International scholarship presentations at the 2015 annual meeting

Over the next three months, abstracts of papers to be given at this year’s OHA annual meeting in Tampa by International Committee scholarship recipients will be featured.

Sean Field, South Africa
Panel: Listening Compassionately, Mindfully, Empathically, and Cooperatively in Oral History Interviews
Presenting Author on individual submission: The Meaning, Practice and Limits of Empathy in Oral History

“Empathy”, interwoven with listening techniques, is a significant skill for oral historians across the globe. In this presentation, I hope to deepen our understanding of “empathy” while doing oral history fieldwork in a post-conflict society. Empathy is neither sympathy nor an emotion but a tool of understanding, which involves historically imagining specific points in time and space in the past that the story teller is communicating. My presentation will explore various interviewing examples and that empathy can be an effective tool of historical understanding for researchers working in a culturally diverse and multi-lingual context such as South Africa. But empathy has real limits and ethical risks, especially when interviewing people who have suffered past violence and the systemic oppression of apartheid. I will argue that a focused empathy that acknowledges and works through forms of difference within oral history dialogues not in search of a contrived reconciliation nor equality but with deep respect for contrasting views, ideas and knowledge forms between interviewer and interviewee is crucial. However, many oral history teachers tell their students that creating “rapport” is necessary but what does that mean in practice? The problem is when “rapport” is striven for as a mythically power-free or equal state between interviewer/interviewee, when supposedly hidden truths will be revealed or recovered. Rather, oral historians need to constantly navigate the shifting inter-subjective atmosphere that involves both emotional connectedness and disconnectedness, and which invests cultural, racial and other differences with much emotion. How we empathically facilitate interviewees’ efforts to “culturally translate” their memories and stories poses ethical challenges but paradoxically also opens up possibilities for learning more through cultural differences and emotional disconnectedness within oral history practice.

Adam King, Canada
Panel: Revealing Resilience: Workers’ Narratives of Life and Labor
Presenting Author on individual submission: Making Sense of Change: Sudbury Mine Workers on the 2009 Vale Strike

The mining industry has been historically central to Sudbury, Ontario’s economy. Over a long period of struggle, it also developed as a focal point of unionized workers. Beginning in the late 1990s a period of ownership changes began. Vale Inc. (a Brazilian corporation) and Xstrata (a Swiss corporation) eventually acquired ownership of Sudbury’s two largest Canadian-owned mining corporations, Inco and Falconbridge respectively. A period of downsizing and contract renegotiation followed, with the issues of pensions and pay rates for new hires figuring prominently. In January, 2014 I began interviewing unionized mine workers in Sudbury about their changed workplace relations following the international purchases of their employers, and a long, bitter strike in 2009 against Vale. This paper explores the contradictory narratives these workers used to explain this period of structural transformation, and their responses to it. Dealing specifically with the issues of national identity and class formation, international solidarity, and the history of unionized work in Sudbury, I utilize a collective memory studies approach to analyze workers’ process of meaning-making and recollection. Setting the remembering of the 2009 strike against Sudbury’s history of strikes and workers’ resistance, workers present complex, and at times contradictory, narratives of resilience, continuity, and exception. In this paper, I seek to analyze workers’ presentations and read them critically against the class restructuring that has taken place in Sudbury’s mining sector. While some important work has been done on the political economy of mining in Canada, little has been undertaken qualitatively on workers in this sector. Using oral history interviewing, in this paper I seek to fill this scholarly gap.

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