May 1968

May 68 and historians

Regarding oral history

The issue


The book – Agnès Callu (ed.), "Le Mai 68 des historiens : entre identités narratives et histoire orale" (May 68 and historians: between narrative identities and oral history) – published in 2010 and based on the spoken experiences of a particular group, mainly historians, aims to explore the legacy of May 1968 on research tools, the operation of historical renewing and knowledge transmitting schemes. By analysing the content of these testimonies, either recorded biographies or in some cases captured in image, it aims to decipher the retrospective discourses offered by "intellectuals" about the impact of these events which led to many important changes. It explores the phenomena of socialisation in depth, at both individual and collective levels, how the social imaginaries cling to certain figures or generational groups, the convergences between the interpretations of historians and politicised frames of references, changes introduced in universities and higher education and the codes that defined or redefined the perception and appropriation of social sciences in the 1970s.

The method: a book based on a seminar


At its roots (based on the dual issue of May 68 and the sociology of symbolic systems among historians), this book serves as a progress report for a research seminar that has defined the frameworks for reflection and use at a socio-historical, historiographical and methodological level. The seminar retraced the co-development of a method (oral history) and a subject (May 68) in such a way as to examine the path, both in a French and an international context, taken by a discipline that has been massified and acculturated, as well as to examine the historiography of a subject which moves from being a part of the news to being of interest to historians. Then the idea of interference was examined and the method was applied to the domain – is it possible to understand May 68 through oral history when it is told by historians who were themselves witnesses to the events?

Quotation from Jacques Le Goff

"[…] In 68, I was 40 years old. I went to every meeting. I wasn't at the barricades, but I might have gone if I had been 20. In any case, I was always there. I think I would have felt the same mixture of sympathy, hope and deception. I wouldn't have wanted to be 20 in 1968, but I felt invigorated then, as though I were a youngster [...]"

Quotation from Jacques Dûpaquier

" […] To me, history seemed like a barrel of gunpowder and the problem was knowing if someone was going to light a cigarette or a spark on this barrel. In other words, the event seemed to me like a trigger for deeper forces. At this time, I felt that every society was very fragile. Every society was in a pre-revolutionary state and the problem wasn't just knowing why they had exploded but also how they were able to endure it for so long... The fragility of society was really apparent to me. So this effectively led me to give up not only on Marxism but also on any deterministic conception of history […]"

One corpus, many individuals

Collective identity became an issue. What about the label "historian" and the reality of a potential community united by social rituals, working habits, intellectual models that would collectively lead groups, regardless of schools of thought and disciplines? Then, it is the individual that becomes of interest. At a global level, in one's passage through life, whether a straight or a curved path, when we start to question real or reconstructed vocations, the antithesis of determinism versus contingency, the implacable effectiveness of programmed success when it is the result of the French system known as the "Grandes Écoles", and in contrast the removal of key positions borne from university failings or barriers, and finally the resistance or perhaps inertia to shake-ups in a changing world. Thus the proactive decision is made for a so-called elite history, one of experts, "knowledgeable parties", "men of their word", intellectuals, if not always the decision-makers then at least those for whom the potential of intellectual and/or organisational conception is consubstantial to the individual. Then, delving deeper, the analysis favours two sub-groups. The evaluation of the first group, comprising mainly of "baby boomers", enabled the crossover study: an institutional study of a higher educational establishment, the École des Chartes, its teaching methods, its core principles; the other study was a social study in 1968 of intellectual youth, either politically active or not, static, in rebellion, reforming. The analysis of the second group opens the spectrum: interviewing students from an "École normale supérieure" and/or university students following other models, from different backgrounds, in particular those from a different generation, those from 1922-1935, who can be defined by the succession of shocks endured by an age group broken by memories of the Great War, the traumas of the Second World War and the spasms of conscience owing to the Algeria debate.

A double framework of reference:

Cultural and oral history, when combined, without the hegemony of one over the other or the subjection of one by the other, are intentionally referred to as important knowledge hubs for the study of a subject.

Cultural history

The "68 and historians" project claims to pursue cultural history, that is the social history of representations by questioning the "intellectuals" within a social group. The issue is presented as work to be carried out on a corpus of stories offering the trajectories of historians, "heirs" or not of socio-cultural distortions prior or post 68. Individuals, approached from a prosopographical perspective, agreeing to the verbalisation of the "biographical gamble", provide an account of their experiences marked by their individual sociogenesis, but providing information collectively, based on the social group, on the historical works, the partnership that it forms with the credits of scientificity, the creative processes that sustain it and the development of conceptual devices, sometimes political, that favour its analytical approach.

Oral history

The "68 and historians" project aims to utilise oral history to create a corpus of interviews. It asserts that it wants to use, in a scientific manner, the consensual dialogue between historian-witnesses and young historians so that the "elder/expert" pairing is perceived as valid, when conversationally, the two-voice partnership builds a witness account of shared experiences and analyses. The project takes risks as it places confidence in field interviews. So, it recognises the principle of alterity so that it can break free of the constraints of the written word, which is often deemed insurmountable, to listen to the OTHER. The OTHER, consubstantial to the source, the OTHER, the soul of the account in which it is entangled by its voice but beyond its SELF, the OTHER describing a journey, its own journey, the OTHER delivering emotions, expressing one or many tendencies, in short, the OTHER is revealing its opinion today of what it felt back then.

Therefore, the project claims to manufacture, shape and bring forth for criticism an archive, that has not only been formed retrospectively, but which has arrived by way of a vector, audiovisuals, which is itself subject to many epistemological questions. 

Quotation from Jacques Revel

"[…] Between the end of the 50s and the start of the 70s, the relationship between all the social sciences changed dramatically. Why? Because in France, social sciences developed relatively late and more at the periphery of the academic world, and because they became, if we can say this, autonomous during the 60s, because they had undergone institutionalisation – there was a degree in sociology, there was a degree in ethnology, there was a degree in linguistics, etc. – and also because they found their momentary ideology which was structuralism, an ideology and epistemology that were profoundly anti-historian. Personally, I have often said that structuralism was also a kind of fight regarding the decolonisation of social sciences in relation to the history of a country where, for a long time, social sciences had been dominated by history, and this was how the École des Hautes Études was built with history at its centre and social sciences at the periphery [...]"

Credits: Story

- Agnès Callu, chercheur associé au CNRS (IHTP)
- Patrick Dubois, réalisateur multimédia
- Voir, Agnès Callu (dir.) , "Le Mai 68 des historiens", Villeneuve d'Ascq, Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2010
- Agnès Callu, chercheur associé au CNRS (IHTP)
- Patrick Dubois, réalisateur multimédia
- Voir, Agnès Callu (dir.) , "Le Mai 68 des historiens", Villeneuve d'Ascq, Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2010

Credits: All media
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