The 2nd online meeting of Oral History of Iran

Necessities of Theorizing in Iranian Oral History – 4

Sepideh Kholoosian
Translated by: M. B. Khoshnevisan


Morteza Nouraee, Abolfazl Hasanabadi and Faezeh Tavakoli participated in the second meeting out of the series of meetings on oral history of Iran held online on 27th of Azar 1400 (December 18, 2021) hosted by Mrs. Mosafa. In the meeting set up in the History Hallway of the Clubhouse, they talked about the necessities of theorizing in oral history. The fourth and final part of the show is as follows:

In continuation of the meeting, the host invited the audience who had asked for talking to continue the discussion:

Mr. Ali Rowshanaee: I have an ambiguity in this discussion that I would like the dear experts to answer it. This topic has probably been discussed a lot before and has been explained and clarified definitely; nevertheless, is theorizing essentially related to the phenomenon and the subject or to the tools and methods of accessing information? For example, do we say that oral history is a written history or it is those things which are related to archeology? As for other things, can we theorize about each of them as the way we get information? Is there such a thing? If so, tell us to use it and the ambiguity is clear up. Another point is that the use of conventional methods in other sciences such as sociology or other majors is not prohibited, but to use them and consider it as a historical research, can this not be questioned? Especially Mrs. doctor considers them as historical research in her research done in the organizations. If so, what should other majors title if they do? At the same time, based on my own experience, I think that some doctors have made the situation of research in government agencies ideal, idealized and normalized to some extent. If I do not go one step further and say that I spoke in their favor, which I do not think is the case, we have worked in the government institutions. I have been connected and working with them for more than 25 years. I have never had such freedom of action and authority. Most of our work was such that when we were worried about the bread, it has never been for guiding them and showing them to the right path or no, to play a very effective role in these three months. Such a thing is neither expected nor exists, nor have we seen its experience. Great people have gone in these directions and in the end they have not been able to continue.

Then, the host asked Mrs. Dr. Tavakoli to answer the question if any.

Dr. Tavakoli: Yes, I have always been very clear and without any conservatism in my interviews; because i am not a member of a university’s faculty or a member of the Humanities Research Center, but it’s about 18 years that I do research there and like the administrative gangs we face, I am not affiliated with any group or gang. So I became involved very freely and clearly in the field of humanities in the research institute which consisted of 12 institutes, in connection with the old professors there from Dr. Amoozgar to Dr. Abdolmajid Arfaei who are the translators of the tablet of Cyrus and the late Azartash and many other professors. In connection with the old professors, I found out that the foundations of the humanities were laid in those pre-revolution institutions, were processed well after the revolution, and spread like any other science. But, for instance, from the outputs of a project brought up very clearly as a meta-analysis, I told the fellow professors that one of the results of my work in the humanities is that the seminary considers itself the custodian of the humanities and regards academic areas as secular in general. Don’t you think that in our research institute, now, after 3 or 4 decades, all groups still exist in three classes in the form of concentrates, without any of them having expanded? The linguistics department of the institute had to come out of the institute itself and become a huge building, covering all linguistics researchers. These researchers were not unemployed, they did not go abroad, and they produced knowledge and research at home. For example, in the field of women's affairs, in my interviews with women, I asked them what did you do in the field of women? Have you ever been to a women's prison? The issue of women being released from prisons, the issue of their families, the issue of their empowerment, and the issue of the gender justice bill that was raised and has been raised over the last few years were topics that I came up with very clearly. I am neither hostile to the system nor do not view very critically. Because we made this revolution ourselves, we are aware of its shortcomings and deficiencies. We are also aware of the positions that other countries took against the revolution. We are also aware of the looting that took place internally through a series of oligarchic families and elements that infiltrated the government in any way. I do not speak for or against anyone, but this is what a historian sees in the field of oral history and achieves in interviews and very often asks questions.

