Reportback: Oral History & Participatory Action Research

Oral History & Participatory Action Research
Monday, April 1, 2013

*Amy Starecheski, Associate Director, Oral History MA Program, Columbia University; Groundswell Practitioner Support Network Working Group
*Alexander Freund, Associate Professor of History and Chair in German-Canadian Studies, The University of Winnipeg; Co-Director, UW Oral History Centre

On April 1, 2013 Amy Starecheski and Alexander Freund co-facilitated a Practitioner Support Network videoconference on oral history and participatory action research (PAR). Sara Kendall, Alisa del Tufo, Zoe West, Mi’Jan Celie Tho-Biaz, and Rebecca Lorins participated in the call. Alexander Freund, Co-Director of the new Oral History Centre at the University of Winnipeg, shared his recent experiences learning about PAR as he undertook a collaborative oral history project with Salvadoran immigrants to Manitoba.

Freund framed oral history as a form of participatory action research, but noted that there is little overlap in the literatures of the two practices. His review of this literature revealed that the internal critical discourses of oral history and PAR are in fact quite complimentary: While oral history sometimes approaches participation and collaboration in a somewhat naïve way, assuming that all participation is good, the PAR literature provides discussion of the potential “tyranny of participation.” At the same time, while PAR may approach storytelling naively, oral history’s emphasis on asking difficult questions in a history-telling process provides a more complex and rigorous way of thinking about narratives.  PAR often does not consider storytelling as a central method, but is centrally about activism. Oral history often sees activism as a peripheral pursuit, but is centrally about storytelling. The PAR tradition emphasizes dissemination in a way that is useful to oral historians, while the archival focus of the oral historian can help us think more long-term about open access to our research materials. The group noted that having access to PAR training and methods can provide useful legitimacy to our projects when engaging with public conversations, funders, or academic gate-keepers. We all agreed that an ongoing conversation to bring together the complementary toolkits of PAR and oral history in our work would be very productive.

Drawing on an oral history discourse of shared authority, the PSN group discussed participation throughout the oral history process, including an emphasis on providing training for communities we work with to do their own oral history interviews, and some of the challenges of sharing authority beyond the actual interviews. Sharing funding and resources was a major concern, and some strategies we talked about were:

  • Training community researchers and hiring them to do interviewing, transcription etc., as a way to transfer skills and resources
  • Convening a paid community advisory board
  • When working with youth, carefully document their work and make these portfolios available to them to use when seeking out future jobs and educational opportunities
  • Having open, transparent conversations with collaborators about finances and their control

Attention to sharing resources in concrete ways seemed important to us, especially when working to engage collaborators in the time-consuming work of interpretation and dissemination, which could otherwise be seen as exclusively the job of the professional researcher.

We also discussed the challenges of finding space for the flexibility and time required to do PAR when working within the constraints of the academic system, especially for non-tenured and precarious workers such as unaffiliated researchers, students and junior faculty. The often disparate skills sets of the organizer and the researcher can make it hard to effectively combine oral history research and serious activist engagement, especially in the absence of an established social movement with which to partner.

We discussed the possibility of convening an ongoing study group to engage the literature on PAR, which is helpfully indexed in a lit review shared by Alex.  Alisa del Tufo also shared some recent writing on PAR she has done and her ongoing work with the Data Center to provide PAR training, which will include a free webinar on April 9.  This webinar will focus on examples of PAR projects, which we all wanted more of. If you are interested in being a part of any of these ongoing conversations, contact Amy Starecheski (amy.starecheski(a)

PS. Here’s one more PAR resource: This is from what looks like a really neat and active PAR community in NYC, linked to a national network.