International conference on oral history: vulnerability

What happens to groups or individuals when they are defined as being “vulnerable”? Malin Thor Tureby examined this question in a keynote lecture at an international conference recently.

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Malin Thor Tureby, associate professor at the Department for Studies of Social Change and Culture, was one of the invited speakers at the sixth international symposium of the Finnish Oral History Network (FOHN) in Helsinki. The conference, held at the end of November, centred on the theme “Fragile memories: Doing Oral History with Vulnerable Narrators”. 

What did your lecture discuss?

In my keynote lecture I discussed the ethical and methodological challenges that we face as researchers when studying and working with people and groups that have been defined in different ways as “vulnerable”. I have studied and worked with the Jewish minority in Sweden for many years, and on the basis of my previous research I discussed what happens when groups or individuals are defined as “vulnerable”, either by society in general or by the academic world in particular. They are often ascribed a position of powerlessness, and denied the ability to act on their own initiative. This can, however, be changed. I used my lecture to reflect on how we can use oral history as a tool in our attempts to solve the conflict between vulnerability and action. I discussed how this can be achieved, based on my own research into and work with Jewish refugees in Sweden, and on the collection “Judiska minnen” held by the Nordic Museum in Stockholm.

What was the most important aspect of the conference?

Broadening researchers’ understanding of the concept of vulnerability. Research projects may, for example, investigate how individuals cope with memories or recover from the effects of natural disasters or other traumatic events. They may also examine the effects of such phenomena as poverty, war and other violent experiences. Vulnerability was also discussed from a perspective of power – the lack or availability of power and the consequences of this for people’s lives in the past and present. Another important topic concerned how researchers and people who work with oral history define individuals and groups as “vulnerable”, and the effect that this may have on the nature of new knowledge that is created.

What is going on in the oral history field at the moment? Which research questions are in the spotlight?

One of the questions that researchers in the oral history field have long worked with is how people remember and create meaning relating to difficult and traumatic events in the past. Several projects are currently under way around the world seeking to understand and document the experiences of contemporary refugees, and to compare these with similar and non-similar refugee situations in the past. One topic that is always relevant in the research field concerns ethics, and our role and responsibilities as researchers. This is true not only with respect to the past and the people we study and work with, but also with respect to the scientific areas in which we work. Another area that is being intensely discussed is how technical developments influence the research field. This includes, for example, how memories are communicated and how narratives are laid down in various social media. The digitisation of oral sources is an important aspect of this.

Two new research projects 

Malin Thor Tureby will begin work with two new research projects in oral history in 2017. One project will investigate how a cultural heritage based on narrative is created. Together with Jesper Johansson of Linnaeus University, she will explore the depths of the collections held by the Nordic Museum and examine the interviews and life narratives about and with people that the museum has chosen to designate as “immigrants”.

A second project to study and work with Jewish women in Sweden will document their history during the 20th and 21st centuries, together with any experiences they may have had of anti-Semitism and sexism. Both of these projects are funded by the Swedish Research Council.

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