Informed by the approach developed at the Institute of Contemporary British History, the Witness Seminar has proved an extremely useful tool with which to explore key dimensions of the diasporic history of the World Service. Bringing participants in critical events back together, in the context of an informed and reflective audience, to re-examine and critique the events in which they were involved has opened up a rich vein of analysis into the formation of collective narratives and memory. The Witness Seminar can be used to mine for new appreciations of established or emerging debates as well as offering an imaginative methodological approach to research that derives fresh insights from its innovative application.
Tuning In has been keen to use the Witness Seminar across a number of project research themes and has, in its deployment, always looked to advance the technique and efficacy of this form of oral testimony and analysis. It is in this pioneering spirit that the Witness Seminar has been used to reveal first-hand personal and institutional accounts of the BBC's reporting of, and interaction with, the crises surrounding the formation of Bangladesh in 1971 and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. In addition, it has provided the research foundation for a collaborative project with the BBC World Service on the extremely rich, though relatively unexplored, theme concerning the significance of writers, from George Orwell and Stuart Hall to the present, who have worked at Bush House. Complimenting this Bush Writers project has been one focusing on the Career Trajectories of World Service staff which is using Witness Seminars on a much more intimate scale to investigate the opportunities and obstacles to career development for diasporic staff.
Although the range of projects in which this method has been employed is wide and varied, the primary aim that runs throughout is twofold:
- To reveal new knowledge or update and re-interpret established narratives around particular events and themes
- To assess the impact of witness seminars, as an interventionist method, on the formation and reformulation of collective understanding
- How does the reconvening of participants alter or reinforce established narratives and explanations of past events?
- Does the act of collective interrogation elicit new perspectives, or ways of knowing the past?
- In what ways do different settings for witness seminars materially affect their outcome? For example, what impact does the size, knowledge, attitudes and tolerances of audiences have on the course of witness seminars?
Dr Alban Webb, The Open University, firstname.lastname@example.org