Oral History in crisis? Casualisation, deskilling and precarity in our field

In this post, Andy Clark reflects on discussions originating from the 2019 Oral History Society Conference held in Swansea regarding the current state of oral history. In particular, he reflects on the casualisation* and precarity faced by practitioners of the methodology. How can we develop an approach that is inclusive, democratising, whilst also promoting the skill-set of trained and experienced oral historians? Please feel free to join the discussion by posting in the comments section below.

During conversations at the excellent 2019 Oral History Society (OHS) Conference at Swansea, the issue of precarity among oral historians came to the fore. I attempted to assert that large, funded oral history projects should be looking to employ an experienced practitioner, and pay them an appropriate rate for the job. I was amazed at the reception of this position. By asserting that being an oral historian requires learned skills, some people suggested I was attacking oral history’s democratic ethos. This is certainly not my intent; indeed, I argue that supporting oral history as a discipline is not a denial of its potential to be a radical practice.

Before reading ahead and taking a decision on the points raised, please take note of why I decided to publish this blog post. When this discussion ‘erupted’ at the OHS in Swansea, I was sitting alongside nine professional oral historians (academic and community-based); not one of our number has any guarantee of employment in the medium-term, beyond two years. If we do not address the issue of casualisation, the ten of us who attended will soon be out of work and likely seeking new ventures and retraining for different careers.

Precarity in our field does not exist within a vacuum. One of the most significant developments in Higher Education (HE) in Britain over the last decade is the phenomenal surge in casualisation. Research by UCU, the collective bargaining unit for academics and academic-related professionals in Britain, revealed that 68% of research staff in HE are on fixed-term contracts. This is part of the realignment of teaching and research in the UK. The marketization of the sector has seen substantial outsourcing of contracts, greater focus on capital investment vis-à-vis campus redevelopment, consistently falling real wages and attacks on staff pensions.

Concomitant with these developments, oral history has enjoyed something of a boom period within academia, particularly noticeable as it has paralleled attacks and cutbacks on the Arts and Humanities. The number of PhD students using oral history as their primary methodological approach demonstrates this growth. Anyone attending OHS 2019 will have been struck by the representation of PhD students and recently post-doctored researchers presenting their work, and the energy and enthusiasm with which they did so.

Long-standing oral historians in the non-academic sector have reported concern over the viability of their endeavours, despite community-based oral history also appearing in apparent rude health. Oral history, as intangible heritage, now plays a much greater role in museums and art galleries. As one delegate at the OHS conference noted, the Heritage Lottery Fund has been crucial through their support for oral history projects led by experienced, non-academic practitioners. This support has been somewhat able to limit the damage caused by politically inspired austerity in the public sector.

This brings us the key question: Despite the success of oral history in difficult contexts, is it fair to say that oral history is in crisis? In the rest of this piece, I will argue that it is, but a crisis that is partly of its own making and one that can be resolved.

Oral history, as a research methodology, is a skill that should include remuneration for experienced practitioners. Those who choose to engage with oral history in a professional capacity through continued learning, practice, writing, project management and engagement with changes in the method should be integral to oral history projects and future developments in the field.

This is not a question of ‘controlling’ who conducts oral history, but rather of the relationship between professional and amateur/enthusiastic oral historians. For instance, if a group of people decide that they wish to record their history through speaking into a digital recorder and/or speaking with others, that is excellent. They can utilise the advisory materials available on a number of online platforms and, most probably, conduct a fantastic project that will suit their ambitions and passions. If, however, an organisation (public or private) intend to launch a large and funded oral history project, they should enlist the services of a trained/experienced oral historian. The interviews can (and possibly should) be conducted by enthusiasts and members of the community – but there should be an experienced oral historian involved throughout.

The difference between these scenarios is hopefully evident. One involves a group of enthusiasts conducting work that they are passionate about, whereas the other has transgressed into a project that requires detailed design and oversight. That large organisation – who we presume have access to funding for such a project – should therefore employ an oral historian to utilise their professional skills, expertise and experience in conducting such projects. In addition, oral historians should be more vociferous in arguing this position.

Why does it matter? It matters because oral history, as a profession, requires long-term engagement with training, practice and theoretical awareness. An experienced oral historian’s skills can and should be integral to any major project, including designing interviews, overseeing the collection of narratives, identifying historical themes with which the project engages, co-producing outputs for specific audiences and adhering to ethical and data protection requirements with the collected materials. That an experienced oral historian (receiving payment for their labour) fulfils this role should not be viewed as anything more than protecting the historically hard-won rights of wage earners.

Some could misconstrue this view as an attempt to define who can and who cannot do oral history, to ‘control entry’ to the field. This is not the case at all. Engaging with the communities with which we work, and encouraging marginalised communities to record their histories should always be a key aspect of oral history. It is what differentiates our method from others – we are inherently interested in the lives of others and have a desire to record these. We are one of the only academic disciplines that actively recruit enthusiasts and train them in aspects of our methodology. This level of engagement is a peculiarity of oral history, and one that is to be celebrated. However, experienced oral historians remain crucial in ensuring the continued development of the field. Both facets should be central to the practice of oral history, rather than being in opposition with one another.

Oral historians should defend our skills, our professionalism and our expertise. We should advocate that those with experience in conducting oral history research, of engaging with existing literature and ongoing professional development should play a key role in the future of the field, be that in academia or community-based work. If we are to accept that oral history is an endeavour that can be conducted by volunteers alone, why will anyone continue to hire and pay oral historians? Given the drastic reduction in academic jobs and the retreat of the public sector in heritage, won’t these organisations quickly realise that they are paying people who, in turn, advocate for increased free labour? Why employ a Lecturer in Oral History when research can be conducted by volunteers, and teaching delivered by staff on zero hours contracts or, even better, volunteer teaching staff? Why should local authorities’ heritage departments pay for work that can be done through volunteering alone? If we are to accept that oral history is not a profession and that experienced oral historians do not possess certain skills based on their practice, we could be passively witnessing the decline in our discipline as a distinctly radical historic endeavour.

If we fail to address these issues and demonstrate the importance of experience, professional oral historians in developing the field, it is unlikely. By downplaying our skills and expertise, we will be doing the job of cost cutting management through demonstrating how they have no need for ‘experts’ and can capitalise on volunteer labour.

If you would like to respond to this blog in a longer form than is permitted in the comments section, please email oralhistory@newcastle.ac.uk and we can look at adding contributions to this blog platform (incorporating those in support of the points raised and those wishing to critique).

*Declaration of interest: Andy Clark is the anti-casualisation officer for the Newcastle University branch of the University and College Union (UCU)

1 thought on “Oral History in crisis? Casualisation, deskilling and precarity in our field

  1. A brilliant article outlining a couple of issues that have occupied me since I began my PhD at University of Edinburgh, adamant that oral history should be the method of collating my data. Yes, they agreed. But I am very aware that oral history is not just a method, it is a practice. The ethics and practice of oral history could inform anthropology. Apart from this, the skillset is gained over many years and experiences and should be valued as a transferrable training resource that is recognised and rewarded. Thank you for highlighting this! I was up at EMOHA at Leicester University and struck by the technical support that is most valuable to a variety of researchers!

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