Author Interview: Jakub Mlynář on Conversation Analysis of Oral History

In OHR’s spring Issue, sociologist Jakub Mlynář uses conversation analysis to explore the nature of oral history, investigating how all participants—interviewers, interviewees, and later listeners and others users—make sense of the interview with cues such as temporal markers and existing knowledge. His article, “How is Oral History Possible? On Linguistically Universal and Topically Specific Knowledge,” draws on his analysis of a set of interviews with Holocaust survivors remembering and commemorating this historic event. At OHR, we love when our multi-disciplinary authors introduce us to new ways of approaching oral history.

Why is the study of language a useful approach to help inform oral history theory, method, and interpretation?

My background is in sociology and not in linguistics and my answer is certainly influenced by this disciplinary orientation. Language is interesting for me primarily as people’s resource for accomplishing social life and its miscellaneous scenes and situations. As Harvey Sacks observed: “It was not from any large interest in language or from some theoretical formulation of what should be studied that I started with tape-recorded conversations, but simply because I could get my hands on it and I could study it again and again, and also, consequentially, because others could look at what I had studied and make of it what they could, if, for example, they wanted to be able to disagree with me.” Sacks founded the method, conversation analysis, which looks at the detailed organization of the ways talk features in interaction, and his groundbreaking work from the 1960s and 1970s (he died in 1975) is extremely inspiring to me and thousands of other researchers worldwide. Yet only a handful of works on oral history have drawn on this approach. 

An oral history interview is indeed a conversation within a specific social setting with its local organization, relevancies, rules, and norms. As I explain in my article, by attending to the interactional details of oral history interviews, we can learn more about “the past” as a shared object that can be talked about, contested, commemorated, and accounted for. We can also learn more about what constitutes the tacit knowledge in oral history interviewing, which is the background for both the “production” (i.e., methodology) and “recognition” (i.e., interpretation) of oral history. The sociologist Harold Garfinkel pointed out that the production and recognition of social activities—such as asking a question, remembering, telling a story—rest on the same sets of practices. We use the same culturally shared resources to produce features of social life that we in turn use to recognize them as meaningful. I can see that someone else is telling a story because I am capable of storytelling; I can see that someone is asking a question because I can myself ask a question competently. In this sense, the theory of oral history, its methodology, and its interpretation are crucially intertwined, with serious attention devoted to the organization of talk and social conduct. Using conversation analysis can lead to a better understanding of oral history as a social praxis.

Tell us about the interviews you work with in your study.

I selected the interviews from the USC Shoah Foundation’s Visual History Archive, which contains more than 50,000 videotaped interviews with Holocaust survivors and witnesses. I used this resource for two main reasons. First, as one of the largest digital oral history archives, it deals with a topic of extreme moral significance, and the topic of commemoration and remembrance is highly important in this context—for the narrators, interviewers, but also the general public as a “moral universal” (to use Jeffrey Alexander’s phrase). My second motivation was more practical. Since 2010, I have been working as a coordinator at the Malach Center for Visual History at the Charles University (Prague, Czechia), an access point to the Visual History Archive and other databases related to genocides and violent traumatic past. I knew the collection and many individual interviews rather well, and I could conveniently access the interviews in Czech and Slovak languages, taking into account my linguistic capabilities.

Your article describes linguistically universal and topically specific knowledge. Tell us what these two terms mean and how you used them in your analysis.

While introducing the archives to interested researchers, students, teachers, journalists, and other audiences at the Malach Center for Visual History, I have started thinking in very practical terms about the various motivations, needs, and interpretive frameworks that are distinct and common among these users. While working with the interviews, I have also noticed that narrators and interviewers work together in the course of an interview to produce, among other things, what I call “commemorative sections”: segments of interviews that have remembrance or commemoration of the past events as their topics. In the article, I set out to analyze such segments, and I try to specify what makes them intelligible to audiences such as the users who arrive at the Malach Center to listen to interviews.

My suggestion in the article is that the comprehensibility of commemoration and remembrance in oral history interviews rests on two sets of practices. The first set constitutes “linguistically universal knowledge”—the competence of any speaker of a given language. For instance, it entails grammar, syntax, and vocabulary. In these cases, you would not need to know anything about the past, the Holocaust, or World War II, to recognize that the narrator speaks about something that had happened in the past and was commemorated several years later. However, there are many examples in the interviews when such knowledge is necessary—the speakers mention specific years, locations, or events that the interviewer and the listeners have to work with to collaboratively produce a meaningful narrative. These constitute the second set of practices that I call “topically specific knowledge.”

It is part of my argument that these two sets of practices are socially distributed, as Alfred Schütz taught us about all knowledge: not only culturally, geographically, or across the social structure (e.g., in “social classes”), but also temporally across different generations. It is quite possible that the topically specific knowledge, relatively ordinary and unremarkable for us today, is not going to be part of the make-up of future audiences. Although databases such as the Visual History Archive establish a record of the past “for perpetuity,” it will inevitably happen that these materials will at some point start losing the transparent intelligibility they had for the interviewer and interviewee (and that they still have for us today, more than two decades after the recording). The knowledge that used to be taken for granted by the interview participants just will not be there anymore. Our question then might be: how can oral history practice incorporate, explicate, and provide some amount of the topically specific knowledge? Is it even reasonably possible as part of the interview? Or should it be one of the tasks for the presentation and contextualization of the interviews in archives and databases? I don’t really answer these questions in my article, but I believe that I open up a space where they can be posed, and I offer an analytic and descriptive vocabulary that could be useful in seeking answers. 

What other types of language analysis might be useful for understanding the nature of oral history?

As with most kinds of human social activity, oral history is profoundly related to language. Of course, it is talked into being. There are several established approaches to language in society that could analyze recorded oral history interviews, including conversation analysis, discursive psychology, gesture studies, and discourse analysis. In turn, oral history scholars and practitioners can also gain a lot from these perspectives. From my point of view, informed by the principles of ethnomethodology and conversation analysis that form the framework of my article, we should remain as close as possible to the participants’ displayed orientations. What we know for sure is that a moment of oral history was captured on camera 25 years ago: how did they do it, together, right there, at the time, with the resources at hand? And how are we making sense of it today as listeners, with our own tasks and interests? Focusing on language and its use makes it easier to ground the analysis in what can be documented and evidenced in the recorded materials, and deal with the evident and witnessable order rather than with the hidden and imagined orders (to borrow Eric Livingston’s distinction). Marcel Proust has noted that “all action by the mind is easy if it is not subjected to the test of reality.” The careful study of language in social life, considering the participants’ concerns rather than our theoretical disciplinary agenda, provides us with such a “test of reality.” And any kind of research that examines talk as well as other aspects of social conduct, such as gaze or bodily movements, while taking them seriously and non-ironically as constitutive of the setting, studying them in their real lived time, will certainly be useful for a better understanding of the phenomenon of oral history.

Jakub Mlynář is a researcher at the University of Applied Sciences of Western Switzerland and the Charles University (Czech Republic). His current research focuses on the use of digital technology in classroom interactions, sociological aspects of Artificial Intelligence, and on the situated aspects of oral history, narrative, and identity.

Featured image from Flickr user Valery Kenski used with CC BY 2.0 license.