Oct 25-26, 2018
Oral History and the History of Scientific Practice: A Difficult Dialogue?
- Methods Intensive Workshop
- Dept. III
- Indira Chowdhury (Centre for Public History, Srishti Institute of Art, Design a…
MPI for Molecular Genetics, Room II. Address: Ihnestr. 63, 14195B.
The lack of archival sources to understand the history of contemporary science has been a concern for historians of recent science. Attempts to create archives which would make history of scientific practice accessible have often centered on creating oral history archives with scientists. But are oral history interviews merely sources of information that fill in what is missing? Early attempts to use oral history to understand scientific discoveries or new theories have often yielded disappointing results. The unstable and fallible nature of memory has frequently frustrated attempts to understand scientific practice with any degree of precision. In this talk I shall argue that the problem lies elsewhere. It is the failure to understand oral history as a narrative resource that has resulted in misunderstanding it as a historical resource that tells us about scientific practice. Oral history interviews, as oral historians such as Alessandro Portelli and Michael Frisch and others have warned, are not about facts; rather, they are always about meaning that is co-created in the process of interviewing. This shift from information to meaning, I shall argue, also has a special contextual significance as recollection functions within a historical context.
Taking examples from oral history interviews with Indian scientists, I argue that the creation of meaning in the oral history interview offers us a layered understanding of scientific practice in the postcolonial context: a) scientists in India were conferred a grand role by India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru and yet they had to contend with conditions that were most unlike institutions in the West, where they were trained; b) scientists returning from laboratories in Europe or USA found they had to build their laboratories with meagre resources and their struggles with procuring equipment or setting up experiments were part of their practice of doing science in India; c) processes of building institutions and disciplines through national and transnational networks were as important as individual scientific work. The narratives that oral history interviews yield are complex, intricate and multi-faceted. We therefore require an integrated approach to asking questions and interpreting the narratives that our questions yield—an approach that looks at the political, social and especially, the cultural dimensions of doing science. One might surmise that oral histories with scientists are of special significance for postcolonial countries like India which lack in contemporary archival resources; however, the approach I am advocating here is valid even in contexts where archival resources are far from scarce. The co-construction of meaning, which I am arguing is an integral part of oral history, is especially important for understanding scientific practice.
Contact and Registration
Pre-registration is possible until September 30, 2018 by sending an email to email@example.com. Please note, in order to enable a working atmosphere we will allow a maximum of 15 participants. First come, first serve. The program and reading list will be sent to registered participants in advance of the workshop.
- Arnold, David. "Nehruvian Science and Postcolonial India." Isis 104, 2 (2013): 360–370. https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.1086/670954?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents
- Chowdhury, Indira. "A Historian among Scientists: Reflections on Archiving the History of Science in Postcolonial India." Isis 104, 2 (2013) : 371–380. https://www.journals.uchicago.edu/doi/pdfplus/10.1086/670955
- -----------------Growing the Tree of Science. Homi Bhabha and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research. New Delhi: Oxford University Press India, 2016.
- Doel, R.E. "Oral History of American Science: A Forty Year Review." History of Science, 41 (2003): 349–378. http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/007327530304100401
- Frisch, M. A Shared Authority: Essays on the Craft and Meaning of Oral and Public History. New York: SUNY Press, 1990. (Note: complete book available in R011 at MPIWG to be read in the library)
- Kirby, R.K. "Phenomenology and the Problems of Oral History." Oral History Review, 35, 1 (2008): 22–28. https://muse.jhu.edu/article/241266
- Phalkey, Jahnavi. Atomic State: Big Science in Twentieth Century India. Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2013. (Note: complete book available in R011 at MPIWG to be read in the library)
- Portelli, Alessandro. Death of Luigi Trastulli and Other Stories, The: Form and Meaning in Oral History. New York: SUNY Press, 2010. (Note: complete book available in R011 at MPIWG to be read in the library).
- Raina, Dhruv. “Chapter 15: The Naturalization of Modern Science in South Asia: A Historical Overview of the Processes of Domestication and Globalization.“ In The Globalization of Knowledge in History, Max Planck Research Library for the History and Development of Knowledge, Open Edition, 2012. http://edition-open-access.de/media/studies/1/19/Studies1ch15.pdf