Significance and Function of Oral History in Documenting Organizational Knowledge and History – 4

Sepideh Kholoosian
Translated by M. B. Khoshnevisan


Note: Dr. Abolfazl Hasanabadi, Dr. Habibollah Esmaeeli and Dr. Mehdi Abolhasani participated in the fifth meeting out of the series of meetings on oral history in Iran hosted by Mrs. Mosafa. In the meeting set up in the History Hallway of the Clubhouse, they talked about “the significance and function of oral history in documenting organizational knowledge and history”.

In this section, the term “redundant history” and parallelism was dealt with.


Abbasi: I am not an expert in oral history and my specialty is the Middle History of Iran; but for some reasons, my work as a presenter has been drawn to oral history, and I will share my experiences in this field. More than 10 years ago, when the debate over oral history in Iran was just beginning, the friends at the Faculty of Literature and Humanities of Ferdowsi University of Mashhad thought of pursuing the oral history of the faculty. The result was 10 or 15 interviews with different people, which were recorded and transcribed and put together, and the text was delivered to the faculty. Last year we decided to revive the college's oral history; but we saw that from all these interviews, there is no such thing as history. Everyone has put forward conversations, opinions, memories, and issues that have dealt with them and they have been transcribed.

When we were involved, we saw that there are various sources in the university, faculty and Astan Quds, etc., including more than 2000 documents. We took these documents and reviewed the published materials such as Matini's memoirs, Dr. Yahaghi's memoirs and the people who were in the college. The issue of Dr. Shariati and what had happened to him the time he was a student until he left Ferdowsi University as a professor was a story in itself, since it was related to the Faculty of Literature.

We came to a conclusion with them, which was the title of our project: "Oral History of the Faculty of Literature". But when we got to the end of the work, we saw that it was no longer oral history. That is, oral history and its interviews became a part of our work. So what was published is "History of the Faculty of Literature" and not "Oral History of the Faculty of Literature". Regarding its importance, in some places, the words of Dr. Abolhassani are really correct, as there were many documents, documents, writings and publications. But there were also places that were really oral history or interviews that suited our work. For example, when we wanted to write about the spatial evolution of the college, we almost did not have documents about the initial spatial evolution.

In the section of the developments of the revolutionary period, the student movements and the discussions that took place between the students, the party politics, the groupings, the conflicts, etc., we did a lot of interviews with the people who were there at that time, which helped us a lot. But in the field of curricula, administrative developments, education, disciplines and the number of students, and whatever was in these areas, our origin was other sources, and oral history had become a sub-topic. This is the experience we had from this process.

In my opinion, oral history, like some other things in Iran, has been slightly damaged or at least about to be damaged, and I think that experts and those in the field of oral history should be careful, observe and warn. The output of a great deal of what is now referred to as oral history is not history. That is, it is a collection of memoirs that have come with the title of oral history and they have published several interviews and sometimes even an interview with one person.

Here I am sensitive to the word "history" and whether these are history or not. For example, if the statements of Mr. Engineer Gharazi have been published, is this history or not? It does not seem to be so. If it is supposed to be oral history, even in the places where we have nothing and in an area where we have no written document and we have just oral materials, my interpretation is that there, too, the statements and interviews of different people from ten to fifty people should be collected and a historian should write based on them about their modifications and comparisons.

For example, the oral history of our School of Physical Education, which has a history of 20 years, if I only publish interviews as one-on-one interviews, I do not think we can use the word history for it. My advice and request from professional friends and responsible institutions is not to be indifferent to what comes out of oral history and goes on in this way. They must take care, warn and prevent so that the work is left to its experts and respect the sanctity of history in the discussion of oral history.


Monfared: If Mr. Abolhasani wants to comment on Dr. Abbasi's remarks, please comment so that we can hear Mr. Forouzandeh's remarks.

Abolhasani: We have a point in historical research called literature and research background. Regarding the Iranian oil industry, some works were published both at Harvard and Colombia and inside the country, as far as I know, the works done by Mr. Rasoulipour and Mrs. Torki. Looking at these works and interviews with Mr. Moe’infar, Mr. Sadat and Mr. Gharazi and out of the country, Dr. Moe’infar and others, have we worked and paid attention? Were these checked? Were the harms identified?

