Conference Agenda

1A: Exploring Trust in Oral Medical History
Wednesday, 08/Sept/2021:
9:00am - 10:15am

Session Chair: Dr. Felicitas Petra Söhner, Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf


Exploring trust in oral medical history

Chair(s): Söhner, Felicitas Petra (Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf, Germany)

This panel focuses on oral history as a widely used method of contemporary historical research. In particular, it seeks to engage with historians of medicine regarding conceptual issues with a focus on trust.

First, Söhner/Nebe discuss concepts of trust between eyewitnesses and historians of medicine as a key factor for the success of oral history projects. Then, these challenges are demonstrated using the example of ongoing and planned projects on 'vulnerable groups' (Hinz/Sparing/Löffelbein) and 'elite physicians' in a European perspective (Hansson/Halling).


Presentations of the Symposium


“Relationship of Confidence” in Oral History

Söhner, Felicitas Petra, Nebe, Julia
Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf, Germany

In oral history researchers have a special significance, because they enter into direct human interaction. In fact, oral historians play an important role - as collectors and preservers of accounts of human experience. In some way they become the instrument of questioning themselves. But how do historians handle this trust? This directly leads us to two different levels in oral historiography research, where trust must be regarded as an essential precondition.

On the one hand, trust is important during the process of questioning. So the researcher is responsible to recognise the narrator's limits during the process of interviewing. And on the other hand, empathy is needed, when interpreting what is said. In secondary analysis, this dynamic continues to develop.

Not least in view of the increasingly far-reaching digital analysis possibilities offered by technological change, it is necessary to discuss to what extent and how long a relationship of responsibility lasts. Experiences of previous projects (including the project on the history of psychiatry, human genetics, medical child protection) show that, for example, transparency in how personal data and histories are handled is a prerequisite for many respondents to participate in research projects at all.

Against this background, this talk raises questions about the methodological, ethical and legal issues, arising from oral data collection and discusses them based on practical experiences.

Keywords: biographic history, oral history, methodology, trust, data sharing, research ethics


Biographical interviews in psychiatry history and disability studies

Löffelbein, Nils, Hinz, Uta, Sparing, Frank
Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf, Germany

In view of numerous reappraisal projects on experiences of violence and abuse in European psychiatric hospitals, children's homes and institutions for the disabled after 1945, research into living conditions and everyday experiences in inpatient institutions has recently come into focus in medical history. Current studies on therapeutic and pedagogical practices therefore try to shed light on the perspective of those affected. In the process, the obvious limitations of written records in state-run and church-run institutions become apparent. Interviews with contemporary witnesses are therefore becoming increasingly important in medical history research.

This presentation sheds light on the particular methodological challenges of interviewing eyewitnesses from a particularly vulnerable group of the population, residents of juvenile psychiatric wards and homes for disabled children and adolescents. Since "classic" interview and interpretation methods are considerably more difficult due to the individual needs of the interview partners, alternative ways of obtaining, conducting and evaluating eyewitnesses will also be discussed. It will be argued that in addition to particularities in the communication process, such as barriers to the linguistic expression of experiences, it is also important to consider the specific living situation in inpatient facilities, which is often characterised by lifelong dependency relationships and imprints on the residents. The talk is based primarily on practical experience in conducting eyewitness interviews in European psychiatric hospitals and denominational homes for the disabled.

Keywords: Oral History, Disability History, Methodology, institutions for the disabled, psychiatries


The notion of excellence: Interviewing ‘elite physicians’

Hansson, Nils, Halling, Thorsten
Heinrich-Heine-University Düsseldorf, Germany

During the last decades, much has been said about the methodological challenges and tactics of interviewing groups of ‘elite physicians and scientists’, e.g. with regard to witness seminars and video podcasts featuring renowned scholars, such as Nobel laureates and leading members of international medical societies. On a university level, too, it exists a large number of online semi-structured interviews by historians with alumni and emeriti that seek to present and contextualize scientific (local) highlights in medicine. Such material is often presented on university websites as a complement to lists of ‘milestones’ in medical faculties.

Reflecting on the publications and questionnaires of recent oral history projects on excellence in medicine, this talk will, first, give an overview of current such initiatives with a prime focus on universities in northern Europe. It draws from an ongoing study by the EAHMH network “Medicine in the Baltic Sea region” that examines how authority and prestige play out in an institutional sphere. Second, we will outline a new interview project that circles around the experiences of active and retired employees at the University Hospital in Duesseldorf, Germany, and raise questions about how the reputation of scholars is enacted in such settings. Finally, we will propose to launch a platform with European colleagues around the topic.

Keywords: reputation, authority, prizes, public understanding of science, universities