The Limits of Oral History: Ethics and Methodology Amid Highly Politicized Research Settings

1 October 2011

Erin Jessee is an Fonds québécois de recherche sur la société et la culture postdoctoral fellow with the Department of Sociology and Anthropology and the Institute of African Studies at Carleton University, Ottawa, Ontario, Canada
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In recent years, oral history has been celebrated by its practitioners for its humanizing potential, and its ability to democratize history by bringing the narratives of people and communities typically absent in the archives into conversation with that of the political and intellectual elites who generally write history. And when dealing with the narratives of ordinary people living in conditions of social and political stability, the value of oral history is unquestionable. However, in recent years, oral historians have increasingly expanded their gaze to consider intimate accounts of extreme human experiences, such as narratives of survival and flight in response to mass atrocities. This shift in academic and practical interests begs the questions: Are there limits to oral historical methods and theory? And if so, what are these limits? This paper begins to address these questions by drawing upon fourteen months of fieldwork in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina, during which I conducted multiple life history interviews with approximately one hundred survivors, ex-combatants, and perpetrators of genocide and related mass atrocities. I argue that there are limits to the application of oral history, particularly when working amid highly politicized research settings.
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