Because I saw the friends talking about other things that have been done as oral history. I often work in social and cultural history in Isfahan. For example, I work on religious groups to address aspects of their impact on the social and cultural life of my city and beyond; but if we look at projects like this, such as the oil industry, which is very ample and in good financial condition, we see that the most and most frequent works are in this area. Stanford has a term titled "redundant history." We have produced a lot of history. We have been involved in producing redundant history. Are we familiar with this definite rule in the discussion of oral history in terms of psychology, communication sciences, and interviews, that the more interviews and repetitive interviews we conduct, the lower its quality will be? How long and when are we allowed to produce history?

This parallelism, which is now exemplified in the oil industry abroad and at home, has been done in the years 1398 and 1399 (2019 and 2020). Have we paid attention to these? Did we even criticize them before we started our project? Did we come to criticize and say what the oral history of Iran's oil industry is, what the rule is, what the pyramid is and...? We just came and only paid attention to the top of the pyramid; the same damage that exists in political history. How much did we pay attention to the rule of the pyramid and the discussion of the employees and workers of the oil industry? The works that we produced and came out, like the work of Mr. Rasoulipour and Mrs. Torki that was done before it was published in the archive of Iranian contemporary history and came out, and did you see the work that Harvard did before that in the 1960s? Did you identify the harms and did you publish somewhere to come later and run and begin that project again?

These are the issues that happen in any historical research anyway. In order to make an introduction and write, we have a duty to pay attention to the research literature and research background. To me, this parallelism and producing the redundant history is a great harm. The published works by the friends may also be criticized. In the previous session, I said that there is no critique in our country at all, and for a variety of reasons, criticism is as much an introduction and generalization that either I, as a critic, do not have the literacy and critique of science, or I have calculations that I do not critique a work.


Monfared: Thanks a lot. Mr. Abolhasani, I think it is better for us to approach the issue from a methodological point of view than to talk and critique a project on a case-by-case basis. These critiques can certainly be raised in the form of critiques and serious questions about any work and project after the publication of the works in the real space. I do not know how much time exists in this space to explain the background of the work and to prove whether this work and other works were reworked or not. I would like to ask Mr. Forouzandeh to comment on what Mr. Khodadadian said.


Forouzandeh: First of all, I must say that not only there is not redundant history in the oil industry, but it is still scarce, and now in the oil sector, two universities are associated with me, and people like Leila Sabouri and a number of others have two doctoral dissertations on the general subject of petroleum culture. This is a very interesting view that started in Canada, spread to the United States, and the U.K. is doing it as Petroleum Culture. The issue of oil culture is not just oil culture and is related to the economy, society, politics, democracy, civil movements, land economy, and so on.

In the history of Iran's oil industry, we had nothing to do with oral history, and dear Farshid Khodadadian and other friends at the Oil Museum took the trouble. I have read all the documents and listened to the tapes. When we started at the end of the year 1392 (2013), I read them all and even contacted the BP retirement department, but I saw that many of their memories do not help us. We saw and heard, and could not even use it as a footnote; because we could not put as much pressure as they put into a 1,200-page volume on oil history and 1,200 pages on oil chronology.

For instance, the status of Mr. Gharazi in our oil history became about 5 or 6 pages; his Majlis, personnel, ethics, ideology and so on, some of which were removed under the supervision of the employer and are in the archives. I myself conducted 167 pages of interview. I expelled all the forces of political science and brought only the history men into the group. All were ranked PHD and Master, and none was lower than that. When one of the personnel interviewed the head of the gas company, the head of the gas company said to him: "Where have you been that I have never seen you?" He thought he was an employee of a gas company. Because I had given all the approvals more than 3 months before this interview, and he had taken the interviews from the lower echelons and read all the memoirs, and when he was in front of the boss, and the boss was surprised that parts of it would be published by the Archive Museum in the future. It is interesting that he says: Where are you that I have never seen you? While he was a history man and had nothing to do with gas or oil. But he had found a lot of identification.

The whole project of Iran’s Oil Industry History was carried out in the form of 67 interviews and all of the endorsements of BP, National Oil Company and the memoirs were received. But the project relies more on documents and memories are less seen in it. We also used them in order to make our literary writing stronger, and they are still in our archives and we have not used them at all; because Farshid Khodadadian and other friends should use them. We have nothing to do with oral history. We only used our own interviews and those conducted by other friends. We worked on this project in two formats: diary and chronology and the other analytical date from 1280 to 1400 (1901 to 2021).