In the discussion of active and political women during the Pahlavi era, which was my first project and I spent my doctoral studies for this project between the years 1385 and 1389 (2006-2010), I interviewed thirty of these women and recorded their oral history, but it was not published. Dr. Najafgholi Habibi was in charge when we decided to do this project on behalf of the women of the Research Institute of History under the title "The Project for Women of the Revolution" and to interview prominent women. About ten of those interviews were published and the rest were left undecided. The interviews that were published were related to Mrs. Ashraf Montazeri, Mrs. Haddad Adel, the wife of the late Dr. Yazdi, the wife of the late Bazargan, who was ill and passed away, and unfortunately this book did not reach her during her lifetime. I really said what I could as a humble researcher historian and came to the conclusion that these are very important in the field of oral history currently. Everyone, wherever he or she is, should do so and write in the field of oral history, such as his or her family, school, university, organization, and even the institution with which he or she is associated. Because we are in an era where there are so many perceptions and issues and we still do not learn from history. They still come and chant slogans in support of the past regime, which are the result of our people not studying and not studying history.

Ali Rowshanaee: My other question is whether it is possible to theorize based on the method or should it be done on the subject? For instance, should we say that the theory is related to the written method and the oral method or anything else? My other question is, if we use the methods of other sciences such as sociology and anthropology in history, can we consider it as the work of history or not?

Dr. Esmaeeli: You made two points to which I will answer the second one. The use of methods from other fields of humanities in the field of history is not forbidden at all, but I think we ourselves have a method in the field of history that we can use, and I mentioned that if we do the work of oral history, we need to pay attention to what we have learned in research method classes. When our narrator acts as a historical source, according to my attitude and the one who is directly present in a historical event and space and is the first-hand source, and those who are at a distance - and we name it the second-hand source - and also because the narrative of the individual is mixed with interests, ideology, desires, class base and many other things, naturally this narrative must be modified and confronted with other narratives. Also, it is measured with other information such as what is available in newspapers. This person may have said something while saying the opposite elsewhere. In the compilation stage, we refer to it as rationalization. So if we do that, we have to focus on our work. In this regard, the use of the snowball method, in-depth interviews and more of these cases help us that, incidentally, this snowball method is most used in the field of oral history.

Regarding theorizing on a subject or method, it seems to me that from the beginning of the discussion, everybody agrees that we have now moved beyond the realm of macro-theorizing and put this in parentheses. We are currently researching the field itself and how we collect data, the situation in which we collect, what framework we follow, and how close our data is to reality, because we never have step by step data, but we should try to be close to it. Because I believe that the most important thing in oral history is to do, to do correctly, and to gather information. Now, if we discuss these issues theoretically, we have done the greatest service, and if we move towards macro theories, we have martyred oral history and taken it out of its effectiveness. In this situation, we must be able to record those unheard parts that are not in formal discussions and cannot be recorded and are protected in the individuals and whose live narrator may be lost; because if it is to the same extent, we have done our job.

In continuation, the host asked Dr. Nouraee to sum up the discussion.

Nouraee: The question of the dear audience was the pulse of the meeting. He asked very technically whether theorizing is basically about the subject or data. First, I correct that: or method. I think both should be considered. First in the discussion of the subject, in our oral history or research, they are subject-oriented or person-centered or a combination of these. So we might go into a subject with a hypothesis and come up with a theory and put forward a position that is very natural. For example, in the discussion of the inefficiency of administrations, the same Olympic Committee that our friends work on its sports and has become so centralized that they do not look  at other parts of the country like Jooybar, which can have a few good wrestlers, and look mostly around Tehran within a radius of 20 kilometers. It rarely happens that someone come from another place and be built on the circuit of oral history to recognize the poles of talents outside of Tehran and outside of teams and categories and sports bands. This is supposed to be the oral history of the Olympics.

In the discussion of subject, we can achieve a theory and extract a discussion and for instance find the reason behind the failure of the Olympic Committee and build a theory according to that as we have had in other discussions and we know that it is possible, but in the discussion of method which is very critical, the words by Mr. Hasanabadi is another discussion and needs delicacy. We know that oral history uses psychological interviews. Sociologists and their experiences are used to enrich and improve the interview, and field studies are used. As if history itself happened and is happening in time and place. But in the discussion of method, oral history, like the major of history itself, has knowledge boundaries in some places.

