Oral History and Life Stories 2020

Historians and others who interview about the past often talk about memory and how they are informed by memory, while they know memory is a difficult and problematic source for historical knowledge. During this course we shall concentrate on the use of memory in historical research and look at the kind of knowledge we get when we interview. We will investigate various efforts to create a more systematic and theoretically grounded approach than ‘just talking about days long gone’ or ‘having a chat about the past’. How can we create a research pattern that overcomes the incidental and replace it by an integration of the changing character of spoken narratives about the past? When can we trust a story, why? And if we can not, why can it still be important to listen. And how do we listen?

General starting-point for discussion is the study of life stories in oral history as a tradition in the humanities and in the social sciences. During the course additional attention will be given to alternative modes of in-depth interviews. Issues to be investigated in particular concern the questions of intersubjectivity; (self) reflection; identification with the Other and her/his past; and the interviewer’s role in the process of meaning/knowledge production. What are our responsibilities towards people we interview and do we have particular responsibilities in our research communities? What does it mean to be close to an interviewee, what happens if there is distance or when we don’t like what we hear? Do we have to agree with our interviewees?

Part of the teaching will be done by looking at oral histories made by oral historians who published their interviews on websites.

We shall also compare spoken memories with other ego-documents, bearing in mind the many other existing and valid ways of interviewing about personal experience and we shall analyze when and how we produce alternative and unfamiliar viewpoints. Because historical interviews ask a lot of research time, participants in this course will consider questions like: Do I really need interviews, what do I want to know, are there other ways to get this kind of knowledge?

During the course, several theoretical approaches are discussed. Apart from lectures by Selma Leydesdorff on theoretical approaches and past work, guest lecturers are invited as well to explain how they overcome difficulties during their research. Since the use of websites for the dissemination of narrated accounts and the making of interviews with the help of a camera has become more and more important we discuss digitization and we’ll follow up some ethical and practical issues.

Testing and evaluative criteria

Presence during class is obligatory including collaboration on preparing the discussions. Rema students are requested to write 2500 words paper on one subject in the literature or about the integration of the course in their own work. PhD students who need credit points are requested to present a 3500 words paper on how they will use the literature. 


The literature consists of various articles, informing on how to organize a larger interview project, or discussing how to analyse interviews. The various stages of larger projects will be followed. The list of literature is will be made available in January 2020. 


Course Supervisor: prof. dr. Selma Leydesdorff
Dates: 4, 11, 18, 25 February 2020 and 3 March 2020 13.30 – 16.30 hrs.
Venue: Amsterdam, Spinhuis, Oudezijds Achterburgwal 185 room 2.18 (except 25 February, OIH, Korte Spinhuissteeg 3, Conference Room NIAS Amsterdam)
Candidates: PhD candidates and advanced RMa students
Credits: 2 ECTS, with paper 5-6 ECTS
Registration: Before 15 November 2019 (bureau@onderzoekschoolpolitiekegeschiedenis.nl) Students and PhD candidates willing to participate have to write a motivation letter before 1 November.

Fee (non members): 250 euro 

Program and speakers:

4 February 2020: Laura van Hasselt (UvA). Theme: public memory and transforming oral history into a movie

11 February 2020: Fridus Steijlen (NIOD, VU). Theme: oral history and the experience of decolonization

18 or 25 February 2020: Ronald Kroeze (VU). Theme: oral history and business history interviews in large companies

18 or 25 February 2020: Marie Louise Janssen (UvA). Theme: How to interview illegal undocumented women in prison?

3 March 2020: Sanneke Stigter (UvA). Theme: Interviews with artists, Autoethnography and the museum (to be confirmed)

Selma Leydesdorff is professor emerita of oral history and culture (University of Amsterdam). Her career is part of the transformation of oral history from mostly a fact-finding method-adding to and criticizing traditional historical narratives-to research on the ways memory is framed and modified over time. It has always been influenced by women’s history. Over the last ten years she interviewed on life in concentration camps and recorded interviews with survivors of Auschwitz and Mauthausen in international projects. In 2002, she started a project with survivors of Srebrenica and since 2008, she has recorded life stories around the trial of John Demjanjuk in Munich.

Recent publication include  Sasha Pechersky: Holocaust hero, Sobibor Resistance Leader and Hostage of History. (Memory and Narrative). New York: Routledge 2017 and Narratives of the Survivors of Srebrenica: How Do They Reconnect to the World? In E. Bemporad, & J. W. Warren (Eds.), Women and Genocide: Survivors, Victims, Perpetrators (pp. 250-267). Bloomington: Indiana University Press 2018.  More:   https://www.uva.nl/profiel/l/e/s.leijdesdorff/s.leydesdorff.html