Abbasi: The point that came to my mind is the same repetition debate. The point we noticed in oral history of the Literature College was that when we went above ten interviews, we saw that there was a lot of overlap and repetition. I knew that if we interviewed 10 or 20 other people, we would not get new material because the same previous interviews had about 70 and 80% coverage.


In continuation, Mrs. Khalkhali was invited to continue the discussion.

Khalkhali: I have started a project in person and as a podcast, and your program helps me a lot. I will give a brief explanation and it has nothing to do with politics and history. It's a linguistic issue, but since I started a large part of it with an interview, these conversations about oral history, what specifications it should have and what we should do, have guided me a lot in the interviews. My project is the teaching of Farsi language in the world and I am talking to teachers all over the world who teach Farsi language either to non-Farsi speakers or to the second generation. In a way, I myself have named them anonymous Farsi language promoters. Given that we now know that there are many Iranians around the world, and wherever 50 Iranians gather, you will surely find a Farsi language class that is specially designed for the second generation, and of course I myself teach adults, some questions were raised for me. I hope I can get sponsorship to expand this discussion because I take the project forward academically, not as a podcast interview, and just a few people come and talk.

The point to note was that Mr. Forouzandeh spoke interestingly about his interviews. He said that when we wanted to send people for interviews, we sent all the documents to read first so that they would know what we wanted to ask. I happened to come across this point a lot. That is, because it is my specialty, I can direct the interview in exactly the direction I want. That is why the friends say that not every memory can be considered an oral history. I put some of the blame on the interviewer, not the interviewee. The interviewer must have complete supervision over the job.


Khodadadian: I would like to give this explanation to master Abolhasani that those works have been seen as much as possible, and another point is whether there is any work that is without criticism? Even the works of Dr. Rasoulipour and any other work have been criticized. The most effort is done to do the best. Or about the work of Mrs. Dr. Torkchi that you say, we are proud of her cooperation, and the disputed issue published from Mr. Gharazi's memoirs is the trouble that Dr. Torkchi and two of her colleagues took.


Esmaeeli: At any rate, the work is underway and is not at our disposal at present in order to stop it and say why will happen and it is not possible at all. Of course, no need to do that. In my view, it is our duty to constantly remind ourselves of the same points that were made in the speeches of all our friends, and to discuss them in a more historical way, which I will not repeat. I think the key point is to repeat the same saturation point that I mentioned. If the interviewer really hears about an event from 5 or 6 or 10 people, he should not continue. However, sometimes there are cases of violation, and each of them has a narration that violates the other narration, and these can be complementary like all other historical sources. We have just this.

What do we have about the rest of the historical events that took place in the country? The same is true there. I think we need to further teach the method of manipulation that exists in our past scientific tradition and on other hand, we should also be trained. Certainly we who claim the method, like the story of Ibn Khaldun who wrote the introduction but did not follow the introduction when he was involved in history, may not do the right thing in practice, but in the end this method can do the job. There is also a key point about editing about which we will talk in the next session. One of the things I did with Mr. Dehbashi, and it was a very good experience, was that some of these people did interviews at different times. But that man had two narratives on one subject. We came and put the narration of that person completely where he talked about, which we will explain in the discussion of rationalization in the compilation. In rationalization, the reader noticed that we might have a different position from this speaker at different times. These are part of human nature, and we do it knowing these things. God willing, we will talk about this in a detailed session of compilation to reduce the damage.


Abolhasani: I quote exactly from Stanford that in the book "An Introduction to Philosophy of History", he mentions the harms of history, saying that we may be over-producing historical data, and uses exactly the word "redundant history" in translation. I did not say it on my behalf and it should not be interpreted as rude.


Monfared: Dr. Khodadadian sent a message to me that he was ready to receive friends at the Ministry of Oil, use their advice, and provide them with documents if needed. Dr. Hassan Hasanabadi, we hear the final points and summarization from you.

Hasanabadi: I made a few points at the beginning that I summarize them. Several issues are of great importance. First, we do not have organizational historian in Iran. It is very important. They are many people who claim this. But, we do not have an organizational historian in Iran like many other fields. The lack of organizational historians is a shortcoming. When we do not know something to do, a lot of problems and margins can be created and this is very important. There are people in the world who do specialized work as organizational historians. When we do not have such a historian in different structures in Iran, the discussion of doing it also becomes incomplete and the application of oral history becomes incomplete and wrong based on this mistake and does not go in the right direction.

