Oral History Meetings


Oral History Workshop ‘Exploring Identities through Life Stories


The Oral History Workshop Exploring Identities through Life Stories was held at the Teachers Hall in the Faculty of Humanities at the University of Panama, between 6 and 10 and 10 September 2010. The workshop was led by Dr. Mercedes Vilanova, Professor

Emeritus at the University of Barcelona and Dr. Miren Llona, professor at the University of the Basque Country, Spain.

The objective of this seminar was to give participants theoretical and technical tools concerning the methods of oral history, which could be utilized in historical research to develop life stories or to build oral sources. This activity was also part of the events celebrating the seventy-fifth jubilee of the University of Panama.

The Workshop lasted 40 hours, out of which 30 hours were conducted on-site at the workshop. 10 additional hours were required for the participants to read web pages, present their opinions on the required research and conduct an interview with a selected person, which would develop one of the many themes regarding the history of the Panama Canal. This central topic was chosen by the professors conducting the seminar, considering the historical importance of the Panama Canal in the country’s history.

How the event evolved


The event had greater participation than expected, with an enrolment of 30 people among whom were historians, sociologists, anthropologists, journalists and students. In many cases, the hall had an even larger number of attendees.

The workshop was conducted with a highly participatory methodology. Attendees were given a compilation of texts, some of which were theoretical. Other texts were to be used for a series of exercises in the classroom and beyond. The bibliography was recommended by the teachers in the program.

The two historians in charge divided the workshop into separate exhibits. Dr. Llona presented the theory of the method while Dr. Vilanova outlined interview techniques using participant interaction, although both necessarily ventured into the main points of each other’s presentation. The research experience of the professionals and the contributions and presentations of their research were the main motivating factors to open up discussions.

As part of the workshop, the teachers had asked the participants to plan a research project which would result in an interview. The participants had to select the theme and the objectives, develop a questionnaire and choose a person to interview. On the last day of the event, the participants presented the results of their work in a forum that they themselves coordinated. The exhibitions were organized into four groups suggested by the teachers, relating to the theme of the Panama Canal: Politics, Society and Administration; National Identities; Ethnic Conflict; and, Gender Perspective.

The enthusiasm generated by the workshop encouraged our idea of working more intensively in order to organize an event where we could present our research culled from oral history. In this way, we could contribute to the commemoration of the 5th centenary of the Discovery of the South Sea as well as participate in the creation of a Panama Canal themed oral archive. We would thus add to the celebrations of both centenarian events, which are related to world history.



This workshop was made possible by the generous support of the Embassy of Spain/AECID, the Administration at the University of Panama, the Latin American Faculty of Social Sciences (FLACSO) through the Academic Working Group of Oral History, the Vice Chancellor of Extension, the Faculty of Humanities and the newspaper La Prensa.

MARCELA CAMARGO [email protected]



Interview with the historian Giovanni Levi

We were able to interview Giovanni Levi at the Workshops in Oral Sources “From Theory to Practice. The Classroom as a Space for Memory” held in Tarragona on the 13th and 14th of February 2009, where he participated as a speaker. Giovanni Levi’s presence at this meeting, which was intended primarily for teachers, shows not only the amplitude that this great researcher has but also the importance and the dissemination of Oral History in various fields, and above all the precautions that need to be taken when we use it.

We started the interview with the intention of building upon a general question that had already been worked on during the workshops, a question aimed specifically at embodying the idea that Oral History is more of a methodological tool than the historian gives credit to for aiding his or her research.

What is History to you?

– To me, History is the science of general questions and local responses. In this sense, we shouldn’t imagine and generalize findings but rather identify relevance and questions which are important in many places; we must not try to ascertain identity but rather trace differences and specificities.

And Oral History?

Oral history is a method for creating new sources and constructing stories, but we must always take into account its limits. On the one hand we have the memory of the interviewees, altered by time and by the very functioning of the unconscious, with its forgetfulness, alterations and deletions. On the other hand we have emotion: the historian must manage emotion and not be dominated by empathy and sentimentality. It is necessary to transform the oral document with all its fallacies into something rational and critical. The risk you always run while using this methodology is that stories are more fascinating than the scientific process, yet they are ambiguous in nature. The historian must deal correctly with this situation if he/she wants to give the reader a “balanced” story.

When and why did you start working with oral sources in your research? What did the use of this methodology contribute to your work as a researcher?

I started in the early 1970s with colleagues such as Luisa Passerini and students like Gabriella and Maurizio Gribaudi, who continued after I left. I quit for reasons I’ve previously mentioned: Oral History lives between two extremes, first, that which we might call the “non-governance” of emotion – which I think is too prevalent in the huge success that Oral History has had – and secondly, the use of fragments of life stories that were aggressively manipulated by historians. But I learned a lot from my experiences: about memory and its fallacies; about sources and the problems of their interpretation; about people and their ways of speaking about themselves. All these things have since been central to my work as a modernist.

In your opinion, what are the main methodological precautions to be taken against oral testimony?

The same methodological precautions that I’ve spoken of previously: oral testimonies are sources at the same time that they are created – and it’s very important to develop them as such. They also have profound problems that are not always present to historians who use Oral History. I believe the work of Alessandro Portelli or that of Maurizio and Gabriella Gribaudi are important correctors of the dominant pathologies this methodology suffers from, because they explicitly put the discussion of the fallacies of memory and narrative into the centre of their work.

As historians, how does oral testimony involves us in an ethical sense?

Ethically-speaking, all historians should treat their ancestors with respect and humanity. They are living beings that tell us of their experiences. The great lesson that they have given us: difference – a difference that we should understand and respect.

What research are you currently working on?

I’m working on the model of the Catholic State, which is different in nature from other political models. The Catholic State has specific characteristics of institutional weakness due to the presence of two regulatory systems: the State and the Church. It comes with the effects of liberty but also with periods of dictatorship, both being results of the weaknesses of institutional systems. I’m also working on a book concerning consumption in the modern age in order to answer the question: how come?

According to utopian Catholic thinking, can a society function if it wants to be hierarchical and fair at the same time?

In various seminars and publications on the theme of Oral History, it’s very common to find memory and history spoken of as if they were synonymous, when in fact they are not.

How would you explain the differences between the two concepts? Why do you think people confuse them?

I think it’s necessary to emphasize that history is a cold and rational process, while memory is a mental process – spirited, but misleading.

Laura Benadiva [email protected]