As a gift for discussion, I explain about the point theory on which I've been working lately. We all argue about producing a basic narrative; whether in classical, written, or formal history, that is, any kind of history, its backbone is the basic narrative, and we have no doubt that all historians come together with all the data to produce it. The first question is what is the strength of this basic narrative in the field of falsity? The first issue is that on the one hand we are engaged in historical research in oral history, and on the other hand there is a topic that comes up from time to time and requires a new answer, and that is generalization. We now have two wings on the subject of generalization, which says which one is an impression or a generalization? And what is the basis of your generalization? We have a debate with theologians in history in which we say that the basis of historical generalization is inductive and that the procedure of falsifiability is also used. Of course, we also make analogies in induction, but the basis is complete induction. But in major debate, the basis is analogy. One of the boundaries between theologians and historians is this argument of generality.

This is the question of oral historians to which we have no answer. For example, we say that for the strength of the text, the number of narrations in the frequency stage must reach a quorum. When our interview is done on a topic, we go so far as to repeat the words of each interviewee. Whether or not we are allowed to generalize is a new point in the discussion of oral history, but in history, we have had the discussion of generalization for a long time, and many times we do not authorize it. The discussion of generalization indicates the weakness of oral history. They go and interview one person and generalize it to the whole society, to the whole factory, to the whole of humanity and all creation. This is not a limit, and we must be careful that the only place in oral history that we have the problem of argument is that history is the result of collective experience while in an oral history interview, we talk about personal experience. We do not have the right to make any generalizations if that individual interview route has not been turned into a collective experience.

This is the place of theorizing that after how many people they reach to the frequency? We say about 70, while Thomson reached the frequency with 500 or more and more. So as soon as you say that the theory of generalization is very sensitive in oral history and its generalization is very wonderful and it is not possible to build a basic narrative with an interview. We in Iran have yet to read the exact topics in general, even in the historical field. There are books in English, but again we must find an answer for the place where they are still working on the discussion of generalization on extraction, and a new question can be raised. Therefore, the place of theorizing in the discussion of method is more important.

This is also important in subject but in method, it is very difficult to reach an event and if so, it turns into a law and everybody acts. That's because my friends continuously pointed that theorizing in the field of method is a hard work. Therefore, if we are involved in the discussion of generalization whether in the discussion of classic history and customary history on one hand or in the discussion of oral history, we have reached the answer of the subject of the meeting to some extent. 

Tavakoli: while respecting Dr. Nouraee, I should say that oral history is either subject-oriented or object-oriented.  I do not think that in the field of object-orientation, research topics of oral history, when one interviews a hundred experts in the field of humanities, after all these interviews, given the semi-structured interviews, why cannot he reach his own specific results and meta-analysis of the field related to this object? Here, the research questions have been designed and he enters into a series of topics in the form of an in-depth interview and interviews several heads of a scientific institute who have guided the policies and strategies in the field of humanities for years. Given that the interviewer is present in the context of society and reviews all the news and understands the conditions of society and approaches, and then as an object that discusses the humanities and its ups and downs, if it is what you say, it is not possible at all to reach a conclusion even with five hundred people, so oral history will not be of any use. We can completely draw a red line on it. The discussion of subjects and the discussion of personal memories and the subjects that were presented in the sacred defense or in the form of prominent and elite people who were in their own field are completely different. I wanted to make this a critique of what you said.

Nouraee: well, in the project you carried out in the research center, you did not use the snowball system. So, the experience you had in the interview is not collective; instead, you presented a collection of memoirs, and that was a flaw. So, this snowball system that he came up with means that when you interview a manager, it's a personal experience and an oral memory. But when you force him to say many names and act in a racemose form, it moves through memory there and enters oral history. Memory and oral history have the same path, but in the memory you build a room and create a challenge. That is why the same thing to which you referred at the beginning of the talk, an active interview is created. But in a linear interview in which you talk to the manager about the pedigree in depth and one by one, it is not oral history. These are oral memories. But if you were able to convert the experience of the management time of a person, namely build a room during the management time, then it would become oral history. You went forward cautiously and wrote the experience of the management course, and this work will be greatly appreciated, but each course must be extended. Naming people gives you the same snowball system that eventually turns into an avalanche that explains a basic, defensible narrative.

In continuation of the meeting, Hossein Kamali introduced the book "Oral History Theory".

Kamali: I wanted to introduce a book from Mrs. Lynn Abrams, the professor of Glasgow University in Britain. It is titled "Oral History theory" and was published for the first time in 2010. After revision, the book was republished for the second time in 2016. It is a useful book which has categorized theorizing in oral history very well and deals with the issue of memory and explanation. The last chapter is trauma and ethics.   

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