Prof. Dr. Dorothee Wierling (Senior Fellow, Zeitgeschichte Hamburg Retd.)

Oral History in India. Fields, theories and practices

6 January 2019 – 31 March 2019

As a social historian of Germany, an das an Oral historian,  I am interested in the study of subjectivity and the construction of history as a meaningful past. In India, where social history still seems to be a very productive field of research (other than in Germany) the fellowship with ICAS:MP and CSDS had as its main goal, to learn about the state of the art and the empirical projects currently conducted, in particular in the field of labour history and the history of the everyday, and more specifically their use of oral sources.     

Talking to scholars about their work and reading as much as possible in the field of Indian social and oral history, I set out to look at the various fields in which Oral History as a research method plays a significant role in Indian research. Apart from labour and community studies, the often traumatic experience of partition violence clearly sticks out. So far, most of the significant publications target a wider public and succesfully combine documentation and analysis.

The practices and status of oral sources in relation to other social history sources face a specific problem in India since conventional state archives – be it in regard to content, accessibility or structure – often fail to provide sources, a situation which gives Oral History here a much more important role in the reconstruction of factual history, rather than serving as the basis of an analysis of subjective perspectives. However, following biographical, family and village narratives over time,  and tracing changes, or putting them in relation to (the well-kept) colonial archives, has proven to be very productive.

The broader cultural contexts of Oral History both in regard to the academic and the popular culture in India are another topic which I explored. While Oral history seems to be marginalized in academic historiography,  disciplinary boundaries seem remarkably open. In addition, a rich culture of storytelling makes oral histories especially valuable. Often, personal or community narratives do not follow the dominant national scripts, nor those of political activists.

Finally I could find no basic difference between concepts of memory and narrative as developed in Europe since the 1990s. The creative ways in which they are applied to Indian society are impressive.

Bio:

Dorothee Wierling is a retired professor for contemporary history at the University of Hamburg and former deputy director of the Research Institute for Contemporary History in Hamburg.  Her field of research is German social history in the late 19th and the 20th century , more particular gender and generational history, history of World War One, social history of the German Democratic Republic, history of coffee trade.

Throughout her research, she has used oral sources, especially life history interviews, and has also published about connected methodological questions. She is currently working on a new introduction into Oral History.