Secondly, I still believe that there is really no boundary between organizational memory and organizational history. This is a serious discussion. The friends know well that we in Iran still do not distinguish between organizational history and organizational memory. When defining an oral history project, you definitely have to differentiate between them in terms of the type of use. When you are looking for organizational memory, there is no such thing as redundant history because you are not looking for history at all. Rather, you are looking for documenting the history of the organization in which each speaker looks at a case from a different perspective.

I believe that if we feel somewhere in the project that the projects have become too frequent, it means that we have not explained the questions correctly. It is a fact that we cannot ask a specific question in this sense and reach more frequent questions because when you talk to a tea boy or when you talk to a boss or an employee, you definitely should not ask the same questions.

In an article in the Oral History Weekly[1] published by Mr. Kroeze[2], which I highly recommend you read, the implementation of the oral history project has been graded and staged. That is, when you carry out an oral history project, do it on several levels. One level is the rainfall of information; one level is selection and asking for a report information. Targeted use at these levels is an important issue. Since we are not at an organizational level and do not pursue the project purposefully, we face a lot of margins and problems. For this reason, I recommend reading related articles in this area of organizational memory around the world for a deeper look at projects.

The next point is that we have an intra-organizational view and an extra-organizational view in the discussion of oral history. Most of the projects carried out in Iran are intra-organizational projects. We have a project that the organizations do themselves, we have a project that the organizations outsource and it is done, and we have a project where people come from outside and do something for a discussion and it has nothing to do with the organization. For instance, you are interviewing someone who is not currently in the organization and may have the opposite view. That is, connecting to this level of projects with that parent project is very important. We sometimes see oral history projects become island projects. That is, projects related to the organization are done, but they are not related to the principle of the organization.

The issue of purposeful use of oral history to document the documents is a matter of compilation. You do not have the issue of compilation in the project. The project must also be graded, targeted and evaluated. It is because of this that we say oral history is costly and not that its cost is for recorders and audio-visual cameras. The oral history project is a team project and should be overseen by an overseer and consultant. When a BP project is carried out in the world, a level of cost that is defined and we do not pursue it in Iran is that we start and do an oral history project and then go through it in general. Otherwise, about many of the issues that are under Dr. Abbasi's discussion, the fact is that in a series of projects we come across issues that are equal in all projects.

However, sometimes in the projects of organizational history projects we come across topics that are specific to them, for example, the interaction between people's personal and professional lives, which is sometimes not seen so much elsewhere. But in organizational history projects, this personal and professional life is often intertwined and you cannot separate them. The general-to-part and part-to-general discussion is of great importance in the organizational history project. We do not usually know our general in the oral history project. We have not yet discussed whether to pass the general or not. Do you calculate the organization as general and put the components in it, or do you want to consider the general and put the components of the organization in it to achieve it? Like the relationship between collective and individual memory in an organizational history project that is very important but has not yet been properly defined. It is necessary to determine to what extent collective memory or individual memory can be addressed.

The last point is that we have a shortage in the discussion of foresight in the organizational oral history project. We have to accept what is going to happen in the future and where will it go? To me, from this viewpoint, if we look at the future, we can see the next steps. You have a hundred years of oil history. When we are confronted with a history that has affected our politics, culture, economy, and society, apart from the debates that are directly related to oil, for a hundred years of oil history in a country whose affairs and life is oil, two hundred or three hundred or five hundred interviews is not a lot at all. Thus, it seems that the development of standards for organizational history projects should be somewhat more specialized and structured than the oral history project.

In Iran, we still do not have this level of standard other than the standards of oral history, which are usually localized by some centers. The friends know that every project has its own standards, structures and goals. The views in each of them should be different regarding what kind of history should be used. It should be compiled, discussed and then start the work. However, our projects are low cost and do not have the traction to look at these ideas. We hope that there will be people who will document these projects. I have also examined this in the world and have not seen that any standards have been defined. The friends can transfer their experiences and they are compiled in a specific framework. At present, the methodological project for using oral history in documenting organizational history and memory is under research that God willing, we will present it after publication.


The End


[1] The Benefits of Oral History for Organizational Research and Higher Managements, Oral History Weekly, Issue No. 110, 21st of Farvardin 1392 (April 10, 2013)

[2] Sjoerd Keulen, Ronald Kroeze

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