Iranians have not theorized about oral history, but in a way it must be acknowledged that one of the ways to reach the theorization is oral history itself. In the interviews conducted with experts in various fields, guilds and areas to record oral histories, it is possible to have access to theories that are unique to the interviewee in their conversations and viewpoints. These are the schools and students and teachers of the next generations who consolidate this basic theory and maintain and present it as an accepted and well-documented theory, but unfortunately we have not had this transitional period in oral history.

* Is the gap in theorization related to the nature of oral history or to all fields of humanities such as history?

*The issue why all of our fields of humanities have not reached theorization is a detailed discussion. At any rate, the reasons for this should be studied in political, economic, and cultural-social areas:

Political reasons: Unfortunately, political decisions have always affected our culture, while cultural and scientific institutions must be safe and stay away from political currents. This damage even has a direct effect on universities. This is one of the differences between us and the West. In our country, political currents completely dominate the scientific and cultural atmosphere of the country and are very influential.

In fact, when a special political current is emerged, a strange tsunami is created in the scientific atmosphere of the country. These currents seek to appoint their trusted forces to scientific and cultural positions in order to dominate their particular discourse. One of the harms and plagues that target scientific and cultural centers is the insistence of political groups on dominating their discourse over cultural centers; this is while it is accepted all over the world that cultural discourse, especially scientific one and the language of science, is independent and goes beyond political issues.

Economic reasons: Another major harm is the economic factor. Our country has faced many economic crises especially war and sanctions over the past four decades, which unfortunately have had a great impact on our cultural environment. The first reason can be seen in cutting or limiting the amount of funding for cultural and social research; The first thing that makes politicians think about compensating for the financial deficits is the significant reduction of the budget and the credits of the culture sector! Perhaps, they are right, too, because they want to fix the living conditions of the people and pay the salaries of the employees in the first place, and in this situation, cultural issues are marginalized.

Social reasons: What is particularly seen in the social sphere today is the heterogeneous relationship between academic majors with the income, employment and livelihoods; a great harm that can be considered as a social scourge. Academic generations are reluctant to choose the sub-majors of the humanities because they do not have the confidence to secure a job in the future. The issue of disappointment with career prospects is one of the most important issues facing the humanities, especially history.

What job opportunities have been defined for the field of history in the job vacancies announced by state agencies every year? Many of these institutions, even if they need majors such as history, unfortunately, for reasons beyond the rules, employ people with specializations other than history or in the end the graduates of social sciences. Hence, the graduates of humanities have the lowest chance of employment. As a result, a significant proportion of humanities graduates, especially historians, are disappointed with finding a job, and this has an objective reflection in our society today.

*In your opinion, is there the potential that a major or sub-major called oral history is created in the universities in a way that it helps the issue of theorization in the academic context?

*Since about a decade ago, we in Iranian Oral History Association have tried to create an independent master degree called "Oral History". In this line, the Isfahan University was selected as pilot. The reason was that the professors of history at the University of Isfahan, especially professors such as Dr. Nouraei, Dr. Dehghan Nejad and Dr. Montazer Gha'em, were the most active individuals among the history departments. These professors worked hard to establish the place for oral history in academic atmosphere, and many students were trained and educated by them. In the first step, they defined several credits in the master and doctoral courses and set two credits as oral history. It seems that the license for the field of oral history has been obtained for the University of Isfahan, but I do not have exact information about the admission of students in this field. 

* In the issue of oral history, various institutions are in charge; Do you think this plurality of institutions in charge of oral history is a harm or an opportunity?

* The symmetric of this discussion exists about documents and archives. Once, the people in the National Library believed that all documents in the country should be centralized in the National Library of Iran, but as one of the critics of this plan, I believe that whatever document centers are not centralized, it is in the interest of the history, identity and culture of this land. This experience can be seen in countries such as Russia, China, Germany and the United States, despite the existence of numerous documental and archival centers. For example, there are about a thousand museums in Germany, and even Russia is called the country of archives. These global experiences show the more the documental and archival centers are scattered especially due to security reasons (targeting of a large documental center by enemy or fire, etc.), the more we succeed in protecting national works and documentations.

Another problem is the lack of economic balance in allocating funds for cultural affairs. In the years 1387 to 1392 (2008 to 2013), due to the favorable economic situation of the Legislative Branch, good credits were allocated to the library of the parliament and we were able to buy several hundred thousand sheets of documents and photos. In those years, the National Library was not in a good position in terms of funding. Thus, we played the role of the National Library during those years to a degree. Hence, the more the number of centers, the more staff in the fields of librarianship, history and archiving are employed; as a result, hope for future careers in these fields increases; more research and dissertations will be produced and academic centers will be strengthened.

This is one discussion, but another one is to examine the oral history centers that were set up after the revolution one after another. Although the performance of these centers should be examined in terms of being scientific, accuracy, ideological perspective and the like, but in general, the plurality of these centers is useful.

Can the national document centers alone carry out the workload of Oral History Department of the Astan-e Quds - Dr. Hasan Abadi and his colleagues? Or is the performance of the University of Isfahan comparable to that of other centers in making oral history academic? Therefore, the issue of the plurality of centers in charge of oral history is not only not a problem, but also positive and effective. One of our goals in the Iranian Oral History Association was to produce scientific research method by holding specialized conferences; to provide new ways to make these centers more and more scientific through the article presented in the conferences. We invited the directors of these centers and their researchers to give speeches and express their views in order to enrich these conferences. In fact, the Iranian Oral History Association was supposed to play a pivotal role and be a focal point for other centers in oral history.

*How far did this work advance?

*We succeeded in some missions and goals and failed in some others. This is because our economic and cultural systems do not have the necessary stability for long-term planning, and most programs are planned for the short term. For example, in one year, an institution sponsors us and we hold a conference, and the next year, we have no sponsor to carry out plans and hold conferences. Another argument is that some managers do not believe in oral history, and this is not a priority for them.

I hope that the obstacles to the progress of oral history will be removed with your help and other centers which are active in this area. Thanks a lot for giving us your time.

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