Some of you may be interested to read this Dissent blog entry Chris Sellers wrote about Mexican President Peña Nieto’s proposed “Energy Reform” for that country, in the light of my own research into the recent history of Pemex’s environmental impacts.
What is a Witness Seminar (click for pdf)
For those of you who may be curious about the origins and nature of this method I’ve been using this August, 2013, as part of my Mexico/Texas project, which is relatively unusual at least in U.S.:
What is a Witness Seminar? How Is this Method being applied in the current study?
By Christopher Sellers, M.D., Ph.D., Stony Brook University
“Witness seminar” is an established technique in the field of social history. The current application of the “witness seminar” method constitutes a vital step in long-standing research project being conducted by Christopher Sellers, Professor of History at Stony Brook University in New York http://stonybrookhistory.org/blog/chrissellers/ , with funding from the National Science Foundation http://search.engrant.com/project/3SBHlF/the_uneven_development_of_industrial_hazards_lead_and_oil_in_the_u_s_versus_mexico_1930-1990 . Since 2009, this historical and social scientific study has probed the history of four industrial communities, two of them in the US and two of them in Mexico, with a view to comparing their historical dealings especially with industry-related hazards. In the month of August, 2013, we are planning witness seminars for three of the four communities under study: El Paso, Texas, and Chihuahua City, Chihuahua (communities long centered around lead smelters), and Minatitlan-Coatzacoalcos (a network of communities long centered around petrochemical industry). We are not as yet planning a seminar in the fourth site, Beaumont –Port Arthur, Texas (also a petrochemical region), for limitations of time and financing.
In the case of this study, a “witness seminar” means: bringing together 10-12 people with extended but very different perspectives on the history of an industrial site and its relations. In the course of the seminar, they discuss their recollections of this history, each from the standpoint of their own experience. One goal is for key members and representatives of different parts of a community to share their memories, recognize and discuss any conflicting recollections, and arrive at a better understanding if not a reconciliation of differences in what they remember. In this way, the witness seminars we are now planning will bring back some results of our study to the communities themselves. Other goals are more social scientific and historical. For instance, comparing the discussion of similar questions in such different communities and contexts promises to shed light on: the varieties of narrative available to different people, groups, towns and cultures to frame and understand their pasts; the different ways in which conflicts have unfolded and been contested; the varieties of relations between experts and lay people at the local level, and the ways in which supposedly “universal” knowledge about lead poisoning or benzene’s effects has been taken up—or not—and by which groups, experts and lay people alike.
The witness seminar idea has been most fully employed in Britain. Here’s an example: http://www.kcl.ac.uk/innovation/groups/ich/witness/archives/science/NorthSea.aspx
And here’s an overview of how the method has been taken up in history of science and medicine: http://www.history.qmul.ac.uk/research/modbiomed/what-is-a-witness-seminar/
Attached is a transcript of another one conducted on the development of the Concord. Such seminars, like those being planned, are of limited size and thematic focus. Most of these are also closed to a public or general-interest audience, just as we are planning with our seminars. In our case, having a small closed group is even more essential, as some of the topics under discussion have been locally quite controversial. Not bringing in the press for example, is necessary to ensure frank and honest discussion, rather than grand-standing. Our seminars will depart from many of these, in that most all of these British examples involve historical decisions and events shared by mostly elite actors: highly educated scientists and professionals. We are attempting a somewhat different combination, however: hoping to bring out voices not just from elite and educated actors, but also others, whether workers or local residents, who may not have such qualifications. The only close model is a witness seminar undertaken by the well-known Scottish oral historian, Arthur McIvor, among those involved in the Scottish asbestos industry http://www.strath.ac.uk/humanities/courses/history/staff/mcivorarthurprof/ . Professor Sellers has been in close consultation with McIvor in developing the protocol for these seminars.
Another social scientific methods similar to the one we are applying is that of the focus group. A focus group is a method developed mostly by American social scientists, to probe public opinions about particular topics in greater depth than a survey or some such method would allow. Here’s an outline of the method online: http://www.odi.org.uk/sites/odi.org.uk/files/odi-assets/publications-opinion-files/7074.pdf While this method has not been employed by historians (to my knowledge), many of its principles are similar to those we will employ. The biggest difference is that while we are interested in different groups’ perceptions of the hazards involved, and having people talk about these differences, we are also interested in bringing out differences in narratives, the ways do (or don’t) situate, frame these hazards in terms of their own life stories. Hence the breath of the main questions being posed: they are to allow our contributors a freer reign, allow them to tell stories about their experiences, rather than just give opinions.
In sum, our seminars, while borrowing on established methods, will also be forging methodological innovations of their own. That is because of the kind of history we seek to illuminate as well as the fact that having three of these, in two very different national cultures, adds to the comparative dimensions. As with all these other models on which we are building, full consent forms and permissions will be presented to participants before and after the proceedings, and all proceedings will be recorded and transcribed, as well as videotaped, although their public release will hinged upon permissions that participants have been willing to sign.
Dates and Places:
August 3—Witness Seminar in El Paso, Tx,
August 10—Witness Seminar in Chihuahua City, Chi.
August 12—Follow-up Witness Seminar in El Paso, Tx.
August 16—Follow-up Witness Seminar in Chihuahua City, Chi.
August 17—Witness Seminar in Minatitlan, Ver.
This course will be conducted on the basis of two, interrelated goals. On the one hand we hope to gain a firm and useful grasp of the physical features of the Earth and of its contemporary political organization. On the other hand, we aim to achieve fluency in the major events and themes of modern global history. This second task will start with a brief look at planetary history and the arrival of humans, and then skip to the 16th century, when the two hemispheres were re-united, and proceed through to the end of the twentieth century. We will consider the theoretical and methodological problems presented in trying to view the past from a global perspective while at the same time acknowledging and pondering the undeniably global nature of our contemporary problems and sensibilities. Requirements: attendance and participation; periodic quizzes and exercises; a mid-term and a final exam.
Prof. Chris Sellers has written a online blog entry for the journal Dissent, reflecting on recent industrial disasters in Texas and Bangladesh, and drawing on his edited volume Dangerous Trade: Histories of Industrial Hazard across a Globalizing World.
Later this spring, Ph.D. candidate Gregory Rosenthal will join eleven other scholars from across the country to participate in the Cornell University Institute for the Social Sciences’ 2013 Institute on Contested Landscapes. Gregory will be presenting a paper titled “The Property on/is their Backs: Dispossession and Wage Labor in Nineteenth-century Hawaiʻi.” Gregory has also received two dissertation research awards for this summer and fall: a Michael J. Connell Foundation Fellowship from the Huntington Library in San Marino, California; and an Arthur J. Quinn Memorial Fellowship at the Bancroft Library at UC-Berkeley.